Catchy Theme Songs That Explain the Premise

How long has it been since there was a show with a theme song that explained the premise? I can’t think of any since The Fresh Prince of Bel Air and The Nanny in the ’90s, and while both of those themes were terrific, there has really been nothing much since then. (Even British sitcoms, which have longer running times and might actually have time for a full-length theme song, historically tend to have shorter intros than American shows. I could never fully understand that.) I’m sure there have been some I’ve missed, and I’m sure someone will fill me in on the ones I’ve missed, but that kind of theme song is certainly out of fashion, even more so than theme songs in general. If a show absolutely needs to fill us in on the premise, it will do so with narration, like Arrested Development did, but not with lyrics.

The premise-explaining theme song is actually my favourite kind, because it’s so totally integrated into the show. Some shows use instrumental themes, others use pop songs with generically upbeat themes, but you could theoretically use those songs with other shows. A Beverly Hillbillies or Nanny or Brady Bunch type of theme song is not trying to become a pop hit, it’s trying to accomplish a difficult storytelling job: condensing the show’s premise into a few rhyming lines, and making it both comprehensible to newbies and entertaining for people who know the premise already. It’s actually a really tough job, when you think about it.

What’s your favourite in the “Theme song that explains the premise” genre? I have two. One is the aforementioned The Nanny. The song, written and sung by Ann Hampton Callaway, was the best part of the show (followed closely by any scene involving Niles and C.C., who needed their own spinoff). It summarizes the entire setup of the show in a succinct way — even C.C.’s rivalry with Fran is mentioned — while also perfectly capturing the New York feel and goofy tone of the show.

And my other favourite is, almost inevitably, The Beverly Hillbillies. The amount of exposition Paul Henning gets across in only eight lines (plus the famous patter sections: “Oil, that is…”) is one of the great lyric-writing jobs in TV history.

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