The TV theme song as we once knew it is something of an endangered species these days. Ever since a quick bass line introduced the first episode of Seinfeld, original themes with lyrics that explained the show’s premise started sounding dated. Nowadays most shows just use a bit of instrumental music, or take the Lost approach of virtually no theme at all.
Then there’s the old trick of grabbing viewers’ attention with a well-known pop song. This seems to be becoming more common today, and sometimes it works really well. Here are some of the best uses of pop songs as TV themes, using the rule that the song had to be somewhat well known before it appeared on the show, and it had to be the original version, no covers. Sorry, Bosom Buddies.
“We Used to be Friends” by the Dandy Warhols: Veronica Mars
A favorite punching bag in the critics’ world, The Dandy Warhols made something of a side project with TV themes. In addition to scoring the Veronica Mars credits, their song “Solid” was used as the opener for the short lived Judd Apatow series Undeclared. But the slickly edited version of “We Used to be Friends” stands out as a perfect match for the criminally underwatched Mars, which often pitted its teen sleuth heroine against her former BFFs. Stupid Oh-niners.
“With A Little Help From My Friends” by Joe Cocker: The Wonder Years
OK, I know I said no covers. I meant was no covers specifically made for the show itself, and this Beatles revision was a hit for Cocker long before Fred Savage was even born. Growling over grainy faux home videos of the Arnold family, “With A Little Help From My Friends” was a key part of why The Wonder Years had one of the best opening credit sequences of all time.
“Stand” by R.E.M.: Get a Life
A lot of readers might not remember (or have chosen to forget) this short-lived Chris Elliot vehicle about a 30-year-old paperboy living with his parents, but everyone in my third grade class thought it was the best. Using a quirky song by the earnest, late ’80s version of R.E.M. gave the show a little street cred too.
“Five O’Clock World” by The Vogues: The Drew Carey Show
Drew Carey’s opening credit sequence is best known for letting the world know that Cleveland rocks, but for a short time his sitcom opened with an elaborate choreographed routine set to this 1965 hit. It’s a lot of fun, if only the show would have kept this kind of gimmick to the opening credits only, instead of working it into the storylines as well.
“Who Are You?” by The Who: CSI
When I’m president, my first order of business will be a moratorium on crime procedurals. There are far too many, and CSI is responsible for a whole new wave of them. But I still have to hand it to the show’s producers for finding a known song that fit the theme of the show, and editing a great title sequence around it. As for the use of different Who songs for all the other CSIs out there, my second act as president …
“Way Down in the Hole” by Tom Waits: The Wire
Supposedly, Wire creator David Simon thought the Waits’ song was perfect for the show, but he felt weird using a white singer for the opening credits of a show predominantly about Black America. So he used a cover in season 1. Since the show’s focus changed dramatically in season 2, he wanted the theme song to change as well, and he went with the original. That started a trend, and the remaining three seasons of arguably the decade’s best show each got their own version of “Way Down in the Hole.” The results are always the same though – a potent warning to watch your back and keep the devil down.
“Come On, Come On” by The Von Bodies: Rescue Me
Confession time: I have never seen a single episode of Rescue Me. I have been told it portrays post-9/11 firefighters as adrenaline junkies who can’t cope with their grief, and if that’s accurate, the rough garage rock of the Von Bodies sounds like an apt fit. But regardless, watching a YouTube video of the opening credits, with that song pounding over faceless guys hurrying to put on gear and go fight some flames, I kind of want to watch it now, and isn’t that half the point of a theme song?
“Little Boxes” by Malvina Reynolds: Weeds
This song was written in backlash to the frighteningly ordered way of life in the suburbs of the Eisenhower era, so I almost laughed out loud when I learned Showtime used it to open its black comedy about a housewife who turns to pot dealing to keep her McMansion lifestyle after her husband dies. In later seasons, the show started using various covers by different artists like Elvis Costello, Man Man and The Decemberists, some of which are quite cool.
“Love and Marriage” by Frank Sinatra: Married, With Children
To older generations, this was once a nice song to play at weddings. To people who grew up in the ’80s and ’90s, it’s the essence of irony. That’s something, when a hit song can find later life intrinsically linked to a different context, and I don’t know anyone under the age of 50 who can hear this cheesy ode to matrimony without thinking of Al and Peg Bundy.
“God Only Knows” by the Beach Boys: Big Love
Why HBO changed the opening credits away from this for Big Love‘s fourth season is a mystery I don’t even want answered. Playing Brian Wilson’s classic love song over images of the polygamist Henrickson clan ice-skating in Mormon space heaven was the kind of opening sequence you just don’t mess with. As wholesome as the Waltons and as weird as all get out, it told you all you needed to know about the characters, and the show.