Tuesday, October 13, 2009

There's old friends and new friends and even a Bear: Grading this fall's new TV themes

I'm glad Jason Schwartzman sorted out his hair issues halfway through Bored to Death's first season. Private eyes aren't supposed to look like that helmet-haired douche from Million Dollar Listing.
The TV theme isn't quite dead yet. The endangered art form is finding refuge in scripted cable shows like Bored to Death and nighttime network cartoons like Seth MacFarlane's shows, where opening title sequences aren't limited to five seconds, unlike almost all other prime-time network shows (according to film music scholar Jon Burlingame, many showrunners have downsized title sequences because the five networks are desperate to keep viewers from changing the channel and are ordering showrunners to keep things fast-paced).

On the Fistful of Soundtracks channel, I stream a few TV themes, but my tastes lean more towards the longer instrumental themes (Cowboy Bebop, The Persuaders!) than the 30- or 60-second ones with lyrics. I don't miss the latter category, but once in a while, it's nice to see a new prime-time show open with an old-fashioned example of the latter (The Cleveland Show). Here's a rundown of five of this fall's new original themes, including Cleveland's.

Archer: The new spy spoof from Adult Swim veteran Adam Reed (Sealab 2021, Frisky Dingo) doesn't join the FX schedule until January, but I caught a sneak peek of the first episode right after the It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia season premiere. I'm a sucker for spy show themes like Archer's. Aqua Teen sound designer Michael Kohler's Scott Sims' theme is like a less avant-garde take on J.G. Thirlwell's over-the-top Venture Bros. theme. (Kohler is the same guy who remixed the Superfriends theme for a classic Cartoon Network promo.) Grade: B.

Bored to Death: Jon Brion meets A Shot in the Dark-era Henry Mancini in a brassy theme written by Jason Schwartzman and series creator Jonathan Ames and performed by the Rushmore star/ex-Phantom Planet drummer and his current band Coconut Records. The lyrics are like the show's dorky P.I. hero (also named Jonathan Ames): under a slick veneer lies a not-so-slick bundle of nerves. The full version of the theme can be streamed at Entertainment Weekly. Grade: B+.

The Cleveland Show: MacFarlane's '80s fetish continues with an old-fashioned theme that's easily the best part of the show. It's reminiscent of the peppy themes from forgotten late '70s/early '80s sitcoms like Angie and House Calls. I've found myself singing along in Cleveland's nasally voice. The final version closely resembles the preview rendition performed last year by Mike Henry--Cleveland's very white portrayer--except "my happy black-guy face" is now "my happy mustached face." Grade: B+.

NCIS: Los Angeles: This spinoff-of-a-spinoff opens with a so-so and really brief Media Ventures/Remote Control Productions-style instrumental from Media Ventures vet James S. Levine, who apparently has been instructed to score the show's comic relief moments in ABC "Please Laugh Now" music mode, to borrow Alan Sepinwall's words. LL Cool J's old producer Marley Marl would have come up with a doper theme. Grade: C.

Trauma: Bear McCreary's latest opening theme isn't as memorable as his work from Battlestar Galactica, but it's an energetic, ass-whupping 7/4 opener in the style of his Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles chase cues. Too bad the rest of the low-rated Trauma, which is set in a San Francisco where all the Asians have disappeared, isn't as interesting as McCreary's theme (though Cliff Curtis is always a standout actor, and I like to check in on the show occasionally to play a game of "Spot the S.F. location I once passed by"). I like how McCreary is candid about some of the show's missteps on his blog: "They really messed with [the intro] after I delivered it. It sounds like it is almost mono now and sounds really small and wimpy. I'm hoping in the next few episodes I can re-mix it and make it sound better." That is if there will be any next few episodes. Grade: B.


  1. Thanks, Jimmy, for citing the great title song to ANGIE. Love the song, love Maureen McGovern singing it, and actually loved the show too. (Whatever happened to Donna Pescow anyway?) It shows you're a man with good taste. (As if I ever doubted that for a minute!)

  2. I mostly agree with your take on Trauma -- it fell off quickly after the pilot, which had many satisfying explosions but characters I couldn't care less about. But I'm ashamed to admit that I remember nothing about McCreary's theme. Maybe it's the producers' fault.

    We watched the first ep of NCIS:LA. Poor LL Cool J. Poor Linda Hunt!

    I'm liking Bored to Death a lot, though -- up to and including the opening theme music and titles. I was afraid it was going to be another dumb show about a struggling New York writer, but it's actually quite a bit more clever than that, isn't it?

  3. "LL Cool J's old producer Marley Marl would have come up with a doper theme."

    Whatever happened to the Donald Bellisario who used Mike Post and Bruce Broughton? Screw "NCIS"!

  4. Yes, I too dig that Bored to Death opening; maybe not as much as Mad Men, but it's up there.

  5. "Whatever happened to the Donald Bellisario who used Mike Post and Bruce Broughton?"

    Actually, Bellisario hasn't been a part of NCIS for a while, even though the credits still list him as executive producer. He left NCIS in 2007 and has nothing to do with the L.A. spinoff.