By Jaime Weinman - Tuesday, January 15, 2013 - 0 Comments
Why Girls, Bates Motel and New Girl are going with minimal title sequences
The A&E drama Bates Motel, a TV prequel to Psycho, is giving fans a chance to create the opening title sequence—but with a catch: it has to be really short. “We’re looking for an awesome 15-second title sequence that captures the feel of Bates Motel,” series creator Carlton Cuse (Lost) said when announcing the contest, whose winner will be announced before the series premiere in March. Fifteen seconds is actually a pretty generous amount of time for a title sequence today. Many shows don’t have them at all: HBO’s most hyped recent show, Lena Dunham’s Girls, has nothing but a simple title card, like a low-budget movie. “In my view, short sequences are a missed opportunity,” says Danny Yount, who created the nearly two-minute opening for HBO’s Six Feet Under. But if Bates Motel is any indication, a title sequence may not be important enough to take a lot of time for, or even to hire professional designers for.
A full-length title sequence is certainly expensive to do, especially for shows that don’t take the easy route and string together a bunch of old clips. Yount says his sequence for Six Feet Under, a mini-movie that summed up the themes of the show, required “a full crew, three locations and two days of shooting,” but adds that “the producers wanted something unique to television, so I think it was a worthwhile investment for them.” Continue…
By Jaime Weinman - Tuesday, June 2, 2009 at 6:17 PM - 14 Comments
It’s good news that there will be an “official” season 1 release (split in two, as is Paramount’s wont) of Bonanza, because a lot of the Public Domain DVDs don’t include the theme song. (When a TV episode falls into the public domain, the people releasing it would still have to pay to use the theme song.)
This song, one of the most famous in television history, was written by the veteran songwriting team of Jay Livingston (composer) and Ray Evans (lyricist), who also wrote “Mona Lisa,” “Buttons and Bows,” “Que Sera, Sera” and many other hits. As with all their songs, they wrote “Bonanza” with lyrics, but while the lyrics have been performed by Johnny Cash and others, they were not used on the show itself. So everyone grew up singing the song as “Da da da da, da da da, da da da, BONANZA.”
What are some other TV songs that are instrumentals on the show, but actually have lyrics that the show never used? I’m pretty sure that the lyrics to “Bewitched” were originally supposed to be used on the show, but weren’t; the lyricist actually received credit on the show as co-author of the theme.
A lot of theme songs from the ’50s and ’60s had “secret” lyrics, because even if the theme was always intended as an instrumental, there needed to be lyrics for the published version so that pop singers could record the song. That’s how we got Gene Roddenberry’s terrible lyrics for the Star Trek theme, and, on a higher level of craftsmanship, the lyrics for the Andy Griffith theme, called “The Fishin’ Hole.” After the ’60s, it didn’t happen as much; instrumentals usually stayed as instrumentals, but there must be a few that were originally supposed to have lyrics, or had lyrics added after the fact.
One reversal of the “secret lyrics” trend was the theme to the ’90s cartoon Tiny Toons, which Bruce Broughton wrote as an instrumental (a ’90s answer to the old Looney Tunes themes); the writers decided to add lyrics and use them on the show.
By Jaime Weinman - Wednesday, May 13, 2009 at 4:12 PM - 17 Comments
Does anybody have an example of a TV theme song that is underrated — one that is not usually named among the all-time great themes, but that you think is better than a lot of more acclaimed TV songs? (What brought this to mind was the argument about the Parks and Recreation theme song, which some commenters didn’t like and others did.)
One song from a hit show that I think is kind of underrated is the Who’s the Boss? theme song. I know it’s easy to make fun of, but then, so are most songs from “family” shows of that era. And whereas all those other themes were overblown anthems about how awesome the characters’ lives are, the WTB song (with lyrics by the show’s creators) is kind of wistful and sweet, and optimistic without piling on the “we got the world spinnin’ right in our hands/face of somebody who needs you/sha la la la” forced jollity.
(Remember when Global and “Prime,” now known as TVTropolis, used to plaster the “On…” logo on every show?)
I also think the theme song to My Name Is Earl, “What Goes Around Comes Around,” is underrated, but that’s mostly because the show hides it, burying it under Earl’s narration and then cutting out the title sequence altogether (it is heard over the closing credits, but the network never shows the closing credits sequence). I think it does a good job of capturing the tone that this show was going for; in its east-meets-west arrangement, it really does sound like the theme song of a redneck who embraces the concept of karma.
By Jaime Weinman - Thursday, April 30, 2009 at 4:15 PM - 12 Comments
Here’s an obscure TV theme song that I just found on YouTube (a pretty good one) that brings up a question: how often do TV shows have theme songs that actually reflect current trends in pop music? This show was called “Karen,” a one-season flop from 1964 starring Debbie Watson as a spunky, flighty teenager. It was one of several shows from the mid-’60s that were about teenaged girls, but this one had something resembling a rock n’ roll theme song, sung by the Beach Boys. It wasn’t exactly up-to-date for the fall of 1964, but it was closer than most teen shows of its era; The Patty Duke Show and Gidget were about teenagers, but had (terrific) theme songs in an old-fashioned big-band style that no teenaged girl of the time would have been listening to.
TV themes usually tend to be lagging indicators, if only because it’s dangerous to pick a song that’s too closely tied to a particular musical trend. (If you hope your show will last five years, you don’t want to have a song that will sound out of date in a year. Better to go with a Who song instead, since that’s always out of date.) But what are some other shows that featured theme music that had a closer-than-usual relationship to pop-music trends of the period?
By Jaime Weinman - Thursday, April 16, 2009 at 3:49 PM - 9 Comments
One other thing about theme songs (and they still exist, sort of!) is that if the show runs long enough, the theme song will probably be re-recorded and re-arranged, and when that happens, it will often change in a really disappointing way. I understand the reasons behind the final-season remix of “We Used To Be Friends” on Veronica Mars. I do not have to like it.
What are some examples of theme songs that you liked that were re-arranged in ways you didn’t like?
Here’s one example. That Girl started out with a fine theme song by Earle Hagen, an instrumental that fit perfectly with the story of a single girl trying to make it in New York City:
The song was then rearranged several times, never sounding as good as the first version. But it never really got bad until the last season (just out on DVD), when they added lyrics to the song, gave it a late ’60s MOR pop arrangement, and ended it with the male chorus shouting the show’s title in unison. Not good.
And then there was the unfortunate transformation of The Bob Newhart Show theme by Lorenzo and Henrietta Music. (The original intro is not on YouTube, so here’s someone’s re-enactment of it.)
By Jaime Weinman - Wednesday, April 15, 2009 at 12:42 PM - 1 Comment
I agree with most of what Noel Murray writes in his review of season 1 of The Paper Chase. (The season also has some episodes with out-of-synch sound — including one where the words aren’t within a mile of the actors’ lips — but there’s an exchange program for that.) I wouldn’t really claim TPS and Lou Grant as innovators or trailblazers; the “issue-oriented” filmed drama was all over TV in the ’60s, and merely returned in the late ’70s after taking some time off. The late ’70s shows are important because, in a halting, fumbling way, they made some attempt to combine issues with the kind of character-based stories usually seen on half-hour shows like M*A*S*H or All in the Family. Which eventually led to the more complex and satisfying TV dramas of the ’80s, ’90s, and ’00s. But though The Paper Chase had some fine episodes, many of them written by the author of the original novel, it’s still basically a ’70s formula drama with strictly self-contained episodes and stories that tend to revolve around guest characters; compare it to M*A*S*H, another movie adaptation from the same studio, and you see why most of what we now think of as “drama” was actually being done in half-hours at the time.
One thing I was appalled by, though, was the theme song. It was “The First Years,” written by the ubiquitous team of Charles Fox and Norman Gimbel and performed by Seals and Crofts, a popular soft-rock team performing one of Fox’s trademark out-of-time arrangements: the melody, orchestrations and harmonies sound like they would be inoffensive and bland in any decade. I know a lot of people like this song, but I really, really dislike it; the bland sound, the generic Fox music and syrupy lyrics about “Good friends to love us” are more appropriate for Saved By the Bell than Professor Kingsfield’s class. When Houseman stops talking and the theme song kicks in, it’s like someone’s actually written a song that illustrates the results of having “a skull full of mush.”
When they brought this show back on cable, they dropped the lyrics and did it as an instrumental; still not a good song, but at least Charles Fox’s stultifying vocal arrangements aren’t involved:
That’s a personal reaction, of course. But what are some shows you like that have theme songs you don’t like?
By Jaime Weinman - Wednesday, March 11, 2009 at 1:49 PM - 10 Comments
One thing I regret most about the disappearance of full-length title sequences is that we can’t use them to track the changes in a show. Every time a show is re-tooled, it needs to change its title sequence to reflect the changes, and even when it hasn’t been changed much, a show that’s in trouble might change the main title to make the premise clearer or create a different atmosphere. We saw a good example of this in the final season of Veronica Mars, where they created a new main title that emphasized the noir detective-show feel and re-mixed the theme song to be less chipper.
But back when shows had minute-long main titles, and those main titles were often right at the beginning of the episode (and were therefore the first thing you saw of the show) they might change not only in successive seasons but successive weeks, as the producers scrambled to find the right approach.
This came home to me watching the recently-released season 1 DVD of My Two Dads, a show I liked at the time and still like now: I had forgotten that it had no less than four different main titles in the first half of the first season (and it had others in later seasons). So here they are, in another one of my “trace the history of a show through its opening titles” posts. First comes the pilot, which is just a 30-second selection of clips with a fairly generic instrumental theme song. What was with the ’80s and saxophones? Did the economy rebound from the 1981-2 recession entirely on the strength of the saxophone industry, and what musical instrument is going to save us now?
For the series, they need a new theme song, and they create the famous, insidious “You Can Count On Me” (co-written by star Greg Evigan and creator Michael Jacobs, sung by Evigan), the most maniacally happy and non-specific of all sitcom theme songs. The producers decide that the title sequence should be a combination of live-action and animation in the style of A-Ha’s then-popular video for “Take On Me,” and the sequence illustrates the theme of the show, that you’ve got this girl being raised and influenced by two men from different worlds. This sequence must have cost a lot of money to make, but it only lasted somewhere between one and three episodes before being replaced, and all that money was flushed down the toilet. And did I mention the saxophone was used a lot in this era?
The producers and the network presumably realized that it wasn’t enough to just illustrate the theme of the show; it needed to be explained or nobody would know Continue…
By Jaime Weinman - Tuesday, February 3, 2009 at 7:42 PM - 5 Comments
Last week I was advocating a return to the full-length TV intro, as opposed to just the title or a 20-second blink-and-you-miss-it sequence. I thought I would follow up by mentioning a few of the different types of intros that a show can do, and what they do for the show. Since doing them all at once would lead to a post about seventy kajillion words long, I’ll do four at a time. I’ll do part 2 later this week, but in the meantime, feel free to mention the ones I haven’t got to yet and which types of intros you like best. And also check out Lee Goldberg’s Main Title Heaven, collecting YouTube videos of main titles both famous and obscure.
1. The Vignette. This is an intro that consists of one short, usually silent scene with the main character or characters. They are in-character, unaware of the camera. In this short scene, they do something that makes it clear who and what they are, and what the show will be.
The classic examples of the Vignette are both, interestingly, only about 20 seconds long — proving that today’s shows could do them, even with the limited running time. I’m talking about The Andy Griffith Show, with Andy and Opie walking to the ol’ fishin’ hole, and The Dick Van Dyke Show‘s alternating intros, with Rob either tripping or not tripping over the ottoman. Dick Van Dyke is an example of how a Vignette can give a show a stronger identity. The first season’s openings consisted mostly of stills and freeze-frames of the cast members, and told us very little about what kind of show this would be. So they filmed a little scene that would tell us that Rob lives in a suburban home with his gorgeous wife (and the kid, but who cared about him) and that we can expect plenty of physical comedy. The scene sums up so much about the show that we can almost forget our questions about why Buddy and Sally are at Rob’s home before he is — or, as Richard Cheese pointed out, the fact that Rob shakes hands with Buddy twice.
Today, most of the Vignette intros can be found on pay cable: two of the most famous ones are Dexter proving how gruesome breakfast can really be, and Tony Soprano driving home. Here’s the Sopranos intro parody from The Simpsons (which of course has a very famous “Vignette” intro, also involving the characters driving home).
2. Fun And Frolic. In this type of main title, we see the character or characters doing many different things, but all of the footage is newly-created for the sequence (though there may be a Continue…
By Jaime Weinman - Friday, October 10, 2008 at 1:17 PM - 0 Comments
You know my love of theme songs that explain the premise — a lost art, at least for the moment. (Networks don’t have time to do them, and HBO and Showtime, which do have room for longer title sequences, don’t want to do that kind of theme song, even for comedies.) But I was wondering which of these theme songs contains the greatest amount of exposition. That is, who gets the most information into the lyrics of a one-minute song?
The Nanny and Fresh Prince and Gilligan’s Island are all contenders, but I think the champ has to be Open All Night, a short-lived comedy created by Tom Patchett and Jay Tarses (Buffalo Bill, The Days And Nights of Molly Dodd). They wrote the lyrics for the theme song, and the lyrics not only tell us the premise and identify most of the major characters, they fill us in on the protagonist’s entire life story from birth to the present.
By Jaime Weinman - Wednesday, July 16, 2008 at 5:27 PM - 0 Comments
With this post I’ve pretty much exhausted my “random stuff I found on YouTube” quota for the next century, but: you know, the “Fresh Prince of Bel Air” rap actually sounds pretty good in Italian.
I prefer it, however, when the Italians throw out the original theme song and create their own. Nothing can top my favourite Italian theme song, and one that I’ve mentioned elsewhere at least twice, the Mork and Mindy theme song by Bruno D’Andrea, one of the most beloved TV theme songs in Italy and way better than the original.