Sunday, 6 September 2015

The Importance of TV Theme Songs

I was listening to my TV themes playlist on Spotify the other day, just to make a change from the usual routine of my 80s playlist and the ones I've set up with notable songs from 2014 and 2015 (current total: 15). Somehow this inspired me to go looking on YouTube for the video depicting all of the themes from Star Trek shows, from TOS to Enterprise, and it struck me again how important a tool the opening theme can be in setting the mood for a show.

In this case, the main idea was around the two themes that Deep Space Nine had during its run. For the first two or three seasons, the theme was very stripped down and stately - you hear the opening fanfare as we pan across the field of stars to where the station itself sits, alone in the night. The music rises only when we see the station in its entirety, and when the dissolve arrives we launch into the tune, with a single horn underlining the theme of being alone and far from home.

It's probably the most understated Star Trek theme, and my favorite. And then in Season 4 they ruined it all.

The second version, which also appears on this video, is sped up considerably from the previous one, and doesn't sync up as well with the visuals. The reveal of the station occurs a bit earlier in this new version, and then once we go into the main theme the single horn has either been joined by others or has been mixed considerably higher. And the rest of the orchestra, which in the previous version maintained a noticeable but very subdued presence, is almost intolerably loud here.

I mention this, not just to bitch for the umpteenth time about how my favorite theme got ruined between one season and the next (seriously, it was about eight years ago and I'm still traumatized), but also to underline my point about the opening music's importance in conveying the themes of the show.

Deep Space Nine was different from the others, by virtue of not being set aboard a ship with a crew that was exploring space. This meant that the writers could explore more political themes, such as war with dangerous new enemies (the Cardassians and then the Dominion), as well as the fact that your allies back home aren't necessarily on your side any more than the enemies in front of you are.

It's a pretty complicated set of ideas for Star Trek, and I can understand why they felt the need to add a new ship, the Defiant, and add a fan-favorite cast member in the shape of Michael Dorn, to keep it going. But in changing the opening music they basically threw all of those ideas out the window, which I think is unwise if you're trying to get your views in the mood for your show.

Another example would be the themes from the first two seasons of True Detective (I haven't embedded these videos, because it seems HBO has asked people to disable that function when they post them on YouTube). When I wrote about Season 1, I highlighted the opening song as an important intro to the themes the show was exploring. By laying religious and sexual imagery over the silhouettes of the characters, the show's producers were making a comment on how unreliable memory can be, and how easy it is for people to obscure the truth from one another.

The second season of True Detective was generally less successful than the first, and its opening music is no exception. We still have the silhouettes of the actors overlaid with scenes from the show's settings (California's forests and highways this time, replacing the bayous and refineries of Louisiana), but here they don't make the same kind of sense as in the first season. At the same time, the song, Nevermind by Leonard Cohen, doesn't have an obvious relationship to the show's visuals or themes the way Season 1's song did.

Which isn't to say that it's a bad song. But as I watched the second season, I realized that the producers were using industrial landscapes of Southern California in the same way they'd used rural Louisiana - where in Season 1 the landscape shots were meant to show how nature creeps up on us and gradually covers over the past, Season 2's shots of freeways and refineries were in keeping with the themes of how power and money flow, and also represented how the characters built their identities over traumas and other aspects of themselves they wanted to hide.

Or, put another way, it showed how we try and control nature (or our own natures), but that in doing so we replace it with something ugly, artificial and stifling. The problem is, almost none of this is evident in the theme (to me at least; your mileage may vary).

The point, again, is that a well-done theme sequence is meant to do a good job of explaining what you're about to see, and get you in the right frame of mind to take in the messages the show wants to convey. Good theme songs, like for True Blood, the Wire or Season 1 of True Detective, are evidence that the producers have a good handle on what they're trying to say. Even if, as in the case of True Blood, they eventually let it all get out of control and go a little silly.

On the other hand, silly isn't always bad: