The ‘skip intro’ function looked to make the theme tune obsolete, but a new wave of scores prove why they still matter.
The TV theme tune is almost dead. Who has got time to sit through opening credits? Entertainment in 2018 is supposed to be delivered instantly, direct to your brain, as soon as you click the button. Netflix has even introduced a Skip Intro feature, so you can bypass that minute-and-a-half of some poor composer or band’s hardest work and get straight down to it. Programmes are moving away from theme tunes, increasingly preferring to sidle in coolly without bothering to introduce themselves, or concentrating on grabbing your attention before it wanders. It has come to the point where a new show that does have a proper tune stands out, and HBO’s tremendous Succession is leading the way in keeping the sweeping, cinematic, faux-classical TV theme alive. Here are five shows that establish their identities using music as much as words…
The bitter symphony: Succession
_Nicholas Britell’s Succession theme
Super-bombastic and going on for an almost sarcastically long time – it calls to mind the endless overblown music strings that led up to the ad breaks in Brass Eye – Nicholas Britell’s main title theme for the HBO drama about a toxic family of media tycoons robustly fills you in on what sort of show you’ve signed up for. There’s a large whiff of disgusting luxury, and a hint of grand edifices splintering into shards, as dementedly cascading piano and gothic string blasts nearly tip over into satirising the serious, prestigious music that used to accompany serious, prestige drama. Succession is a prestige drama, but it has an undercurrent of malevolent absurdity that its opening music perfectly captures.
The tension-builder: The Americans
_Nathan Barr’s theme from The Americans
Nearly all dramas now deploy a cold open, ie they go straight into the first scene before a title card reminds you which show you’re watching – and even that is often just a brief flash of the logo before we flip straight back to the action. But The Americans, a taut retro thriller about Russian spies in Washington in the 1980s, flew the flag for a proper theme that interacts directly with the cold open: just as you realised what the crisis of the week was, in burst what sounded like a switchblade being scraped across piano strings, making you jolt every time. As this year’s final season wound itself up ever tighter, Nathan Barr’s hypertense, eastern-tinged intro music only got more effective.
The posh crank: The Crown
_Hans Zimmer’s theme for The Crown
It’d be a shame to skip it after they’ve spent so much money on it: like everything else in Netflix’s true-ish story of the British royal family, the opening music – by Hans Zimmer, no less – drips with extremely expensive class. An actual melody would be frightfully vulgar, so instead Zimmer delivers a slow, opulent swell, mirroring the sense of highly refined and repressed panic that pervades a lot of the episodes. What is it like to have the weight of history and national expectation gradually crush your bones to powder? Here’s that feeling in musical form.
The big sleep: Westworld
_Ramin Djawadi’s Westworld intro
Before it launched on HBO, Westworld was seen as a potential long-term replacement for Game of Thrones, and it took a similar approach to its opening titles. Lavish CGI is combined with music from Thrones’ star composer, Ramin Djawadi, but Westworld’s self-image as a subtler, deeper, more serious proposition is reflected by a grandiose downer of a theme that swoons oppressively as if it’s trying to bludgeon you to sleep. It’s simply no fun. Impatient viewers might look for the Skip Intro button before remembering that this is on Sky, not Netflix – then again, if patience isn’t your virtue, you are unlikely to make it through a whole episode of Westworld anyway.
The perfect pastiche: American Vandal
_American Vandal’s pastiche
Among the countless hallmarks of the true-crime boom that this comedy – which returns for season two this Friday – unerringly spoofs is the theme music from bingeworthy Netflix documentaries such as Making a Murderer, The Keepers and The Staircase. It’s almost obligatory in the genre to have a string quartet play a mournful yet dramatically undulating piece that says to viewers: what you’re about to see is horribly real and deeply tragic, but it’s also, let’s face it, a bit mysterious and exciting. American Vandal, tastefully, doesn’t overdo it – unlike, for instance, The Fourth Estate, a fairly calm series about the New York Times with an incongruous Trent Reznor theme that makes it sound like the journos are filing copy from a torture dungeon in hell.