10 Greatest TV Themes of All Time

Freaks and Geeks
Freaks and Geeks
Oh you don't own a TV? How brave.

Seriously -- people love bragging about not watching TV, but they're missing out. Whether watching live, on Netflix, or on DVD, there's almost nothing as fun as zoning out in front of the TV.

We're partial to music too (you might have guessed), so when we started chatting about our favorite television theme songs, things progressed -- pretty quickly -- and before you know it, we had this blog for you: Up on the Sun's 10 Favorite, Greatest, Coolest, Pretty Awesome, Television Themes of All Time (Or Right Now, At Least, When We Had to Come Up With Them).

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There's really no such thing as a "good" serial killer, is there?

Dexter's writers would lead you to believe there's at least one in the world. After all, he only kills bad guys! Not accounting for the few exceptions he made when people got in his way. Or when he outright mistakenly kills the wrong person. Oops!

Let's face it. Half the time we're just rooting for him because he's handsome. A Dexter portrayed by Steve Buscemi would never get away with this shit. No one roots for big droopy wet eyes anymore. (Editor's note: Wait? I'm the only one actively pulling for Nucky on Boardwalk Empire?)

And a Dexter theme not inspired by Michael C. Hall wouldn't be nearly as sexy. On its own, the Rolfe R. Kent-penned title song is worthy of praise, but put in context with the rest of the show, it's intensely brilliant. It's a bone chilling mix of eastern European stringed instruments, bassoon, electric piano, sax, violin, uncommon percussion, and mysterious, ominous tones that blends friendly, familiar sounds with awkwardly beautiful disruptions -- maybe the perfect musical comparison of what it's like to live in the mind of a "nice" serial killer trying his hardest to overcome his sickness.

The tune builds up the scale, then quickly descends a handful of times, giving the impression of falling -- failing maybe. Close to being caught, perhaps. But it picks right back up again, just as Dexter always does. -- Christina Caldwell

Freaks and Geeks

It seems like every great television show is doomed to only last a few seasons (cough cough, Arrested Development). The outcome was even worse for the doomed classic Freaks and Geeks, which was on the air for a measly single season (though its stars went on to great acclaim, especially James Franco, Seth Rogen, and Jason Segel). For eighteen episodes we were charmed by Lindsay Weir, her poor decisions, and her hilariously critical father, and then...poof! It's a shame that we'll never know if she became a mathlete or a Deadhead.

Joan Jett's rousing teen angst anthem is the perfect soundtrack for these high school kids that (mostly) take pride in their identities as burnouts or geniuses. The opening sequence speaks volumes about these characters, from Franco's zoned out smirk to Bill Haverchuck's fake grin. Jett's theme speaks to the misfit idea -- the power of not giving a damn, or at least trying to make sure you don't seem like you give a damn -- that makes Freaks & Geeks so enduring. -- Melissa Fossum  

The X-Files

Chris Carter and the other creators of The X-Files were aces at scaring the holy living fuck outta the show's viewers. And they could do it in only two minutes or less.

Many episodes of the groundbreaking 1990s sci-fi/horror freakshow kickstarted with short, thrill-packed teasers that quickly introduce the particular monster of the week -- be it liver-eating mutants, killer cockroaches, or shape-shifting aliens -- and build to a stunning and sudden climax of the terrifying or adrenaline-pumping variety.

Before viewers could catch a breath (or climb down from the ceiling), they're immediately slammed with a crash of synthesizers at the beginning of composer Mark Snow's otherworldly theme song for The X-Files. It quickly fades into a series of mysteriously echoing arpeggios and piano riffs that reverberate in eerie fashion and sets the tone of Mulder and Scully's exploration into the unexplained. A warbling undercurrent of murky vibrato lurks along beneath, almost like gloomy whispers of shadowy government conspiracies or answers beyond the realm of perception.

These haunting elements are accompanied by the theme's other signature: The melodic ghostly whistling (performed by Snow's wife and fed through MIDI synth module) that flat-out evokes the general weirdness of the show.

Snow's composition -- which topped the charts throughout Europe and later became fodder for various remixes by P.M. Dawn, DJ Dado, and The Dust Brothers -- fit the gloomy mood of The X-Files as snugly as an anal probe. It helped define the cult hit during the early seasons as much as the ever-overcast milieu of Vancouver where the show was shot and gave geeks appointment television every Friday night. At least until the later years, that is, when the show crashed and burned like a downed UFO. -- Benjamin Leatherman


Right now there are dozens of indie musicians trying desperately to mimic the effortlessly smooth flute/sax/trumpet/electric piano vibe of Bob James' "Angela (the theme from Taxi)."

They probably won't nail it -- not that you can blame them for trying. Taxi is maybe the finest sitcom ever; the influence of the show's downcast humor and its cast, which included Judd Hirsch, Danny DeVito, Christopher Lloyd, Tony Danza, Marilu Henner, Andy Kaufman, and more, is still reverberating within the best TV comedies of today: Parks and Recreation, Louie, and Community.

Like other fine shows of its era (namely Cheers), Taxi mastered the fine art of melancholic comedy, and James' groovy theme captures the mood perfectly, suiting the understated style of Hirsch, the weathered beauty of Henner, and the jazzy improvisational skills of Kaufman and Lloyd. It plays like Vince Guaralid's Peanuts holidays music: warm but bummed, spritely but shrugging.

Modern TV themes try to get out the way as quickly as possible (think The Office or How I Met Your Mother), as if any time spent away from the show's characters will make you forget you're about to watch them; Bob James' Taxi theme trusts you more than that, inviting you in, patting your back, and speaking for the show's characters as much as it introduces them. -- Jason P. Woodbury  


Fun fact: Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein, the stars of IFC's screwball hit Portlandia aren't even from Oregon at all. How's that for your hipster statement of the day? The show gleefully lampoons Portland's larger-than-average population of scenesters, hippies, lefties, environmentalists, feminists, and anyone so uptight about their cultural identity it deserves and -ist or an -ism. And unlike Breaking Bad, it isn't purposely written to keep you watching so you spend hours zoning out on the couch. You can watch an hour or so and then get back to your life.

The theme song, "Feel It All Around You" by Washed Out doesn't really fit in with the quirky tone of the rest of the show. Who cares. When those warm synthy waves hit, it makes me happy the way only synth-driven music can. Part of me wants to dance, part of me wants to do drugs, part of me wants to keep watching. So whoever chose this song for this show, thank you, you have good taste.

If you say Washed Out sounds exactly like Porcelain Raft, M83, Youth Lagoon, Toro Y Moi, Small Black, SBTRKT, or Neon Indian, you may be right. But it sounds distinctly different to my ears. Why are you looking at me that way? Oh, right. Me and my hipster statements.

Bonus: All the musical cameos in Portlandia, including Colin Meloy, Jack White, Aimee Mann, Eddie Vedder, and Isaac Brock (the latter comes bearing Temple of the Dog LPs). -- Troy Farah


Lost set a new standard for dramatic television. Even with its complicated story lines and intriguing characters, it's the simple yet effective "theme music" that remains the most iconic factor of the show.

The funny part is that Lost doesn't even really have a theme song, rather a thunderous "boom" noise followed by eerie sound effects. But that "boom" has had more effect on me than any other noise in television history. It's one of the first "theme songs" that doubled as a plot device (see the season five finale).

Shows like Heroes have copied the whirlwind story technique with subtle hints wrapped in a basic theme intro. Lost is mostly known for the dramatic plot twists and seemingly confusing plot lines, but its simple white letters on black background intro is what most people remember from the show, even if they have never seen an episode. Hardcore fans know that even the black-and-white intro provided clues to the overall story -- because Lost fans are obsessive, and they know the value of digging deep. Sometimes, even simplicity can be complex. -- Jaron Ikner  

Northern Exposure

Sometimes it's hard to tell if you genuinely love a show's theme, or if your affection for the show just sort of commands you to love the show's theme. I wasn't sure I liked the theme from cult '90s CBS show Northern Exposure as I eagerly and obsessively devoured the first season on DVD. In fact, I was pretty sure that it annoyed the shit out of me. Something about the David Schwartz-penned tune felt like the incidental music on Seinfeld to me: self-consciously quirky and far too reliant on the bass guitar as a lead instrument.

So what changed? I'm not sure. It probably had something to do with Northern Exposure's pitch-perfect, explored-and-developed characters. Prissy Joel Fleischman's interactions with the townsfolk of Cicely, Alaska, are just about perfect. He's befuddled by the beautiful, roughhewn Maggie, beholden to astronaut-turned-businessman Maurice Minnifield, inspired by Natives Ed and Marilyn. The song started to sound like something the zen-like Chris would play on fictional radio station KBHR 570 AM, offering sage wisdom as the song (which was now starting to remind me of the Talking Heads more than scatty improv stuff) faded out, as patrons of Holling and Shelly's bar, or the shoppers at Ruth-Anne's market, listened intently.

The song started serving as salve for my wounds, inflicted when the show would take deeply emotional turns, unflinchingly examining mortality, loneliness, and existential dread on the Alaskan plains. The song started acting like the show's jokes -- never delivered a moment too late, always maintaining a warmness that lesser shows and lesser writers would miss in favor of "big picture ideas." Northern Exposure was capable of very serious stuff, but the theme, with its accordions and and bubbling percussion, never took itself too seriously.

So I don't know exactly when it stopped unnerving me and started making me dance a little (probably somewhere around the second disc of season one), but it did. That's one of the central themes of NorEx, too. First impressions aren't everything, and you never know who, what, or where you're going to fall in love with. -- Jason P. Woodbury

True Blood

Not every show can claim to leave the viewer hot and bothered before the opening credits are over. But HBO's True Blood can, thanks to singer/songwriter Jace Everett.

The show has more going for it than steamy sexiness. It imagines what the world would look like if vampires existed and integrated themselves into society. Racial tensions replaced by conflict between the living and the undead? Hell yeah! The extreme, twangy intro speaks as much to the soap opera elements that fans love as much as the allegorical aspects.

Swampy and smoldering, "Bad Things" is a delicious rockabilly come-on; the rumbling reverb of its opening riff, the slide guitars, and the moaning accordions are wickedly bluesy, a perfect example of a modern take on the Mississippi Delta blues. Everett's desperate vocals slice right through the carnal tune, as image after image peels away like a flipbook of Deep South postcards: civil rights footage, bayou wildlife (rotting and alive), neon crosses, hysterical river baptisms, seedy bar encounters, a "God Hates Fangs" sign.

The song, "Bad Things," appeared on Everett's 2005 self-titled debut album. But while it sounds like it was meant to be sexual and dark, it's quite the opposite. During an interview with Up on the Sun in 2011, Everett said: "I was ripping off Steve Earle, really. I flipped the chords around and made them all minor. His was kind of a tough guy song, and I was pissed at a guy who owed me ended up sounding more sexy than I intended it to." -- Lauren Wise  

The Adventures of Pete & Pete

I'd hate to go on a "check your privilege" tangent reminiscent of a social justice Tumblrer, but it's important to realize that not everyone had cable in the '90s, so nostalgia for Nickelodeon programming from that decade is not some kind of universal thing.

However, since most people have access to those shows in the present day due to either Netflix, torrenting, or those cable channels that only broadcast this kind of stuff, '90s Nickelodeon is generally viewed as a treasured memory of a period long gone, or a cultural artifact that is surprisingly relevant to the interests of hip people in the 2010s. While Nickelodeon collaborated with people like Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo and Kate Pierson and Fred Schneider of the B-52s for theme music to some of their cartoon programming, I think my favorite theme song from the network's supposed golden age is "Hey Sandy" by Polaris as seen on The Adventures of Pete & Pete.

The song captures the jam-bandish, slacker-rock vibe that I sort of remember from music from my '90s childhood and seek out extensively from music in my adult life. Also, the way I cannot tell you what the song is about compliments how I honestly can't tell you what the show was about without digging it up on the Internet. -- Mike Bogumill

Mad Men

I love when a show has a good opening theme, but it doesn't really determine how much I'll actually like the show itself. I've been putting up with The League's obnoxious arena anthem for three seasons and it still hasn't ruined anything. I routinely get the Family Matters theme stuck in my head (I think it's uplifting and harmonious, okay?), but I'm way past even ironic viewings of Urkle's antics.

Another example: I equally adore NBC's two biggest comedies, 30 Rock and Parks and Rec. I've always hated the over-orchestrated jazzy-mattazz trombone mess of 30 Rock's theme, and I've always liked the perky colonial march of Parks' theme. Regardless, I've watched every episode of each show at least twice. I think the best thing an opening theme can do is just avoid being annoying.

The opening theme for AMC's Mad Men is an edit of the contemporary yet vintage-sounding RJD2 instrumental "A Beautiful Mine," featuring the kind of exquisite drum fills you just won't find on network television. It kind of sounds like an orchestral Clinic remix by Timbaland. It invokes context-appropriate but still boring adjectives like "seductive" and "mysterious." Most importantly, I would not mind falling asleep to it. -- Chase Kamp

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