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In the Guide’s weekly Solved! column, we look into a crucial pop-culture question you’ve been burning to know the answer to – and settle it, once and for all
It has been two years since geeks, masochists and “narrative arc” experts across the world gathered to sing “Dun dun, dun-dun-dun dun, dun-dun-dunnnn …” for the last time as Game of Thrones finally ended. Now, due to the small matter of a global pandemic, “event TV” is mostly binged in seclusion, with the long gaps between government-mandated walks filled by inhaling as much telly as possible. Lockdown binge-watching has sparked an important realisation: TV themes – such as GoT’s epic 1 min 40 secs of title music – are becoming much rarer. Is the once-great TV theme tune doomed?
Once, shows had proper themes. My early years were soundtracked by The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’s opening rap, The Simpsons’ jingle and Malcolm in the Middle’s angst-filled “You’re not the boss of me now!” The very mention of The OC’s opening music (“Californiaaaaa”) sparks an avalanche of awkward teen flashbacks. Theme songs bring up memories of iconic nights of TV, such as the Friday night in 2004 when Channel 4 aired the final episode of Friends just before the launch of Big Brother 5, kicked off with a banger of a theme from Paul Oakenfold.
Things have changed, however. From Fleabag and Killing Eve to Normal People, I May Destroy You and It’s a Sin, a title card flashing across the screen seems to be the new norm. Rather than wasting valuable running time on lengthy credits, it feels as if there is now more emphasis on music within TV shows – soundtracking memorable scenes, with playlists uploaded to Spotify shortly after. Lena Dunham might have opted against a theme song for Girls, but do I still remember Marnie and Hannah dancing to Robyn’s Dancing on My Own in season one? Of course.
The decline of theme songs in TV is also linked to the unavoidable truth that our attention spans are shorter than ever. Netflix (rather passive-aggressively) asks if we’re “still watching” because its algorithm expects so little of us. Most crucially, along with most streaming platforms, the entertainment behemoth also seems to have admitted defeat by making it easy for us to skip the opening titles altogether.
That said, theme songs have not disappeared completely. HBO’s penchant for opening title songs – made famous with The Sopranos , Sex and the City and, of course, GoT – has continued with Succession and Big Little Lies. Netflix’s The Crown and House of Cards also have themes you can hum along to. But these now feel more like the exception than the norm, and it doesn’t seem a coincidence that longer shows with the budgets to buy helicopters, dragons and Nicole Kidman are the ones focusing on mood-setting themes.
So are TV theme tunes done for? There is always going to be space for high-end efforts, even if you do skip them after the first listen. But now that so many of us have eyes that easily wander from one screen to another, lots of shows are deciding that a theme song is less important than plunging quickly into a compelling story. The decline of the once-great TV theme reflects how shows are adapting to our viewing habits. But there is still affection for a good one: look at how many of them we are able to hum decades later. TV showrunners should take note.