In 2019, Rotten Tomatoes turns 21, and to mark the occasion we’re celebrating with a series of features that look back at the brightest moments on screen of the past two decades – and one year – and the things that have us excited for the future.
What are the essential ingredients of a classic TV show? A sturdy premise is definitely necessary, and you really can’t get far without a team of talented people behind the scenes, from the showrunner to the writers and directors. Of course, it’s also hard to overestimate the importance of finding the right cast — not only in terms of the qualities that each individual star brings to the series, but the chemistry they all share onscreen. Once you’ve done all that, you still need to set the stage for your show by letting audiences know what kind of viewing experience they can expect — and do it fast enough to hook viewers before they drift off to the ever-expanding array of other options.
That’s where a great theme song comes in.
Sitcoms, heart-tugging dramas, gritty procedurals, even news shows and reality television — they’ve all used theme songs over the decades, and even though the shifting demands of a largely ad-supported medium have helped drive some significant changes to the form in recent years, it remains one of the most instantly and enduringly effective ways to get a new viewer’s attention… or trigger those sweet TV endorphins in someone who’s already a fan.
All of which is to say that any celebration of Rotten Tomatoes’ 21st anniversary would be incomplete without a tribute to our favorite small-screen theme songs of the last 21 years. Focusing on shows that aired the majority of their runs between 1998 – the year Rotten Tomatoes was born! – and now, we rounded up the best the era had to offer. While narrowing the list was painful, the fun of reliving these classic opening credits more than made up for it. Where do your favorites rank — and which ones failed to make the cut? Read on to find out!
Composer: Ed Robertson
Performer: Barenaked Ladies
Record sales and airplay aren’t what they were for Barenaked Ladies at the band’s late ’90s commercial peak. But don’t feel sorry for the Canadian pop legends — after all, you can afford to stop chasing radio hits when you’ve written and recorded the theme song for one of the most popular sitcoms of all time. Long after “Chickity China, the Chinese chicken” receded from the airwaves, the Ladies’ intro music for The Big Bang Theory has enjoyed television mainstay status — and thanks to the magic of syndication, it’ll continue launching episodes of the show for years after it concludes its 12-season run. Bazinga!
Composer: Paula Cole
Performer: Paula Cole
Cole released “I Don’t Want to Wait” on her 1996 album This Fire, and it was picked up for the series in a last-minute decision after the producers couldn’t get rights to Alanis Morissette’s song “Hand in My Pocket,” executive producer Paul Stupin told Billboard in 2018. Cole won the Best New Artist Grammy in 1997 and was nominated for six others, including Album of the Year and Best Pop Album for “This Fire” and Record of the Year, Song of the Year, and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance for “Where Have All The Cowboys Gone?” She was also nominated for Producer of the Year, Non-Classical. The song spent 56 weeks on Billboard’s Hot 100 between 1997 and 1998 and is indelibly linked to the TV series despite being replaced in a money-saving move for streaming and boxed sets.
Composer: Jake Black and Rob Spragg
Performers: Alabama 3
Sinister, brooding, and pulsing with violence, “Woke Up This Morning” served as the perfect soundtrack to open The Sopranos during its acclaimed six-season run. Yet what’s funny about the whole thing is that while the song was used to lure viewers into the world of an old-school New Jersey mafia don, it was written and recorded by an electronica-infused London musical collective — and rather than drawing on organized crime for inspiration, songwriters Jake Black and Rob Spragg were moved to create the song after hearing about a woman sentenced to life in prison after murdering her abusive husband.
Composer: Vonda Shepard and Paul Howard Gordon
Performer: Vonda Shepard
In the music business, fame can be fleeting — and just when you think you may have missed your shot, the spotlight can swing back around when you least expect it. Such was the case for Vonda Shepard, who scored a huge adult contemporary hit in the late ’80s, “Can’t We Try,” as a duet partner for Dan Hill. She was without a major label deal by the tail end of the following decade, but she’d built a fanbase that included a certain Michelle Pfeiffer — whose husband, writer/producer David E. Kelley, was developing what would soon become one of the quintessential TV dramedies of its era. Shepard’s original song, “Searchin’ My Soul,” encapsulated her own journey as well as Ally McBeal’s; fittingly, she ended up becoming a recurring character on the series, anchoring four soundtracks and a compilation along the way.
Composer: Jeff Richmond
Just because you’re making a workplace sitcom doesn’t mean you can’t keep things in the family. For proof, look no further than 30 Rock creator, star, and executive producer Tina Fey, who knew exactly where to turn when she needed a theme song: her husband Jeff Richmond, whose jazzy retro jingle helped spark memories of all the TV tropes the soon-to-be cult favorite would mine for gems of satirical and/or surreal humor. Richmond’s 30 Rock work would go on to earn a slew of Emmy nominations — and the duo would mix business and pleasure again with the theme for Fey’s next sitcom creation, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.
Composer: Ludwig Göransson
Performer: The 88
In a little less than a decade, Ludwig Göransson has emerged as a hotly in-demand talent in the music business, landing an eclectic assortment of projects that runs the gamut from producing pop and hip-hop records to scoring major movies like Creed, Venom, and Black Panther (for which he won an Oscar) — and it all started on the set of Community, where his musical contributions included the theme song, “At Least It Was Here.” Göransson didn’t perform the tune, which was recorded by L.A.-based pop band The 88, but it opened a slew of doors for the Swedish composer — including a long and fruitful association with acclaimed recording artist Childish Gambino, a.k.a. Community veteran Donald Glover.
Composer: Ramin Djawadi
Westworld‘s theme hasn’t burrowed its way into the collective prestige TV-watching consciousness the way the Game of Thrones theme has, but give it time — as he did with his Thrones theme, composer Ramin Djawadi uses his music to introduce the show by distilling the conflict at the heart of the story, reflecting the tension between more-human-than-human androids and their flesh-and-blood overlords with a melody that weaves between piano and strings.
Composer: W.G. “Snuffy” Walden
TV shows adapted from movies haven’t had the most stellar track record, to put it mildly, so it’s easy to forgive the members of Explosions in the Sky for refusing to provide the theme song to the Friday Night Lights series — and just as easy to understand why the showrunners turned to TV music pro W.G. “Snuffy” Walden for some musical cues that would evoke the Texas band’s deeply evocative instrumental style. It was Explosions’ “Your Hand in Mine” that anchored the Friday Night Lights movie soundtrack, after all — and the surging Walden score used for the FNL television theme echoed their work so strongly that plenty of fans still think they actually performed it.
Composer: Thomas Newman
TV theme songs have come from just about anywhere — older, obscure songs repurposed for new shows; new music commissioned from unlikely sources; even a few seconds of seemingly incidental sound can end up opening a series. But sometimes, a showrunner’s best option is to fall back on the tried and true and reach out to a professional composer — as Six Feet Under creator Alan Ball did when he hired Thomas Newman to contribute the theme music for his HBO series. Newman, a frequent Oscar nominee whose work has been heard everywhere from Revenge of the Nerds to The Shawshank Redemption, went on to win an Emmy; these days, Newman is back on the small screen with the theme song for Hulu’s Stephen King-inspired Castle Rock.
Composer: Daniel Licht
Dexter juggled a number of elements during its largely acclaimed eight-season run, but at bottom, this Showtime hit was arguably always a horror story — a tone consistently brought out by composer Daniel Licht, whose ability to balance alluring melody with unsettling darkness made him perfect for the series. That blend is particularly evident in “Blood Theme,” continually evolving versions of which played over Dexter‘s closing credits; fittingly, Licht first used elements of the composition in music for Necronomicon, an early ’90s anthology horror film inspired by the work of H.P. Lovecraft.
Composers: John Flansburgh and John Linnell
Performer: They Might Be Giants
They Might Be Giants have made a career out of distilling the absurd into pure pop genius, so it’s perhaps only fitting that one of their greatest moments of mainstream success came courtesy of a song that started out as a 30-second introduction to a sitcom. Approached by Malcolm in the Middle creator Linwood Boomer for a theme song, longtime partners John Flansburgh and John Linnell served up “Boss of Me,” which ended up anchoring a seven-season hit — and winning the duo their first Grammy.
Composer: Jay Ferguson
Hardcore fans of The Office know that supporting character Creed Bratton is a fictionalized version of his portrayer Creed Bratton, who in real life was a member of the band the Grass Roots and has continued his recording career since the series ended. But Bratton isn’t the show’s only connection to a ’60s and ’70s cult favorite group — the theme song was written by Jay Ferguson, who was a member of Spirit before launching a solo career that segued into film and television work. His impressively eclectic credits also include a cut on the Terminator soundtrack and the Nightmare on Elm Street 5 score, but this ode to Dunder Mifflin might always be his greatest hit.
Composer: Jeff Richmond
A sitcom about a young woman experiencing the world after being freed from captivity in an underground bunker for 15 years faces a number of uphill battles right off the bat, not the least of which is the question of how to come up with a theme song that makes audiences okay with playing such a horrific premise for cheerful laughs. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt had a secret weapon in composer Jeff Richmond, who just so happens to be married to series co-creator Tina Fey — and who teamed up with Songify the News masterminds the Gregory Brothers to create a suitably silly fake viral news clip a la “Bed Intruder.”
Composer: Luciano Michelini
Luciano Michelini’s “Frolic” couldn’t have made a better theme for Curb Your Enthusiasm if he’d tried — which works out perfectly, since the Italian composer penned the piece for the 1974 Italian film La Bellissima Estate, decades before this long-running HBO comedy was even a glimmer in Larry David’s eye. As David later explained, he came up with the idea of using Michelini’s music after hearing “Frolic” in a bank commercial and deciding it would make an ideal counterpoint to some of his character’s more misanthropic behavior. Nine seasons later (and counting), it’s still a perfect match.
Composer: Mike Post
By any measure, it’s hard to overstate Mike Post’s influence on the television music landscape. A towering presence during the ’70s and ’80s, Post collected an impressive array of pop radio hits as a TV composer — his instrumental themes for The Rockford Files, Hill Street Blues, and Magnum P.I. all made the Top 40, while the theme for The Greatest American Hero, featuring vocals from the immortal Joey Scarbury, was a No. 2 smash. All that being said, it’s Post’s work for Law & Order that might be most widely remembered today — and not only the theme song, but the scene-changing sound effect, dubbed “The Clang,” that became an L&O franchise mainstay.
Composer: Ron Grainer and Delia Derbyshire
Few television series have balanced permanence and change as artfully as Doctor Who. A BBC mainstay from the early ’60s through the late ’80s, the show remained beloved by sci-fi fans during its years in TV limbo — and it’s attracted a whole new generation of fans since returning to the airwaves full-time in 2005. Along the way, the Who theme song (titled simply “Doctor Who”) has remained a haunting through line, with Ron Grainer and Delia Derbyshire’s groundbreaking original arrangement echoing through every subsequent update.
Composer: Bear McCreary
One of the most TV’s prolific composers, Bear McCreary’s work includes the themes for Starz series Outlander, Black Sails, and DaVinci’s Demons. He’s also responsible for The Sarah Connor Chronicles, the Battlestar Galactica 2004 series, Defiance, as well as film and video game titles. The Walking Dead went on to be the most watched series on TV, and its haunting theme is instantly recognizable.
Composer: Ramble Jon Krohn, a.k.a. RJD2
Spurned by Beck, who later recalled scoffing at the idea of a television show about “ad executives in the ’60s,” Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner was stuck for a theme song — until he happened to catch the instrumental version of “A Beautiful Mine.” Originally written by producer RJD2 for Magnificent City, his 2006 collaboration with rapper Aceyalone, the song was reissued without vocals on RJD2’s appropriately titled Magnificent City Instrumentals LP the same year; Weiner was hooked by a snippet of the track between stories on NPR, and the rest was television history.
Composer: Danny Elfman
He wouldn’t give up his day job as the frontman for art-pop collective Oingo Boingo until the mid-’90s, but Danny Elfman started branching out into film work with Pee-wee’s Big Adventure in 1985, launching a side hustle that would eventually come to largely define public perception of his career. Elfman’s composed a slew of soundtrack works since, but the most widely heard of them all is probably the Simpsons theme, which has primed audiences for the jaundiced Springfield clan’s animated adventures over a record-setting run that includes more than 600 episodes (and counting).
Composers: Phil Sōlem, Danny Wilde, David Crane, Marta Kauffman, Michael Skloff, and Allee Willis
Performer: The Rembrandts
The Rembrandts will always be best remembered for performing the theme song to Friends, but it wasn’t supposed to be that way. Singer/songwriters Phil Solem and Danny Wilde had already released a pair of albums (the first of which, their self-titled 1990 effort, included a Top 15 hit in “Just the Way It Is, Baby”), and recorded the 45-second original version of “I’ll Be There for You” strictly as a work for hire. After the show took off and a Nashville radio station started broadcasting a full-length edit of the song that they’d cobbled together by looping audio from the opening credits, it snowballed into a hit — and Solem and Wilde were pressured into cutting an official version that ended up overshadowing their third album, LP. The duo split soon after, but reunited after the turn of the millennium. Friends fans, meanwhile, are still hoping for a reunion of their own.
Composer: Ramin Djawadi
To set the stage for television’s most epic fantasy drama, composer Ramin Djawadi wrote a main theme with a stirring, propulsive melody — one perfectly suited to get viewers in the mood for dragon battles while sweeping over a map of the show’s world. Though Djawadi worked largely in minor keys — reflective of the dark lengths to which Game of Thrones characters often go — observant listeners will notice major keys peeking through the gloom as the song goes on, a musical manifestation of the battle between darkness and light.