In our continuing series about the best tunes from TV, I explore the most excellent theme songs from the 1980's. These dramas and sitcoms weren't necessarily the best shows on TV (I'm talking to you, Greatest American Hero), but their themes were so effective, so insiduously hum-able, it didn't matter.
Looking back, I think it's hilarious how, as a sixth-grader, I was glued to the tube every Friday night to enjoy the exploits of J.R. Ewing and the rest of the Southfork folks. The horns-heavy score, written by Jerrold Immel, hit all the right cinematic notes -- macho, grandiose, don't-mess-with-me-I'm-an-oil-man -- while also maintaining a tone lighthearted enough to show this sudsy primetime soap didn't take itself too seriously.
Bosom Buddies: 1980-1982
Ok, ok, it wasn't written especially for the show, but was there a better sitcom-ready pop-rock tune? Billy Joel's anthem "My Life" was first released on his 1978 album52nd Street and producers of Bosom Buddies -- my favorite brilliant-but-canceled show of the decade -- thought its message of independence was perfect for their program about two dudes who must dress as women to live in a ladies-only apartment building. "Keep to yourself it's my life," indeed!
The Greatest American Hero: 1981-1983
I'm convinced the popularity of its theme song, "Believe or Not," saved this stinker from being a one-season wonder (instead of a two-seasoner). Clearly influenced by the decade's early soft-pop-rock stylings of schmaltz-masters Christopher Cross and Michael McDonald, the song (co-written by 1980's TV-theme guru Mike Post) hit No. 2 on the charts, almost making us forget how utterly ridiculous poor William Katt looked in that red suit.
Hill Street Blues: 1981-1987
Now, this is a show I wished I'd watched while it was on (I guess Dallas was the only primetime drama I could fit in my elementary-school schedule) but the theme was a definitely staple in my early years as a piano nerd. Mike Post did it again with his melancholy keyboard -heavy theme which, contrary to the dark-grit appeal of this cop show, was actually on the sweeter side of sad. By 1985, the song was on the charts and remains one of the most recognizable instrumental themes ever written.
If this one sounded a bit like a tender stage-ready number, it's 'cuz it was originally written for a never-produced musical called, "Preppies." Composer Gary Portnoy re-wrote the lyrics for Cheers creators Glen and Les Charles, and offered up his own vocals: "Making your way in the world takes everything you got/Taking a break from all your worries sure would help a lot." I don't think I fully appreciated how truly good this show was until it was gone, and this tune is a pleasant reminder that not all comedies in the 80's were meaningless froth.
Family Ties: 1982-1989
You may not be able to hum this one on command, but the second you hear the smooth stylings of Johnny Mathis and Deniece Williams -- "What would you do baby, without us?" -- you'll remember how friggin' great this show was. I'm not sure how well the lovey-dovey theme actually goes with the show (Hmmm....hippie parents raising kids in the 80's), but it was the absolutely best family sitcom of the decade, and for this I say, "Sha la la la."
Miami Vice: 1984-1989
Hearing Jan Hammer's synthesizer/percussion-heavy score today is a like a trip in an aural time machine; a trip back to an era when socks were for sissies, pastel T-shirts weren't just for gay dudes, and Phillip Michael Thomas had a job. Miami Vice was one of the first primetime shows to release an official soundtrack -- the 1985 album went quadruple platinum -- thereby cementing its place as one of the most pop-culture-relevant guilty pleasures to ever hit the small screen.
Who's the Boss?: 1984-1992
OK, this one is a little gratuitous. The lyrics don't make much sense -- "There's a time for love and a time for living/You take a chance and face the wind./An open road and a road that's hidden/A brand new life around the bend." Huh? I'm not sure if the chirpy flutes are the best representation of the "Brand new life!" the show promised, but hearing them while watching Tony and Samantha's beat-up blue van cross the bridge into the Connecticut was quite enough to make me smile. Enough said.
The Cosby Show: 1984-1992
The theme was simple -- just four notes, really -- but the way The Cos reinvented it season after season was genius. Incarnations of the song, "Kiss Me," (co-written by Cosby and Stu Gardener) included a Bobby McFerrin beat-box joint, an all-horns jazz ditty, and an old-school soul mix -- each one accompanied by the dances moves of the Huxtable clan. This was all cute and nice (awwww Rudy!), but there was a more important message here: Black families were cultured, sophisticated, and for the first time in television history, white viewers saw the American dream depicted by folks who looked nothing like them.
Ahhh, remember when Bruce Willis had hair and Cybill Shepherd was a total fox? This genre-bending show about an L.A. detective agency (another one that I can't believe I was so into as a 12-year-old) was such a hot mix of snark and sexual tension, it probably made sense for the title song, sung by Al Jarreau, to be a bit on the tender side. (Perhaps playing up David and Maddie's undeniable opposites-attract chemistry?) In any case, Moonlighting's theme is consummate 1980's easy-listening cheese, and for this it is a classic.
Like 80s theme songs? Check out Stay Tuned The Band, a TV theme-song cover band!