Network TV Is Killing the Best Part of Our Childhood
As we all know, the new season of House of Cards premiered last week and Netflix viewers have been binging away on the white-knuckle drama ever since. Despite the year that's elapsed since the first season debuted, David Fincher's opening sequence absorbs us right back into the story: There's the breathtaking imagery of DC, the time-lapse videography that echoes the fast-paced lives of the characters.
But what really brings it all together, and what brings us into the show, is the music. The show's theme song is foreboding and majestic, a perfectly condensed minute and 35 seconds. Composed by Jeff Beal, it prepares us to enter the twisted world of Frank Underwood. Intro music is rarely that successful anymore.
There are a few great theme songs associated with other Netflix original series (Regina Spektor's intro for Orange is the New Black is brilliant), and with cable programing (True Blood, Dexter, American Horror Story), but it's become almost impossible to find a show on a broadcast network with a similarly powerful intro. This is a sad state of affairs. A good theme song is integral to the television-watching experience and it's important that it doesn't die out.
The TV shows we grew up with nearly all had theme songs of around a minute or longer — almost the length of an "actual song" we might hear on the radio (remember the radio?) Now broadcast shows are lucky if they get half that. Zooey Deschanel had the challenge of cutting the original theme she composed for New Girl down to 21 seconds while keeping it catchy and memorable. But her theme is lengthy compared to Modern Family's, which is just 13 seconds. Some shows have gotten rid of music completely. Scandal just uses a few chords and the clicking sound of a camera's shutter.
The theme song is so important because it sets up the show's narrative and orients us in the tone of the fictional world we're about to enter. Remember the Twin Peaks intro music? It's a beast of a song at 2 minutes and 37 seconds, written in 1989 by composer Angelo Badalamenti and the show's director, David Lynch. It's difficult to sit down and watch some of the bizarre, experimental scenes like Cooper's dream sequence without psychological preparation. The theme is the bridge from our reality as the viewer to the fictional land of Twin Peaks, Wash. In a 1990 interview with Entertainment Weekly, Lynch described the song as "the mood of the whole piece. It is Twin Peaks." It's beautifully melodic, but because it resurfaces so often during upsetting moments, the viewer starts associating it with those moments and it begins to seem unsettling and eerie. It signals our return to the Lynchian imagination where the truth is always hidden, or coded in symbolism and metaphor.
How about the Freaks and Geeks theme? Unlike Twin Peaks, Freaks and Geeks didn't commission an original song. The show adapted Joan Jett's iconic pop punk hit, "Bad Reputation." A perfect choice for several reasons. First, the series is set in 1980 — the same year that Jett released the song. (The Wonder Years, set in the late 1960's, uses a similar decade-evoking theme with Joe Cocker's cover of The Beatles' "With a Little Help from My Friends.") "Bad Reputation" also reflects the characters' high-school experiences — the frenetic opening echoing their frenetic teen lives. Those brief 49 seconds usher us beautifully into the realm of 1980s teendom.
Theme songs aren't only necessary as introductions to a narrative; they're also important for viewers on a personal level. They're melodic time machines that bring us back to the moment when the show was important to us. What '90s kid doesn't hear the Boy Meets World theme (originally composed by Ray Colcord who also wrote the fabulous The Facts of Life song) or the Sabrina the Teenage Witch theme and get immediately transported back to the magical world of TGIF?
Of course theme song nostalgia is incomplete without a hat tip to "Yo! Home to Bel-Air," Will Smith's perfect "explainer" theme song (our generation's answer to a Gilligan's Island-style intro) from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. It's a '90s television anthem. No need for subtitles, everyone can chant it by heart.
So please, don't be a bystander as our beloved theme song gets chopped and clipped and castrated into nothingness. Let's not skip through the intro sequences on Netflix or fast forward on our DVRs, as easy as it may be. Enjoy the pure essence of the show compacted into its short musical introduction. For the love of story. For the love of nostalgia. Dear God, for the love of television! We must not let it die.