The TV Theme Songs We Have to Sing Along to (and the Ones We Have to Skip)

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This week’s episode of the Vulture TV Podcast was inspired by one of our listeners, Diego Bayon, who asked: “I was wondering if you guys could do an episode on TV intros, talking about the ones you sit through every time and the ones you always skip. I love how Twin Peaks puts you into that very particular mood and Gilmore Girls wouldn’t be the same without that Carole King sing-along. I always watch True Blood’s intro, but I tend to skip the The Sopranos for some reason.” Listen to our conversation, and read an excerpt of it below.

Gazelle Emami: So, I definitely agree with Diego about The Sopranos. I always skip that.

Jen Chaney: I didn’t skip it.

Matt Zoller Seitz: I never skipped it. I felt like the journey, the literal journey, that it takes you on where you’re leaving New York and you’re entering New Jersey and you end up at Tony’s house, was essential for me. I understand if people don’t want to sit through the credits every single time, but for me that was like a palette cleanser before you enter that world. There are some shows where I would never skip the theme song. Game of Thrones, I’m not the world’s biggest Game of Thrones fan, but I love that opening-credit sequence.

GE: I always have to skip that one, too.

MZS: Do you?

GE: I mean, I don’t always get to, because I’m watching with other people, but I always want to skip it because it’s so long.

JC: I used to skip it and then when I was recapping it for us last season, I would always watch it and take, like, meticulous notes because it’s a road map, a literal map, of where we’re gonna go in this episode. And I love titles that do that. They’re not only getting you in the mood, but they’re also laying some narrative groundwork for where the show is going.

GE: Big Little Lies kind of did that, in a way where we didn’t even know that it was alluding to the finale.

MZS: Yeah, that’s true. And The Wire, I think, is probably my favorite, somewhat recent example of a show doing that. They’re essentially summarizing the world, but they are using images from the episodes of the show that you’re about to see. It also is a great example of, I can’t think of another show that’s done this, where the opening credits change from season to season in a way that it reflects how the show itself is changing.

GE: Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has done that, but it’s only been two seasons.

JC: Veep does that a little bit, where the credits change each season. And there’s different imagery of Selina, but different headlines and things trending downward, that sort of thing. About three years ago, I did a piece looking at opening titles for the Washington Post, talking to some of the companies that make these. And they just, this may not be a Golden Era for TV theme songs, but I do think it is for titles, because there’s so much care and meticulousness that goes into just how these things are made. It’s incredible.

MZS: Yeah, there are particular shows that really turned it into an abstract version of the show. One of my favorite examples of that is Six Feet Under. And Dexter, I think, had excellent opening credits that were not just sort of monotonously summarizing the show you’re about to watch, but sort of interpreting the show.

GE: Mad Men is kind of a perfect example.

JC: That fostered debate from the very beginning about whether Don was going to die or kill himself or whatever based on what was happening in those Saul Bass-esque titles.

MZS: Well, it’s funny, because I remember during season five, one of the many ridiculously hilariously wrong predictions that people made, and I made my share, too, was that Pete Campbell was gonna commit suicide at the end of season one and become the falling man in the credits. And it’s like, no. He’s not. That’s not gonna happen because this is not the kind of show where that happens. And it was never the kind of show where that kind of thing happens. Where it’s like, “Oh! That’s what that meant. Now I get it.”

JC: Well, Pete did fall down the stairs though. So, in a way, it was kind of correct.

MZS: There is a lot you can tell a lot about a show by what it chooses to show you and how it chooses to show it to you in the opening credits. And I think it’s one of the very best ways to tell what kind of show that you’re watching. The opening credits of Game of Thrones is such an accurate representation of the show you’re going to get because it is about, as you say, Jen, a map. They’re literally taking you from point A to point B. And as the show goes along, they keep adding locations. Also, the sheer length of those credits. I think Twin Peaks might be close in running time to the opening credits to Game of Thrones. Just like 90 seconds, right? Or two minutes?

JC: It’s longer than that I think.

GE: I mean, I like it because I can get up and go get a wine or whatever …

JC: Just get a snack.

GE: And on the flip side, you have shows that have incredibly short opening titles. But they’re just as effective at setting a mood or a tone. A show like Girls, where you just have the word “Girls,” but every time it’s a different color and it’s a different musical note they hit. You don’t know when it’s coming and you’re always kind of waiting to see when it’s going to hit, and it gives you a sense of what the feeling of this episode going to be. Jane the Virgin is also really good at that — the titles popping up on the screen in a way that gets at the sense of humor of the show because it’s usually a little bit of a wink to the audience.

MZS: Breaking Bad was another great example of that. I believe the opening credits to Breaking Bad was 15 seconds long. And I have no idea if that was purely a functional decision, but it did express the sort of show that it was, which is, it’s a plot show. It’s a plot show, and it’s about what happens next. And so the opening — it seems appropriate that the opening credits would be like, “Let’s just get this over with ’cause we know that you’re here for the plot.”

JC: And Lost was like that too. Also pretty plot-driven. What are the ones that you guys have to watch.

GE: There are ones that not only have to watch, but I have to sing along to them. Outlander is probably one of them. “Sing me a song of a lass that is gone.” It’s just like, when else are you gonna be singing those words?

JC: I always watch the titles from Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. I love those. And that’s another one where it’s summarizing the show. It’s almost like a “Previously on Kimmy Schmidt …” because it summarizes her kidnapping and getting out, in a way. But I also love the song and [singing], “Females are strong as hell!” I always have to get to that part. And weirdly, especially during the first season of it, the American Horror Story credits, or titles rather. Which, I guess, I don’t know what that says about me because they were super creepy and the babies … but I had to get into the mind-set. And I couldn’t, even if I wanted to fast-forward past it, I couldn’t bring myself to do it.

MZS: The American Horror Story credits are good. They’re really well done. In fact, I would say that they are scarier than American Horror Story usually. There’s something about the tone of them that’s just deeply unsettling.

GE: One that I didn’t like and then came back around on was Orange Is the New Black.

JC: But I love the idea of it, I think it’s a wonderful idea.

GE: Me too. And now I actually like it and do kind of sing along. The more you get into that show, the more the idea of it becomes powerful.

MZS: Yeah, I like the look of it and I eventually got used to the music. I’m not crazy about that song, but now I like it. If they changed the song I think I would object at this point.

GE: One that I always skip or want to skip is House of Cards.

MZS: I was just about to mention House of Cards. I like House of Cards, and in fact I will say that House of Cards primes me to be excited for a show that I don’t always find that exciting. You know?

GE: It’s definitely a moody one. There are ones like Friday Night Lights I consider mood ones. It completely transports you into this different place. And House of Cards, I will say does achieve that, even if I don’t always like it.

JC: Yeah, I always feel like it gets me in this mood and I feel like I should be watching it with the lights low.

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The Best TV Theme Songs (and the Ones We Have to Skip)