Getting the music right is one of the biggest challenges in television. Sound itself is already incredibly important to the medium, having – unlike cinema – been built in to the experience of watching television from the get-go and, thanks to a broadcasting pre-history in radio, figuring just as if not more strongly than the image. What’s more, over the years we’ve relied more and more on theme music to arouse and sustain our interest in series, especially as they advance in years. With the title sequence becoming a developed art form in itself in the past decade or so, theme music becomes ever more important to what we make of individual shows. Attributing more creative license and worth to titling does, however, increase the capacity for error, and while the shows themselves can grow out of their teething troubles, misfiring opening credits will more than likely be there forever, as they are rarely overhauled, even in the most loathed cases. In this sense, HBO have produced both the best and worst TV music of all time.
There’s no question that HBO revolutionised title sequences in original programming like The Sopranos and Six Feet Under and helped to cultivate the evocative, expressive and complex opening credits we have today on other networks, such as the ones introducing AMC’s Mad Men and Showtime’s Homeland. But by inflating the status of the form, the network has also permitted some of the more indulgent and self-congratulatory examples of theme music, namely the excessively long and needlessly rocky fret-wanking that begins Boardwalk Empire. Normalising the elaborate title sequence has actually harmed the use of music in many shows. The Mormon marriage drama Big Love begins with a dreamlike title sequence employing the fantastic celestial imagery characteristic of the Church of Latter-Day Saints set to ‘God Only Knows’ by The Beach Boys. Both song and sequence are wonderful, but the images, and the polygamous culture behind it, corrupt the sincerity of what is perhaps the most elegantly direct statement of love in the history of pop music, retro-fitting it with unbecoming connotations not implied by the song.
Though I have yet to encounter anyone who has a problem with it, the theme music to Veep really annoys me. For such a sophisticated satire to perform such a perfunctory send-up of the sounds of televised US politics – like one of those Casio-keyboard comics of the last decade – is unacceptable to me, particularly given the Altmanesque sound editing in the rest of the episode. So brilliant is the sitcom in every other aspect that it shouldn’t matter, but that’s the curse of bad music in a good TV show. It’s unlikely to change or go away any time soon. You’re going to have to accept it as a penalty for every viewing. While shows can supplement their titles, it is unusual for them to be abandoned altogether regardless of their success, partly because of the greater and greater expense associated with devising them and also because it is the spearhead of the show’s branding and can no more easily be changed than its entire marketing campaign. It’s clear why pilots tend not to bother!
A lot of what music you hear depends on where and how you watch a TV show. If you saw medical drama House outside the States, you wouldn’t have had the pleasure of hearing Massive Attack’s ambient masterpiece ‘Teardrop’ over the opening credits but rather the tail-end music of each episode transferred to the top. It’s an international rights issue, not an aesthetic choice, but the power and beauty of that title sequence lies largely unsung without it. If you were watching an internet version of NBC’s Parenthood you wouldn’t always get the irreplaceable, class-setting theme song of Bob Dylan’s ‘Forever Young’ but a preview of the hipster warbling that haunts the annals of the incidental soundtrack. Without this introduction, it seems a show deficient in history or culture beyond a few ephemeral local musicians on the present scene. What is even sadder than the deprivation is that you are unaware of the loss until educated otherwise. It’s an audio version of how TV – by its own machinery – prevents viewers from witnessing the true text.
The more that title sequences become indispensable to the shows they herald, the more that theme music is going to matter. Unlike the ever-evolving series that follow on, theme music needs to be pinned down immediately or worn as a stain until the show ends. Or we tire of listening.