Who says the TV theme song is dead? The past few years have ushered in a new golden age of small screen songwriting, from the ear worm melodies of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend to the throwback lyrics of WandaVision. Here, EW ranks the 25* most distinguished ditties. (To be eligible, a show’s first episode must have debuted in 2000 or later — sorry, Dawson’s Creek — and extra credit was awarded to those with original lyrics.) Hum along with us as we celebrate the best of the best. And don’t you dare hit that “Skip Intro” button.
Robert Lopez and his songwriting (and life) partner, Kristen Anderson-Lopez, joke that composing WandaVision‘s many theme songs was the assignment they’d been preparing for all their lives. Marvel’s time-hopping superhero story took inspiration from iconic sitcoms, reflected in the series’ era-appropriate intros, inspired by shows such as I Love Lucy, The Brady Bunch, Malcolm in the Middle, and The Office. “We didn’t really have to do a lot of research,” Anderson-Lopez explains, “because if you grew up in the ’80s and you were sick and your mom had to go to work, your job was to research television history, starting at 9 a.m., all the way until 10 at night.”
Each WandaVision opening pays tribute to different classic sitcoms, including a mostly instrumental Bewitched-style sequence and a campy family sing-along à la Family Ties. The series’ villain even gets a theme of her own, with Agnes/Agatha actress Kathryn Hahn hamming it up on the Munsters-esque earworm “Agatha All Along” (which scored an Emmy win and a Grammy nod). But although each of the seven themes is sonically different, the songwriting duo wanted to maintain consistency throughout each episode, so they embedded the same four-note motif into every song. That recurring melody includes an interval called a tritone — better known as “the devil’s interval,” imbuing each theme with an unearthly, almost sinister tone. “It can sound quirky,” Lopez explains. “It can have that yearning quality that we put into the ’80s version, and then also the sort of witchy, devilish feeling that we got into ‘Agatha.'” Sometimes to make a memorable theme song, it helps to conjure a little musical witchcraft. —Devan Coggan
24. Adventure Time
For the final version of Adventure Time’s snappy title sequence, which introduces Jake the Dog, Finn the Human, and the candy-colored Land of Ooo, show creator Pendleton Ward considered recording a more polished take. Ultimately, however, he decided to stick with an early demo, which he taped himself with a ukulele and a “very, very, very small microphone.” The song is so DIY that you can hear executive producer Derek Drymon typing in the background. (Listen for it as Finn and Jake stroll through the Ice Kingdom.) “It’s the warts-and-all version, which sort of fits in with the show’s aesthetic,” says executive producer Adam Muto. “It kind of retains that handmade quality.” Plus, Ward adds: “I thought the keyboard clacking sounded nice.” —D.C.
23. Big Mouth
“I’m going through changes,” Charles Bradley wails on “Changes.” The lyric could be about puberty, mourning a death, the end of a relationship — or even the song itself: Originally a 1972 Black Sabbath track inspired by drummer Bill Ward’s divorce, the song got a second life when producer Tom Brenneck recommended Bradley record it as a one-off single in 2013. Though that took some convincing. “He’d never heard of Ozzy Osbourne,” explains Brenneck. “And he couldn’t relate to a song about a breakup.”
But in 2014, Bradley lost his mother and channeled that grief into a new version of the song, with lyrics like “She was my woman/I love her so…I let her go” taking on new meaning. “I get chills just thinking about it,” Brenneck says. And he’s not alone. “A friend invited me to a Charles Bradley concert, so I was listening to [Bradley’s 2016 album Changes] on the way to work and immediately was like, ‘Oh, this is the song,'” says Big Mouth co-creator Nick Kroll (who first wanted Queen’s “You’re My Best Friend,” but it was too expensive). Tragically, Bradley died at age 68, six days before Big Mouth launched in 2017. “Anything that keeps his music alive is incredible,” Brenneck says of the song living on. “It’s a blessing.” —Patrick Gomez
Versions of folk singer-songwriter and political activist Malvina Reynolds’ “Little Boxes” (a song she wrote in 1962 and lent to friend Pete Seeger before releasing herself in 1967) are used all four seasons that Weeds‘ Botwin family lives in the cookie-cutter suburbs: Reynolds’ original recording in season 1, then different covers for each episode of seasons 2, 3, and 8. But even when the Botwins move to the beach, the song remained a part of the show’s DNA. In season 4, Nancy (Mary-Louise Parker) quotes the song, saying her son Shane (Alexander Gould) could be a “doctor or a lawyer or a business executive.” —P.G.
Mariah Carey was eager to record the bouncy theme to the ’80s-set black-ish prequel, centered on three kids with a Black mom and white dad. “She’s biracial and grew up in a similar time period,” says series co-creator Peter Saji. “I think hearing this show was exploring some of the things she had been through — she was really excited to contribute.” The exceptional vocalist even performed part of the song in her trademark whistle register after co-creator Kenya Barris asked her “Could there be a high note in there?”
While Saji admits that the process of getting Carey to write and perform the song that opened every episode of his show’s two season run was “very surreal,” he adds “When I hear that song, I’ll just always remember the excitement that came around telling those stories and the excitement that came from people feeling seen. And so, that will always be the legacy for me.” —Marcus Jones
20. Stranger Things
Nothing evokes ’80s nostalgia quite like a synthesizer, and early on, Stranger Things creators Matt and Ross Duffer knew they wanted to imbue Hawkins, Ind., with an era-appropriate electronic sound. “We felt that having a synth soundtrack would do exactly what we wanted to achieve with the show: It would feel both modern and nostalgic at the same time,” the pair previously told EW. They recruited musicians Michael Stein and Kyle Dixon to compose the show’s soundtrack, including the now-iconic opening — an eerie, atmospheric theme song that’s totally ’80s. —D.C.
When then-CBS Entertainment President Nina Tassler suggested the procedural drama open with a rock anthem, creator Anthony E. Zuiker pitched the hardcore sounds of rapper Mr. Criminal. Fortunately, fellow EP Cynthia Chvatal came up with something a bit more hummable. “We put the titles to ‘Who Are You’ on VHS and showed it to [the Who guitarist] Pete Townshend,” Zuiker recalls. “He watched it from his private plane and loved it.” Good thing money was no object: “CSI was built on original score and needle drops. There was a time where it cost $52,500 per airing.” —Lynette Rice
18. Kim Possible
Christina Milian didn’t think twice when she was asked in 2002 to sing the theme for Disney Channel’s new animated series Kim Possible, thanks to her former gig as the host of Movie Surfers. But she had no idea that the song would eventually take on a life of its own, and even her own record label didn’t take the project seriously at first. “It really became a thing,” she says. “They were watching it rise on the charts and all of a sudden, they’re showing off, telling everybody about this record that they didn’t necessarily have anything to do with.” She laughs before humming the iconic four beeps. “People still use it as a ringtone. It’s so catchy!” But, she warns younger fans, do not ask her what “beep me” means: “They better not, I’ll feel so old!” —Sydney Bucksbaum
17. One Tree Hill
The combination of One Tree Hill and Gavin DeGraw was just pure magic. When the indie musician’s single “I Don’t Want to Be” was featured as the theme song for The WB’s soon-to-be iconic teen drama in 2003, it was a match made in early ’00s heaven that continued for nine seasons — and led to DeGraw’s four appearances on the series. Season 8 lost the spark a bit when the show commissioned 20 different covers of the theme song from other musicians instead but thankfully, the ninth and final year reverted back to his original — because we don’t want it to be anything other than … him. —S.B.
Creator Dan Harmon credits fellow EP (and future Marvel director) Joe Russo with bringing him the 88’s “At Least It Was Here” and actor Donald Glover. “He laid [them both] out in front of me on a silver platter,” Harmon admits. “My job was to say yes.” Choosing a song by the 88 was also meaningful to Harmon because the character of Britta (Gillian Jacobs) was partially inspired by a “super hip” ex-girlfriend who introduced him to the band years earlier. “Even just hearing [the song], I was like, ‘That would be great because that’s that band my Britta introduced me to that every time I hear that album, I get real sad. I get specifically sad about feeling like a phony and the longing for a connection to other people faltering,'” says Harmon. —Chancellor Agard
15. The Wire
David Simon wanted to use the Blind Boys of Alabama’s cover of Tom Waits’ “Way Down in the Hole” as The Wire‘s theme song, but there was one big problem: finding Waits to approve it. “We were getting near our airdate, and we still didn’t have permission,” says the show creator. “We mailed him versions of the show so he could see what it was about and he could see his song laid in, but he wasn’t responding. It was like, ‘Jesus, what are we going to do if he says no?’ ” Finally, the team procured Waits’ number and called him directly. Recalls Simon: “[Waits] says, ‘I got the stuff you sent, but I don’t know how to work the VCR. Wait until my wife comes home.’ And then, the next day, he approved it!” The song — which had different performers each season, including the original Waits version for season 2 — will forever be linked with the HBO drama about the Baltimore drug trade that many (including EW) consider the best TV series ever. And what was the backup plan had Waits’ wife not gotten the VCR working? You’d be reading right now about “A Common Disaster” by Cowboy Junkies. (Or maybe not.) —Dalton Ross
14. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
Before there was a script or a treatment for the pilot episode of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, there was the idea for the theme song. “Tina [Fey, series creator] wanted to tell this story about a survivor of a religious cult and how her life would be after she had been rescued; so we knew we wanted to reboot the premise with a theme song before every episode,” says Jeff Richmond, composer of the opening bop that — in an ode to the ridiculousness of internet culture — turns a news report detailing Kimmy’s (Ellie Kemper) escape into a heavily auto-tuned earworm in the style of the Gregory Brothers viral “songifying” the news videos. While it serves to recap the show every episode, Richmond and his co-executive producers Fey and Robert Carlock also “wanted it to live as an anthem — a song of empowerment, but with some humor.” In the age of streaming TV, there’s one way to tell if a theme has gone the distance. “Many people tell me that no matter how many times they’ve watched or re-watched all the Kimmys, they’ve never taken the ‘skip title’ option,” says Richmond. —Ruth Kinane
13. Parks and Recreation
Like with The Office (see No. 4), co-creator Greg Daniels put out a wide call for his next NBC comedy: “This one we described as being more whimsical and optimistic,” he says. After listening to 70-plus entries, he and his teen daughter chose Vincent Jones and Gaby Moreno’s track. “There wasn’t a close No. 2.” —Derek Lawrence
12. The Big Bang Theory
Co-creator Bill Prady knew he wanted a rat-a-tat opener that told the whole history of the universe in 20 seconds. He also knew the perfect band to do it. “I have been a huge Barenaked Ladies fan since I saw them open for Alanis Morissette on the Jagged Little Pill tour. Their shows always included amazing, improvised raps, one of which became their hit One Week.” And talk about blind luck; [lead singer] Ed Robertson was already well-schooled on math, science history and unraveling the mystery. “As he tells it, in an astonishing coincidence he had just finished reading Big Bang: The Origin of the Universe by Simon Singh when we called. Apparently, the story of everything that ever existed was fresh in his mind.” —L.R.
Creators Al Gough and Miles Millar saw Remy Zero’s “Save Me” as the opposite of John Williams’ Superman score. “[Smallville] was Superman for a new generation,” says Gough. “We wanted something fresh and youthful but that also stated its purpose.” The producers originally hoped to use Five For Fighting’s aptly titled song “Superman (It’s Not Easy),” but “it just didn’t work as a theme song” because it was too slow, says Millar. “We had this really elaborate main title sequence with this crow going through this cornfield, which then we spent weeks preparing, and then the studio network rejected it. So they wanted us to do heads turns and a really classic cheesy TV [opener]. In the middle of this [music supervisor] Madonna Wade-Reed came running in one day with [“Save Me”]. We all put it on and it was instant.” —C.A.
10. New Girl
There was no one better to help craft this Fox comedy’s sunny theme than the New Girl herself. Star and singer-songwriter Zooey Deschanel’s starting point was a moment in the pilot in which the unabashedly quirky Jessica Day (let’s leave “adorkable” in 2011, shall we?) sings to herself, “Who’s that girl? It’s Jess!” “I grew up watching Nick at Nite, and there was Mary Tyler Moore [and] That Girl, that era of theme songs and a girl making it on her own,” she explains. “That’s what we always thought Jess was thinking when she has this in her head.” The tune (which was swapped to a shorter, electric-guitar version with a very different vibe in season 4, a move Deschanel says she “did not agree with”) remained so memorable that the actress re-created it when she joined TikTok in July 2021. “I think people got what we were hoping [from it,]” she says — that it was “a throwback to another era of theme songs.” A loft-y goal, achieved. —Jessica Derschowitz
9. True Blood
Jace Everett recorded a self-titled “country” album in 2004 — quotation marks intended. Everett didn’t consider himself a country artist but made something in line with the “song town” of Nashville. The only issue seemed to be a track called “Bad Things,” something he wrote in about six minutes, with a hook and no chorus, to try to seduce a girl. “The label loved the song, but they’re like, ‘Man, it’s a little this or that.’ I was like, ‘I’m putting it on there anyway,'” he recalls. “And then the record failed.”
Everett lost his record deal in subsequent years and fell into a financially rough spot. But it was that same song that turned his career around. HBO tapped “Bad Things” as the theme song for vampire drama True Blood and, just like that, Everett was back on the charts. He’s since worked with some of his industry heroes as a result and, more recently, developed a jazz album. “It’s a mitzvah,” he says of the whole trajectory. “It’s further proof that you can’t control anything. I’ve had plenty of ups and downs since then, but I’ve got Entertainment Weekly calling me today. That’s crazy!” —Nick Romano
8. Curb Your Enthusiasm
Larry David was watching TV in the late 1990s when a jaunty circus-y tune in a bank commercial caught his ear. “It’s the only time I’ve heard music and wanted to save it for some future project,” he says. “I came into the office and told my assistant to find out what that song was, that I might want to use it one day.” That day would come with the Seinfeld co-creator’s next series, Curb Your Enthusiasm. Written by Italian composer Luciano Michelini and used in the 1974 film La Bellissima Estate, the song “Frolic” is “telling you not to take the following seriously,” opines David. The internet has since co-opted it, memed it hard, and transformed it into the soundtrack for nihilistic ennui and clown-show failure. Flattered, Larry? “Yeah, you know… it’s not the worst thing in the world. —Dan Snierson
7. Mad Men
If the 1960s-set drama’s hip hop-infused, strings-and-drum loop theme music seems a bit anachronistic, that’s because it is: The tune began as the beat for “A Beautiful Mine,” the closing track on rapper Aceyalone’s 2006 album Magnificent City. (The song ended up on Mad Men after creator Matthew Weiner heard it as bumper music on NPR.) “We made that album all in one fell swoop,” says producer RJD2. “It was the only time I’ve gotten carte blanche to make a rap record sound the way I wanted. The first pass on that song is basically what you hear.” Don Draper would be envious. —Tyler Aquilina
6. Gilmore Girls
When creator Amy Sherman-Palladino first reached out to Carole King about using “Where You Lead” (off 1971’s Tapestry) as her show’s theme, King had an idea. She proposed reworking the lyrics to be about a mother and daughter (as opposed to a woman following a man), and she asked her daughter, Louise Goffin, to sing it with her. “She changed the lyrics because she’d outgrown the stand-by-my-man theme of the original,” Goffin says. “The song had a new life.” —Samantha Highfill
5. Game of Thrones
This theme came rather easily to composer Ramin Djawadi after screening an early version of the opening. “There [weren’t] a lot of iterations. The melody was always the same,” he told EW in a 2019 interview, recalling his early discussions with showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss. “There were certain keywords that were mentioned like, ‘This needs to be a journey. The adventure needs to be there.'” Furthermore, the piece also had to convey that the characters didn’t exist in a simple good vs. bad binary. “In the very beginning, the piece itself is in minor, but two measures in, it actually shifts to major and then goes back to minor. That intention was for me always to right away setup the ambiguity of the characters, like you can’t trust anybody,” said Djawadi. —C.A.
4. The Office
With his first pick Electric Light Orchestra’s “Blue Sky” given to a higher-profile new show (the short-lived LAX) and his backup selection, The Kinks’ “Better Things,” deemed too pricey, Office showrunner Greg Daniels opted for a “bake-off,” putting out word they were looking for something like Cheers; “poignant, but a classic rock feeling.” While Jay Ferguson’s synthesizer-only track mostly did that, Daniels enlisted musicians, who later appeared on the show as The Scrantones, to make a “more rocking version.” —D.L.
Succession composer Nicholas Britell was inspired to mix classical music vibes with a hip-hop beat for the show’s theme after seeing actor Jeremy Strong’s media executive Kendall Roy rapping along to the Beastie Boys’ “An Open Letter to NYC” in the pilot. “I was trying to imagine what type of music the Roy family would imagine for themselves,” says Britell. “The initial concept was this late 1700s classical style and I had seen Kendall rapping the Beastie Boys in the pilot. I thought, what if I mixed that with this hip-hop feeling?” The track was greeted enthusiastically by show creator Jesse Armstrong. “His response was, ‘F— yeah!'” says the composer. “That felt like solid approval.” —Clark Collis
2. The O.C.
With five notes on the piano, viewers are instantly transported to the McMansion-filled hills of Orange County, where Seth Cohen (Adam Brody) is pining for Summer Roberts (Rachel Bilson), and Ryan Atwood (Ben McKenzie) is desperately trying to keep his fists to himself. Phantom Planet’s “California” was more than the theme of this Fox sensation — it was its anthem. “It speaks to the California dream, which the show was trying to both tap into and subvert,” says series creator Josh Schwartz, who first included the song in a trailer created to sell the series to the network. The tune worked so well that when it came time to plan a title sequence, the song choice was obvious — though Phantom Planet took some convincing. “I was in the post-grunge, Nirvana phase where anything that’s not your own personal music brand is selling out,” lead singer Alex Greenwald says. But now? “It was the best choice the band could have made.” —S.H.
1. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend
When it comes to theme songs, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend went big. During the CW comedy’s four seasons, the Emmy-winning songwriting team of Jack Dolgen, Adam Schlesinger, and star Rachel Bloom — with frequent input from showrunner Aline Brosh McKenna — created four unique pieces of original music and lyrics, each mirroring Rebecca Bunch’s (Bloom) evolution while on her journey to find love (and to love herself).
But that wasn’t always the plan. At least not the “four different songs” part. “We knew Rebecca would be in denial about being in West Covina, which is what the song is about,” Bloom says of the original theme. But around the time they were working on episode 9, when Rebecca finally admits she loves Josh (Vincent Rodriguez III), “there was a feeling that the theme song was getting less and less applicable,” says Dolgen. It was then that the team realized they might need to make a change.
And although all four openings deserve their recognition (get a full breakdown on all of them here), it was the second ditty that really left a mark on our hearts. In season 2, Rebecca is, as the song declares, just a girl in love. (She’s not responsible for her actions!) But what ended up being a 1930s-inspired number started out as something else entirely. “The setting was the 1970s, à la The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” Bloom says. “There were shopping bags. The whole concept was a parody of That Girl.” But when Dolgen pointed out that the Maria Bamford Show had beaten them to that idea, they pivoted. “Someone saw a musical from the ’30s where someone had done a reverse breaking-through-the-paper shot, so that inspired the ending,” Bloom says. “I sent Adam the lyrics. And Adam then turned it around.”
Both Bloom and Dolgen credit the late Fountains of Wayne cofounder (also an Academy Award nominee for writing the title song of That Thing You Do!) with making the Crazy Ex-Girlfriend themes undeniably catchy. “Every time, if we gave him lyrics and the general idea…to say that he would knock it out of the park is such an understatement,” Dolgen says. We’d have to agree. —S.H.
*Plus, honorable mentions for a few more memorable melodies: 30 Rock // Big Little Lies // BoJack Horseman // Downton Abbey // Entourage // The Fairly OddParents // Girls5eva // Halt and Catch Fire // It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia // Malcolm in the Middle // The Mandalorian // Orange Is the New Black // Scrubs // She-Ra and the Princesses of Power // Steven Universe // Ted Lasso // That’s So Raven // True Detective // Veronica Mars // The Walking Dead // Westworld
A version of this story appears in the February issue of Entertainment Weekly, on newsstands now and available to order here. Don’t forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.