My 5 favourite modern TV theme tunes
The untimely, enormously sad death of James Gandolfini a couple of weeks ago while on holiday in Italy, prompted me, by way of a tribute, to repeatedly play “Woke Up This Morning” by the Alabama 3, the devastatingly evocative, haunting theme song to the show that brought him fame relatively late in life, The Sopranos.
It got me thinking too about a number of other TV show theme tunes that have connected even more closely to the shows I love watching but which I enjoy as pieces of music in and of themselves.
So there are the five theme songs that resonate most deeply with me, and why …
SOPRANOS: “Woke Up This Morning” by Alabama 3
(image via tvtropes.org (c) Home Box Office)
Anthony Soprano is a New Jersey mob capo in the midst of a mid-life crisis. He and his wife Carmela have their ups and downs, his relationship with his therapist is strained, and he must deal now deal with two grown children who have problems of their own. In addition to his personal problems, the “waste management” business isn’t what it used to be and there is always the threat of death or arrest. Dealing with the volatile personalities of his mob colleagues is a daily life or death challenge of its own.
There is a growling, almost menacing grittiness, as well as appropriately a subtle melancholy, to “Woke Up This Morning” by Alabama 3, a British band who made music that mixed together a seductive blend of “rock, dance, blues, country, gospel, and spoken word styles” (Wikipedia), which matches the tone and feel of David Chase’s highly regarded drama perfectly.
Capturing Tony Sopranos sense of being fated to a life he isn’t entirely sure he can handle, the lyrics too speak of a man “born under a bad sign with a blue moon in your eyes”, a reference to the betrayal that characterised much of the life of a man whose own uncle took out a contract on his life.
The song speaks too of the troubling dichotomy of “I believe you’re feeling fine” with the sense of being cursed to a life that will only bring you heartache and pain, no matter how well you appear to be handling it.
And let’s face it, though he was in therapy and juggling a host of persistent, energy-sapping personal problems, Tony had no choice but to play the role of tough guy to everyone he came in contact with.
To have failed to do so would have spelt his doom, gun or no gun.
And like the song says “everything you had [would have been] gone”.
It is a song that still gives me goosebumps, one of the most perfect matching of song and dramatic content I have ever seen, evoking powerful emotions even years later.
SIX FEET UNDER: Title music by Thomas Newman
(image via edzcelperk.wordpress.com (c) 2004 Home Office Inc.)
A drama series that takes a darkly comical look at members of a dysfunctional family that runs an independent funeral home. With the prodigal elder son (Nate) returning home for the holidays to shattering news, the family must learn to deal with a death of their own, while figuring out how to go ahead with the business of the living. A funny and emotional look at a grieving American family…that just happens to be in the grief management business. (Source: Written by <Laffz00@aol.com> via imdb.com)
Another exquisitely spine-tingling marriage of music and drama.
The haunting minimalist intro to the Thomas Newman theme song, which ushers in a piece that is every as edgy and unusual as the show itself, gives you a glimpse into the troubled world of the Fisher family, who are eminently skilled at dealing with the dead, but like all of us, find the living a challenge too great to handle at times.
And there’s something about this instrumental’s quirky trills and blips and melodic bounces that mirrors the on-the-edge-anxious-about-life vibe that runs through the family’s DNA like an inky stain.
No one in the Fisher clan, least of all Nate, appears able to settle down in life, with each of them struggling to find a way in life that gives them any real contentment and peace (at least until the final episode when resolutions of a sort are achieved).
Again like many of us.
The real strength of Six Feet Under was the way it exposed how living, for all its multitudinous benefits, is an uncomfortable mix of uncertainty, anxiety, and an almost debilitating inability to get anything quite right.
Thomas Newman’s title music managed to suggest all this, and a whole lot more in 1 1/2 minutes, and is a masterful example of how a show’s theme song should essentially be the start of the show proper.
THE BIG BANG THEORY: Performed by the Barenaked Ladies
“The Big Bang Theory” (image via cha cha.com (c) CBS)
Leonard and Sheldon are brilliant physicists, the kind of “beautiful minds” that understand how the universe works. But none of that genius helps them interact with people, especially women. All this begins to change when a free-spirited beauty named Penny moves in next door. Sheldon, Leonard’s roommate, is quite content spending his nights playing Klingon Boggle with their socially dysfunctional friends, fellow CalTech scientists Wolowitz and Koothrappali. However, Leonard sees in Penny a whole new universe of possibilities… including love. (source: aceshowbiz.com)
Oh my lord this is a fun song.
Written and performed by Canada’s Barenaked Ladies, it takes you into the world of science nerds Sheldon and Leonard, Wolowitz and Koothrappali, and of course non-nerd, now Leonard’s girlfriend Penny with a bouncy joie de vivre that is impossible to ignore.
So infectiously enjoyable is it, that my housemate and I have been known on occasion – OK pretty much all the time – to sing along with it, make a pyramid shape when it reaches that point, and act out an explosion with our hands, and sometimes feet, when the song reaches it’s “big bang” lyrical climax.
It is probably one of the few theme songs that feels even remotely interactive, and it honestly is one of the high points of my viewing night.
And it honestly does capture the whimsy and sweetness, and yes of course the scientific themes that permeate one of the smartest sitcoms on TV at the moment.
It’s rare gift is that it doesn’t treat its characters as some sort of weird oddity, presenting being a nerd as entirely normal, just different to the mainstream, which of course it is.
And the theme song celebrates that, unafraid to give us a history lesson of the entire world in about 30 seconds or less.
Seriously what other title song does that, and does it in such a smile-inducing, let’s act it out kind of way?
“Firefly” (image via hollywood.com)
Firefly is set five hundred years in the future, within a solar system controlled by the central government, The Alliance. Captain Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion), who was involved in the war against The Alliance, leads the crew of his firefly-class ship, Serenity, on a journey with no destination. Always moving and trying their best to steer clear of The Alliance, Mal and his team do all that they can to survive, picking up passengers and often taking on shady jobs from even shadier people. When one of Serenity’s passengers is discovered as a fugitive running from The Alliance, things get slightly more complicated for the crew of Serenity – a crew with a dynamic that renders Firefly as a highly enjoyable series. (source: tvrage.com)
I love everything about this show.
It’s warm, rich, deeply-realised characters, the believable relationships between them, the uncertain universe they occupy which forces them to create a family of wholly disparate people and have each other’s backs come what may, and the sheer breadth of imaginatively clever storytelling that Joss Whedon brought to each and every one of the precious thirteen episodes and one movie that were made.
And its theme song.
Written by the show’s creator, the uber-talented Joss Whedon, who frankly can do no creative wrong, and performed with the sort of drawling, guttural twang the song demanded, “The Ballad of Serenity” accomplishes all manner of marvellous things.
It thematically explains the setting of the show, which is effectively a western in space, with all the characters living the sort of precarious existence common to those who opened up the American frontier back in the nineteenth century, backing it up with the sort of music that would entirely be at home in the roughneck bars common to the ragged fringes of space that Mal and his crew and passengers travel through.
It is one of the few country songs I will listen to, and a fine piece of music that would stand the test of time, regardless of whether it was attached to this show or not.
I am heartily, deeply, forever glad it is.
NURSE JACKIE: Theme song performed by Wendy and Lisa
“Nurse Jackie” (image via tvpedia.org (c) 2011 Showtime Networks Inc.)
Edie Falco stars as the title character Jackie Peyton, a strong-willed and brilliant – but very flawed – emergency room nurse in a complicated New York City hospital. A lapsed Catholic with an occasional weakness for Vicodin and Adderall to get her through the days, Jackie keeps the hospital balanced with her own kind of justice. Every day is a high wire act of juggling patients, doctors, fellow nurses and her own indiscretions. (source: aceshowbiz.com)
Performed by Wendy & Lisa (Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman), who were once part of Prince’s band The Revolution before branching out on their own as first Girl Bros, and then Wendy and Lisa, the title music is every as quirky and interesting as Jackie herself.
It has an ethereal yet vibrant quality, with some wonderful soul vocals kicking in part way through, all married to great effect with slightly out of focus shots of Jackie herself getting ready for work with the usual tools of her trade like a stethoscope and some quite unusual ones such as the drugs she takes for much of the early seasons to cope with her high stress job and personal life.
It has the same sort of whimsy that Thomas Newman brought to Six Feet Under’s title music, and owes some sense of its quirkiness to it, while not being a copy in any way, shape or form.
It brings to life the various aspects of Jackie’s personality and life – her dogged determination to push through, the sense of being in a rut at times, her mischievous smile, and the issues that dog her.
All that in a captivating, unusual and fun piece of music that sets the scene perfectly for the episode to follow.
If I was going to have a theme song, I’d like it to be this.
* I would love to know which themes you love and why.