Sunday, August 14, 2016

I Wish Books Had Theme Songs...

One of the things you don't get when you read a book is the audio component. I mean, sure, if you get the AUDIO book, you get that. But even then, it still doesn't approach the power of a theme song. Movies use this to great effect, but in my mind, TV does even better. If it is a successful, appropriate theme, just a few notes of it can bring all of the emotions experienced during the story raging up to the surface. It can make you sad, excited, angry, inspired...all of which is a good thing, right? Storytelling is all about emotion, after all.

Books don't really have that. Oh sure, some authors and publishers have dabbled in "book trailers", but I've got to say that I've not really seen one that got me excited the same way a good movie trailer does, much less a TV theme. As authors, we just rely on different ways to connect with the reader. It's a completely different medium.

But I love theme songs. The good ones, anyway. So here are my top ten TV theme songs. I based the ranking on overall appeal, connection to theme or tone of the show, how good the show itself was, how hearing the theme song made me feel (then and now), and absolute personal bias.Your Mileage May Vary, of course.

Here we go:

10. Star Trek
To boldy go...yes! I grew up on re-runs of Captain Kirk and his crew. When those first few notes jumped out of the TV, they never failed to set the stage for an exciting episode. Sure, the special effects are dated now. Sure, the writing was sometimes horrid (but often outstanding!). Say what you want -- it was made from '66-'68, so for the time period, they rocked it. But this is about how perfectly this theme meshed with the show itself, that sense of adventure and action and exploration...yeah, pretty much awesome. Honorable mention:  Battlestar Galactica

9. NYPD Blue  

This show was, at the time, probably the most realistic cop drama this side of Hill Street Blues. And it really pushed the boundaries of the time for realism in terms of what would or wouldn't be censored. More than that, the show was character-driven a good percentage of the time, really highlighting what the detectives and officers were experiencing. Sure, it was uber dramatic, but that's what makes successful TV. All I know is that this theme song takes off at a breakneck pace and really sets up the drama to come. Honorable mention:  Miami Vice.

8. Cheers
One of only two sitcoms to make the list, probably because I write dramatic novels, mostly. I mean, there's certainly humor in my books, but that's not the main goal. It's to tell a dramatic story. Humor is part of the fabric but not the focus. But in the case of Cheers, the characters are so well-drawn that we (read: I) became so attached to them that when something dramatic occurred, we (read: I) felt it deeply. Plus, the lyrics of the chorus in this bittersweet song capture elements of our human experience that we intrinsically value. Who doesn't want to go somewhere where everyone knows your name? Who doesn't want to be part of a family?  Honorable Mention:  Friends.

7. Magnum, P.I.
What a great show this was. Action, humor, humility, rascalness...and all of it is caught in the opening theme. Magnum had two episodes I never forgot: The one where he gets lost at sea, treading water for a day, remembering his father, and the one where Magnum acts out of character at the end of the episode, outright murdering a bad guy to avenge his old friend. The theme song brings those two episodes right to mind the instant I hear it. Plus, if you merit a positive treatment in Archer, you did something right.  Honorable Mention: The Rockford Files

6. M*A*S*H
Does anyone not get that bittersweet pang when the opening notes of this fired up? And this was for a comedy, too! But the reality is that it was a comedy that explored a lot of dramatic territory. Much like science fiction, comedy allows extra latitude sometimes when it comes to that. M*A*S*H certainly took advantage of that, firing up plenty of funny along the way. And it always seemed ironic to me that one of the highest rated comedies of all time on television had a theme song called "Suicide is Painless."

5. Boss 
Here's one some people may not be overly familiar with. It was a Starz production that only ran for two seasons. But they were powerful seasons, and Kelsey Grammar as a the fictional mayor of Chicago was outstanding. Robert Plant's re-imagining of the old gospel tune that serves as the series theme song is understated, which contrasts brilliantly with some of the over the top acts that Grammar and his cohorts engage in. And the lyrics clearly match the (barely) subtext of the show's theme about power and corruption.

4. Vikings
The impending fear of fast approaching longships, attacks that are swift and dramatic, a warrior/raider life...does this theme not capture all of that? You can feel it from the side of the invaders and the invaded at once, while also getting a feel for the supernatural that this show weaves in throughout all of the drama.  Honorable Mention: Spartacus

3. The Wire 

This song really fit the theme of the show. "Keep the devil down in the hole..." applied to the cops and criminals and politicians and teachers and newspaper journalists alike. In addition, HBO kept this same song for all five seasons but every season, it was performed by a radically different musician. This stylistic change nicely mirrored how the emphasis of each season was on the cops and...well, something else each year. Lastly, the gritty tone of this song and the evocative lyrics fit the characters and the situations explored in this series.

2. The Sopranos
What a perfect theme for a tremendous program. It is one of the few intros that I doubt gets skipped very often even when one is binge watching. The images this song plays out against is probably part of its success, as well as the abrupt ending. I don't know. What I do know is that..."I woke up this myself a gun...."
Honorable Mention: Sons of Anarchy

And the winner is...

1. Game of Thrones 

What else could be #1? The anticipation that goes along with every new episode is perfectly highlighted by this theme. The tone captures the medieval sense of the show, the danger, the sadness, and the tension that seems to be present in virtually every scene. As theme songs go, Game of Thrones is certainly as epic as the story-telling within. Look, any show that can a husband and wife sitting on the couch humming the theme in counterpoint every single time is nothing short of iconic.
Honorable Mention: Are you kidding me?

So there you have it. Something that TV absolutely does better than books -- theme songs.

All I can hope for is that someday one of my books gets made into a series, and if that happens, that the theme song is super awesome the ones I talked about here.

Until then...bum bum bumpa bum bum bumpa bum...da da da-da-dahhh...da-da-dahh...

Oh, and check out The Short List, my latest release, written with Eric Beetner. This series could have one hell of a theme song...!