Way back when, when television shows were only available during the time slots that networks aired them, the shows needed to explain their plots at the start of each week’s episode. Thus if viewers were was tuning in for the first time to an airing of Gilligan’s Island or The Brady Bunch, the opening theme song clarified the backstory in intricate, excruciating detail. That way, they did not need to have seen the pilot or other early episodes to get caught up on the plot.
But modern viewers laugh at such a notion, especially as they “binge watch” the popular shows that they might have missed when they first aired. Popular dramas such as Breaking Bad, Lost, and Justified may not fit into a fan’s schedule when they first appear on television screens. But as they gain notoriety and popular acclaim, viewers often devote themselves to catching up on what all the buzz is about, usually by watching multiple episodes in one big block.
With such customer behavior becoming the norm, television shows have realized the need to make their theme songs appealing enough to bear multiple listens within a short period. Binge viewers need to find the opening credits entertaining and enjoyable, even after five or six viewings, right in a row. In turn, show creators have carefully reconsidered their theme songs, using them as evocative signals of what is to come.
Parenthood, which has gained increasing numbers of viewers over its five-year run, many of them through Netflix, relies on one of Bob Dylan’s lesser known tunes, “Forever Young.” The Sopranos adopted “Woke Up This Morning,” which had been recorded and released prior to the show but did not become popular until after viewers came to expect it at the start of each episode. For Justified, producers asked the rapper T.O.N.E.-z to create a new single that would be so good that viewers would want to hear it, over and over again.
Hearing about a “three-hour tour” might be funny once a week, but after a couple of repetitions, it would likely drive a person crazy. But a little Bob Dylan? That would be welcome to fill almost anyone’s weekend.
Souce: Steve Knopper, “The Golden Age of TV Theme Songs,” The Wall Street Journal, October 2, 2013