Here they are – the top 10 of my top 100 TV theme songs summer countdown. Over the past 10 weeks, I’ve been counting down ten at a time what I think are the best TV themes ever created. The list is not just about the music. It’s also about the editing, the style of the credits, and how well they introduce each series.
Just like David Letterman – let’s get to my top 10 list!
#10 LA LAW
Airdates: 1986-1994 (NBC)
I’ve always loved that rocking saxophone intro and hit during the credits. Over all 8 seasons, the only change to the credits was the stars, with both Harry Hamlin and Susan Dey, leaving the series and others coming and going.
This show has finally been released on DVD, with seasons 1 through 3 hitting stores in by the end of 2014.
You could look at this show as the template for which all other legal shows would follow. Each episode featured humor as well as hard hitting drama, usually on a recent topic such as the 1992 LA riots.
This show may have also been America’s first introduction to vanity license plates?
#9 ALL IN THE FAMILY
Airdates: 1971-1979 (CBS) & 1979-1983 (CBS, as Archie Bunker’s Place)
All in the Family is one of the most controversial shows to ever hit TV. The series was way ahead of it’s time with all the off color topics that were handled, especially for the 1970s. Racism, same sex, and bigotry were handled with lots of laughs and that kept viewers coming back for more. You never knew what Archie was going to say or who he was going to insult next? Nobody was safe!
The show took years to develop and was originally titled Justice for All, as Archie and Edith’s last name was originally Justice, not Bunker and was to shot for ABC. Here’s a look at the original, rare unseen pilot. You’ll notice the different characters for Meathead and Gloria, as well as a few different lyrics.
Did you also catch the disclaimer “suggested for the mature audience”? That would remain when the second pilot was shot, now titled Those Were the Days.
There are actually several verses of the song that were recorded, but never broadcast. The main reason behind Archie & Edith singing in the first place, was a cost cutting measure, as there was no more money after the first pilot was shot.
All in the Family also has the most amount of spin-off ever for a TV show including, The Jeffersons, Maude, Gloria, and 704 Hauser.
Although the series ended after 8 seasons, it technically continued on as Archie Bunker’s Place for 4 more. The focus of the show shifted from the Bunker house to Archie’s new bar, after most of the cast had no longer wanted to be part of the series. Here’s an episode of Archie Bunker’s Place:
#8 THREE’S COMPANY
Airdates: 1977-1984 (ABC)
Originally inspired by a British show, Three’s Company was a ratings blockbuster for ABC, but was just as famous for the behind the scenes turmoil with the cast.
Three roommates, sharing an apartment – with Jack having to pretend he’s gay in order to stay with two women. You can instantly see where the comedy begins, but that was far from the end of it.
The first big change to the show was when the Ropers, the downstairs landlords were given a spin-off of their own, The Ropers. Check out the really bad opening to their show:
After The Ropers leave, Don Knots is brought on as new building manager, Mr. Furley.
The show continued to do well with Knotts, but Suzanne Sommers (Crissy) then demanded a pay raise, producers fought back and had her only appear in one minute taped sequences at the end of the episodes during season 4. After her contract was not renewed, a new roommate played by Jennilee Harrison was brought in as her cousin Cindy. She lasted for one season, before Priscilla Barnes took over the third roommate Terri.
Ratings started to dip after season 8 and ABC wanted something new, so they kept Ritter’s character and developed a continuation of the show under the title Three’s a Crowd. This show has often been packaged with the Three’s Company episodes under the title, Three’s Company Too.
#7 THE GOLDEN GIRLS
Airdates: 1985-1992 (NBC) 1992-1993 (CBS as The Golden Palace)
Three widows and an elderly mother share a Miami house, a whole lot of cheesecake, and big ratings for NBC on a Saturday night. Who knew that these four older women could be so funny? The NBC executives did!
Most people don’t remember, but in the pilot the girls also had a live in cook, Coco who never again appeared after that episode.
The series also created a spin-off show; Empty Nest that aired in the time slot directly after, featuring The Weston’s who lived across the street. The characters and pilot for Empty Nest was actually part of a Golden Girls episode with a different cast.
After 8 seasons, Bea Arthur decided to leave the show and the series was cancelled by NBC. CBS wanted to continue with the characters, so they created a continuation known as The Golden Palace, where Blanche, Sophia, and Rose ran and lived in a beach front hotel. It lasted for only one season. It wasn’t that bad and would have been fine if they had kept it around for another season (which they very nearly did).
And now the big announcement – The Golden Girls have made a comeback! Well, in the Netherlands! It began airing in 2012 and is using old scripts and music from the original series. Here’s a look at their opening credits!
#6 THE FRESH PRINCE OF BEL AIR
Airdates: 1990-1996 (NBC)
Just about anyone who was watching television in the 90’s can sing the theme song to this show. They kept the opening in tact through most of the show’s run, although it too was cut down in later seasons. Unlike, TBS who cut it down to just a few terrible shots and beats for the reruns. Over all the seasons, there was only one minor cast change, with two different actresses playing the role of Vivian, the mother of the house.
There are several other verses to the theme and a few of them have made it to air. For a handful of early first season episodes, the credits were 40 seconds longer, and contained additional scenes. Take a look…
The Fresh Prince of Bel Air was the ultimate rags to riches story, from the means streets of Philly to the post life in LA. Both for the character and actor, Will!
#5 LAVENRE & SHIRLEY
Airdates: 1976-1983 (ABC)
I got in trouble for airing this theme on our high school news. I still don’t know why. Some teachers are just plain mean!
Anyhow, Laverne & Shirley was the story of two Milwaukee roommates who were just trying to make their way in the 1950’s. We all grew up with them, through their jobs, their dates, and their weekly adventures. The series was a spin-off from Happy Days, where both Laverne & Shirley were introduced as love interests for Fonzie (Henry Winkler).
While the show mostly focused on the two title characters, their upstairs neighbors Lenny and Squiggy were also featured. It’s been said that actors David L. Lander and Michael McKean, created the characters while high on pot one night at Carnegie Mellon University. They toured the country with the characters as a comedy duo, before being picked up by the show.
I always loved how Laverne (Penny Marshall) wore an L on all of her clothes. Her favorite drink was milk & Pepsi, a combination I’ve never tried!
After 5 seasons, producers decided to move the characters to Burbank, California. It was explained that they lost their brewery jobs to automation and they wanted to start fresh. The rest of the cast followed. As a result, the opening credits were changed, but the now classic theme song was kept…
Usually, a move like this is a last ditch effort to boost ratings, but the ratings weren’t that bad and the show held on. In season 8, actress Cindy Williams who plays Shirley, became pregnant and after some harsh negations with the network, was let out of her contract. She disappeared after two episodes with a note apologizing to Laverne. The show would continue on as Laverne & Shirley, with Williams name and shots removed from the credits.
But, the show without Shirley just couldn’t make it. Even Lenny was gone by the end of the season. The LA episodes were still good, but they should have kept the series in Milwaukee making beer.
#4 THE FACTS OF LIFE
Airdates: 1979-1988 (NBC)
The Facts of Life focused on four girls and their housemother at an all girls school in Peekskill, New York. But, that’s not how the series started.
The head housemaster, Mrs. Garrett (Charlotte Rea), was actually the housekeeper for the Drummonds on the first two seasons of Diff’rent Strokes. During the second year, NBC executives loved the character and producers sent the Drummonds to visit an all girls school upstate as a potential place for daughter Kimberly (Dana Plato) to enroll. Garrett is offered the job, but turns it down at the end of the episode, only to reconsider and take it during the summer hiatus, leaving her to suddenly disappear from Diff’rent Strokes.
During the first season, there were about a zillion different girls, along with a different headmaster. While the theme song was written by Alan Thicke (who we’ve discussed before), for this season Charlotte Rea herself sings along! Take a listen and look at all the confusion as the editor tries to squeeze the giant cast members into boxes!
After the first season was done, producers retooled the show, letting many of the girls go, and reformatted the sets and role of Mrs. Garrett. I kind of wish they would have kept all of the cast, but adding Jo (Nancy McKeon) in season two was pretty cool. The changes worked and the show scored high ratings.
It was during season 6, that the opening credits took on an updated rock version of the theme, but the biggest change was about to happen at the end of season 7, when Charlotte Rae decided to leave the series and passed the torch to her long time friend Chloris Leachman as her sister Beverly Anne to take care of the girls. Check out the updated intro after a retro Saturday night NBC promo.
The show was never as good without Rae and it was cancelled after two seasons in this format. Had she stayed with the show, who knows how long it could have been on the air?
Airdates: 1982-1993 (NBC)
Who wouldn’t want to pull up a stool at the bar where everybody knows your name? If this thing was in my neighborhood, I’d be a regular!
Cheers was a staple of NBC’s Thursday nights, but was almost cancelled after a low rated first season. The producers worked out the bugs and kept the laughs coming with this great group of barflies week after week.
The opening theme has become a TV classic and is featured prominently on the new Cheers slot machine on casino floors!
The show underwent many cast changes, starting in season four with the off-screen death of Coach (Nicholas Colansanto). He’s replaced by Woody (Woody Harrellson) as head bar tender for the rest of the show’s run. Shelly Long, who plays Diane decides she wants to leave the show to pursue an ill fated movie career and is replaced by Rebecca (Kirstie Alley), who first manages the bar, then burns it down. Kelsey Grammer as Frasier and his wife Bebe Neuwirth as Lillith would eventually join the cast as main characters as well.
Though all the changes, America still loved to tune in and see former Red Sox player Sam Malone (Ted Danson) keep everything together, no matter what.
Here’s a look at a later set of opening credits, with the awesome song and classic pictures, and the cast changes.
#2 STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION
Airdates: 1987-1994 (Syndicated)
This show has one of the best musical scores in the history of television. Not only did it have excellent writing, excellent acting, it also had a full orchestra that gave every episode an epic feel. I was glued to the TV each week and would sit there for the end credits, just to see the promo for what was coming next week, hoping it would be a new episode.
Star Trek: The Next Generation was a spin-off of the original 1960’s Star Trek series and an earlier version almost made it to the air in the 1970’s as Star Trek: Phase II, using many of the same elements such as the Riker – Troi romance.
The show has been in reruns, non-stop since the series left the air and every episode is now being remastered and released on Blu-Ray.
I’ll still stop and watch every time it’s on. I put in on in the background just about every day at work.
The cast stayed mostly intact, throughout the seven year run with only Denise Crosby as Tasha Yar and Wil Wheaton as Wesley Crusher, leaving the series.
This show also launched two official spin-offs, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager. Another spin-off Star Trek: Enterprise has loose connections to this show as well.
Check out the opening credits for the original pilot… notice anything different?
Airdates: 1978-1991 (CBS) & 2012-present (TNT)
So, here’s my pick for the best ever TV theme – Dallas!
The show was must see TV for anyone with a set on Friday nights. It’s the story of Ewing Oil and the crime, corruption, and family battles for the empire.
At the center was tycoon J.R. Ewing (Larry Hagman), who was the only character to appear on every episode of the original CBS run. The classic Who Shot JR? cliffhanger episode left America gasping to know who pulled the trigger and would the character survive during the six month summer hiatus of 1980.
Through the 14 seasons, there was a large turnover in the cast that is far too many to go into in this countdown blog. Here’s a look at the opening as it appeared during the final CBS season. One mistake they made was getting rid of the iconic three way boxes that were featured on every episode, except for the last two seasons. But, the iconic theme was there in all its glory!
I was too young to fully understand this show during the early seasons, but I know how much I loved the theme. My grandmother would watch the show and I would make sure to stick around for the opening credits, before running away to play with Matchbox cars or whatever I did as a kid.
Most of the main characters stayed including Ewing, Duffy, and Gray, all of which would return for the TNT remake that launched in 2012. It’s awesome that they still kept the music, although they have shortened it a bit for modern audiences. Hard core fans of the show should be able to tell where the music edit is. Take a listen and see if you can spot it…
One thing you can definitely spot is the changes to the Dallas skyline over the two decade hiatus.
Sadly, actor Larry Hagman passed away last year during season two of filming. His character JR was also killed off the show, using some unused takes that had already been shot. The producers paid homage to Hagman with a special orchestration of the theme and special opening credits featuring Hagman, that are nothing short of poignant, touching, and absolutely respectful.
What: TV Theme Songs
Use: themes used to open a TV series or cartoon
Purpose: introduce main cast and introduce audience to the theme of the series
Numbers reviewed: 1 – 10
JERSEY JOE RECOMMENDS:
So, here they are… the final 10 of my top 100 TV themes! Did you find any of my choices shocking? Again, these weren’t chosen just for the music, but also for the editing style, and how well they introduced the series and characters.
Next week, I’m going to do a special HONORABLE MENTION blog. I have a few shows, that didn’t quite make the list that we should take a special look at. Let me know what you thought of the countdown. I hope that many of your favorites as well as a few surprises made the list.
I don’t own any of the rights to these, nor did I upload them to YouTube. This blog is presented for educational and informational purposes.
Image credit – Eduardo Basto