California Forum

How can there be so much great TV this awards season, and so few great TV theme songs?

Long after the plots fade, theme songs can bring viewers up to speed on, say, the adventures of the castaways on “Gilligan’s Island.”
Long after the plots fade, theme songs can bring viewers up to speed on, say, the adventures of the castaways on “Gilligan’s Island.”

Face it: You can absorb only so much news these days before your brain bucket feels like it’s about to explode. This is why, now more than ever, we need quality comedies and fictional dramas on television – to divert us from the real-life, tragicomic horror show playing out in Washington.

Entertainment critics yak about how Hollywood is producing truly great TV these days, how we’re living in a new Golden Age of the Boob Tube. Maybe so, but there’s a problem with much of that small-screen storytelling: Given so many ensemble casts and their myriad subplots, these shows afford the average viewer (aka me) little idea what they’re about until about three episodes in. Even then, it can all be terribly confusing.

I typically don’t understand the motivations of primary characters on these shows. Are they secretly sleeping with, or secretly planning to murder each other? Whose parent is secretly not their parent? And why is it called, “The Big Bang Theory?” Because I sat through a couple of episodes and, so far as I could tell, they had nothing to do with cosmology or comedy.

Whatever happened to programs with musical preambles that spelled out everything for you nice and neat from the get-go, so that you didn’t have to put out a helmet fire one week to the next, putting all the pieces together?

You knew, for example, that a movie star, an egghead, a stuffy millionaire, his vapid wife “and the rest” embarked from an unnamed tropical port on a leisurely “three-hour cruise,” ran into nasty weather and ended up marooned on the back lot of CBS Studios (okay, an “uncharted desert isle”). There, they cavorted with with the vessel’s nitwit first mate, Gilligan, and a corpulent skipper who somehow managed to keep all that weight on for several seasons subsisting on little more than fish and coconuts.

Or what about “The Addams Family?” Good luck fathoming the social dynamics of that show without an explanatory introductory song.

Granted, there were many series back in the day that didn’t require a jingly musical executive summary as the opening credits rolled. Take “Lassie” – no lyrics, just a lot of soulful whistling. But, really, how much exposition did we need to understand that Lassie was one perfectly groomed, super-smart collie, and that Timmy almost certainly was going to need rescuing after falling down the well?

Flipper,” on the other hand, did require some explaining because before marine biology became a thing, everybody pretty much assumed porpoises were fish. So, of course, we needed a song that would educate us as to Flipper’s genius when it came to criminal investigations and saving innocent folks like Timmy who were always accidentally falling into the ocean (as opposed to the well). To wit:

“They call him Flipper, Flipper, faster than lightning. No one you see, is smarter than he.”

Trust me, that’s all you needed to know about the show.

Today, we are subjected to vastly more complex programs – “The Good Doctor,” “Code Black,” “This is Us” – in which the heroic exploits of brainy animals rate nary a mention. These shows are all about angst and interpersonal human relationships.

My wife loves them. Some are so poignant and true to life, she says, they can bring her to tears. She binge watches them when I’m out of town, then tries to persuade me to watch them with her when I get home, which I decline. Without that introductory song, I’m simply lost.

Besides, if I want to cry while watching television, all I need do these days is flip to the news – or the NFL. My team has fallen down the well this year, and I need no song to understand that.

David Freed is a screenwriter, novelist and former reporter for The Los Angeles Times. He can be contacted at David-Freed.com.

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