The Golden Age of TV Theme Songs

If I said “I want Charles in charge of me,” you may wonder who this Charles guy is and why he should control my life. But if you were a child of the 1980s, you’d instantly recognize this as the last line of the Charles in Charge theme song. You’d fondly recall the family-friendly sitcom antics of Scott Baio, oft-troubled Willie Aames and three wise-cracking teens. And as a bonus, the absurdly catchy Charles in Charge theme song would lodge itself in your brain for the next two weeks. That’s because the best TV theme songs aren’t just cues that the show is about to start, they’re also classics in their own right. Sadly, having a great opening number is something today’s sitcoms rarely aspire to.

The a cappella Two and a Half Men theme song is as unimaginative as the show itself. The big band music of Modern Family is okay, but you’ll never be humming it in the shower. And New Girl went from having an unbearably perky theme to, basically, a three second title card. That’s another trend these days – an opening that’s over so quickly, the cast members’ names don’t even appear until the actual show begins. After all, why waste 30 seconds on an opening song when you could squeeze in an extra commercial?

That’s not to say that all of today’s sitcom theme songs are weak. Parks and Rechas a fun instrumental opening. The Barenaked Ladies’ Big Bang Theory theme song is a good standalone tune. But those are the exceptions. Today’s popular animated TV themes (The Simpsons, Family Guy and South Park) are great, but they’re not exactly new. They were written at a time when Will Smith’s Fresh Prince of Bel-Air theme song rapped its way into our living rooms every Monday night.

Maybe I expect too much these days. I was spoiled growing up during the golden age of TV theme music. ‘80s TV theme songs had something for everyone — the chirpy Small Wonder theme, the wannabe inspirational Who’s the Boss opener and the wistful Cheers theme song, which somehow made raging alcoholism seem like a good plan for life.

Not all of these tunes were classics (I’m looking in your direction, Full Housetheme song), but at least they tried. And they did more than just provide a warmup for their respective shows. They dealt with universal issues that are important to all of us — like friendship (Golden Girls theme song), togetherness (Growing Pains) and what happens when a snooty British butler moves into your home (Mr. Belvedere). They had pseudo-heartwarming lyrics to match the tone of each episode’s final moments, when the main characters learned important lessons about life — and about themselves.

Unfortunately, it’s a dying art. Today’s TV themes lack the heart and flavor of those that came before. They just want to be quick, painless and get out of the way. Still, The Big Bang Theory theme song gives me hope. If one popular show like that can make it work, maybe more will follow.

Love it or hate it, a catchy television show theme will stick in your head forever. It will emerge into your consciousness at odd moments, when you catch yourself whistling the Friends theme song during a meeting or the Facts of Life song at a funeral. No matter what era you grew up in, there’s probably a TV theme song that holds a special place in your heart. Maybe it’s even the one from Two And a Half Men. Though I hope you have better taste than that.

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