Donna C. Terrell

I Was Just Thinkin'

The Fall of the Great American TV Theme Song

What happened to it? A cool, sing-a-long theme song used to be part of the fun of watching a show. A great theme song could get you excited and in the mood to watch a show. Sometimes the theme song was the best part of a bad show. A theme song that caught your attention could get you to check out a show you weren’t normally watching. Theme songs used to tell what the show was about, like The Brady Bunch. The opening was the only way viewers knew that show was about a stepfamily. We would never have known WHY Gilligan and the gang were on the island or HOW those Hillbillies made it to Beverly Hills were it not for the theme songs. (Those two shows also had cool closing theme songs  B.H.— Sit a spell. Take your shoes off! Y’all come back, now, ya hear?).

The 60s, 70s, and 80s were bastions of great theme songs for TV shows, but the 2000s saw a trend developing where the 30 to 60 second theme song has been whittled down to a few seconds of music—a la the Seinfeld bass line—to only a quick slate, like Grey’s Anatomy. Grey’s had an opening theme when the show first aired in 2005, but now it’s a 4-second “slate,”  which is my term for it.  A Gifted Man, Once Upon a TimeThe Good Wife, as well as many other shows all have slates. Another trend was shows using well-known pop songs from as their theme music, such as the CSIs, The Sopranos, Joan of Arcardia and Smallville.  Both Alcatraz and Person of Interest have ominous voice over openings that tell what the show is about. If you look closely at the openings of Once Upon a Time and Person of Interest, you’ll see a quick peek as to what a particular episode is about. P.O.I. will show the subject of that week’s episode, and for example, when O.U.A.T. featured the 7 Dwarfs, you saw them hi-ho-ing off to work. But other than that, there’s no theme song fun anymore.

“[The theme song] is a rarity today,” TV historian Tim Brooks said of the catchy, tuneful opening. “It’s kind of like the Broadway musical producing hit songs — it just doesn’t do that anymore.”… And Tara Ariano, co-founder of Television Without and a contributor to, isn’t sweating it. She thinks a “full-on opening credit (and) theme song is kind of a waste, from a business perspective.”

“The networks sort of assume we watch the show, so we don’t need to have the premise explained to us each week … In the era of the DVR, half the people watching the show are just fast-forwarding that anyway,” she said.1

Because of this sad little chapter in television land, I want to salute some of the TV theme song gems of the past. They’re instantly recognizable, we quote them in our everyday language, and somehow we just can’t get these tunes out of our heads. Many of these shows currently are on the air in syndication, so if you’re not totally familiar, you can catch up. I’m sure you have your own favorites, so don’t hesitate to weigh in! By all of us fondly reaching back into our TV pasts, the noble TV theme song will live on.

Friends (NBC 1994–2004)

Cheers (NBC 1982–1993)

Why they’re cool: We can all relate.

The Addams Family (ABC 1964–1966)

Why it’s cool: The finger snaps, and the closing theme’s sound effects.

Gilligan’s Island (CBS 1964–1967)

Why it’s cool: People still question why they had so much stuff for a 3-hour tour.

Laverne and Shirley (ABC 1976–1983)

Why it’s cool: It’s fun to do their opening  “schlemeel, schlemazel, hasenfeffer incorporated” bit while walking down the street with your best friend.

Green Acres (CBS 1965–1971)

Why it’s cool: You can sing it as a duet.

The Flintstones (ABC 1960–1966)

Why it’s cool: EEEEE yabbadabbadoo!

BTW—Cartoons also had great theme songs back in the day!

Honorable Mentions:

The Odd Couple—Love the music, and the opening VO of how they came to room together.

Star Trek (original)—C’mon, admit it, you know you can quote this famous VO! Space… the final frontier…

The Jeffersons—Every time a person gets a promotion of any kind, someone has to say, “You’re movin’ on up!”

Dishonorable Mention:

Good Times

This is a terrible theme song! Temporary layoffs? Easy credit rip-offs? Scratching and surviving? How are any of these, and the rest of the stuff mentioned in this song good times? The Broken Punch Bowl Award goes to the writers who penned this little aria. (For the punch bowl reference, get the DVD. It was featured in part two of the episode where James, the father, died.)

Great Instrumentals


The NFL on CBS

The Twilight Zone

1. Source:  © 2007 Associated Press

Photo credits:;;


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