On its own, the theme song to “Twin Peaks” was a bona fide earworm.
Composer Angelo Badalamenti’s opening theme to Mark Frost and David Lynch’s otherworldly murder mystery won a Grammy in 1990 for “Best Pop Instrumental Performance.” The soundtrack to the early 1990s TV show even ranked on the Billboard charts.
But when Badalamenti’s “Twin Peaks Theme” was married with Pacific Northwest imagery — endless Douglas firs, sparks from the machinery inside a mill, a tumbling waterfall — there was a creeping darkness in the combination. Each element, taken alone, is completely normal. But stitched together, in that languid pace, it starts to become unsettling.
The ominous effect was suitable for an oddball drama series that would also find the time for humor, with a patch-wearing character’s obsession with drapes, and the Log Lady, who cradled a clairvoyant log. (“My log has something to tell you,” the character says in the show.)
The “Twin Peaks” opening credits also stuck out in a time when TV show openings were largely unimaginative; many relied on the same perfunctory introduction of characters. “Twin Peaks” doesn’t feature a single human soul in its opening.
As the show gears up for its third season, 27 years after it went off the air, PBS NewsHour asked Vulture television critic Jen Chaney for five other TV theme songs also worthy of recognition.
“Ask me to make a list of the five best theme songs and I’ll probably come up with a different list on every day of the week,” Chaney said in an email. “There’s so much great stuff from which to choose.”
(This is true! Your humble writer has a soft spot for the opening to the short-lived HBO show “Luck.” Also, “Batman: The Animated Series.” I wonder, too, if the ’80s retro opening to “Stranger Things” will stand the test of time. )
When Chaney made her list, she noted that “weirdly, there isn’t a song from a single drama on this list.” On another day, she said, themes from “The Sopranos,” “The Wire” and the recent “Big Little Lies” would have probably made the cut. But, yes, “Cheers” is on here.
Chaney’s list of five great TV theme songs, in her words:
1. “Sanford and Son Theme (The Streetbeater)” from “Sanford and Son” (1972)
Technically, you can’t sing along to the theme from Sanford and Son. But you can shake your butt, and maybe some other body parts, to it. Composed by the great Quincy Jones, this is easily the funkiest TV theme ever. I love it so much, my husband and I actually played it to introduce members of our wedding party during our wedding reception.
2. “Where Everybody Knows Your Name” from “Cheers” (1993)
The 1970s and ’80s were, far and away, the best decades for original TV theme songs, so much so that I could easily make a list of 25 from those eras alone. (Seriously, it kills me to not include the themes from “WKRP in Cincinnati,” “Greatest American Hero,” “Welcome Back, Kotter,” “The Jeffersons,” and so many others.) But no rundown of great TV theme songs would be complete without this saloon sing-along from “Cheers,” which, for years, made Thursday nights on NBC the perfect time to croon a toast to friendship.
3. “Bad Reputation” from “Freaks and Geeks” (1999)
Is it cheating if the theme song existed in its own right before scoring the opening of a series? Well, if it is, too bad. Joan Jett’s anthem about not giving a you-know-what has gotten overused in films and shows in more recent years. But when Paul Feig and Judd Apatow decided to lay it over a montage of Michigan high-schoolers taking terrible high school yearbook photos, it worked like a punk rocking charm. The first time I watched the pilot and saw those titles, I was all in.
4. “One Day at a Time” from “One Day at a Time” (1975) and Netflix’s “One Day at a Time” (2017)
This theme, as buoyant and catchy as you could possibly want in a sitcom, is so versatile that it works in both its original, head-bobbing ’70s form and with the Cuban rhythms Gloria Estefan provided when she reworked it for the recent Netflix reboot.
5. “Square Pegs” from “Square Pegs” (1982)
When we talk about teen TV shows, “Square Pegs” — the pop-culturally literate, early ’80s look at high school cliques that starred a young Sarah Jessica Parker — tends to get overlooked. So does its perfectly poppy eponymous theme by The Waitresses, which is full of anti-in-crowd attitude and has a permanent place in my iTunes library.