There’s a wonderful moment in The Simpsons where Homer Simpson and Ned Flanders are having to journey out into the thick snow, and Ned complains that Homer no longer has the plow from his short-lived snow plow business (one of the few callbacks in a fairly continuity-free show). Homer replies that he has no idea what Ned’s talking about, then begins singing: “Mr. Plow, that’s my name, that name again is Mr. Plow…”
Chuck Klosterman hates laugh tracks. He finds them manipulative and disingenuous. I love TV theme songs, but like laugh tracks, they’re a convention designed to manipulate and create a specific reaction from the audience– specifically, TV theme songs are used to build familiarity and connection, often without context. They often create a sense of the setting and the characters so the writers don’t have to, and they produce an emotional connection entirely divorced from the content of the show.
In keeping with the Klosterman essay, let’s use the show Friends as an example. The opening to the show (found here) has the titular group being silly at a fountain, frolicking (always love using that word) and being, well, friendly with each other. All the while, the Rembrandts (a band no one remembers for anything except this theme song) croon, “I’ll be there for you.” You get the message immediately: these people are close, they love each other, they’re, well, friends. And the catchy music cements the point: these people are there for each other. The writers now are free to do whatever they want with the characters, because the basic, fundamental assumption for the show has been made. (An interesting thought experiment: remove the name and the theme from an episode, and show it to someone who has never encountered it. How would they evaluate the relationships of the main characters?)
TV themes are often used in different ways, sometimes, such as in the case of The Big Bang Theory (where the theme by the Barenaked Ladies is easily the highlight of the show), the song has absolutely nothing to do with the plot of the show. And sometimes the song is so bad, or so forcefully trying to manipulate your perceptions, that it falls flat. And I don’t think this is a bad device. As I said, I’m quite fond of theme songs. One of my favorite parts of Batman: The Animated Series was the intro (go watch it!) which, in a minute, tells you everything you could possibly need to know about Batman (essentially, if you’re a bad guy, he will kick your ass).
The device in general has fallen out of favor. But pay attention next time you watch TV. Is there an intro with a song? What does it try to tell you about the show? Do you believe it?