The Best and Worst Instrumental TV Themes

You’ve heard them hundreds of times, and can identify them with a single note. They can elicit chills of anticipation, or send you leaping for your remote. What am I talking about? TV theme songs, of course! And more specifically the instrumental ones, some of which breeze by in mere seconds before dumping you right in the action. Like so many things in life, some of them are so awesome I want to marry them, and some of them suck balls. Here's my choice for the five best and worst on TV now*.

(* Or mercifully canceled last season, thank Vishnu!)

The Best

Parks and Recreation

This ditty is Leslie Knope in musical form–upbeat and optimistic, likable and utterly infectious, and also hopelessly dorky. It never fails to put me in a good mood, much like the show that follows it. And it inspired the Jabba the Hutt-themed parody song that is one of my favorite things ever.

Game of Thrones

As if Game of Thrones wasn't awesome enough as it is, they had to go and compose this fantasy theme to end all fantasy themes. That aching cello! Those conquering drums! Those swelling violins! It’s like theme music buttah, is what it is.

Curb Your Enthusiasm

What better way to highlight the existential follies of clown king Larry David than with this Fellini-esque circus music, heavy on the tuba? Apparently David discovered the song in a bank commercial years before Curb began. It’s called “Frolic” and was written by Italian composer Luciano Michelini. So good!

Mad Men

They could have gone obvious with this and picked something period-appropriate, but instead series creator Matthew Weiner chose an abbreviated version of hip-hop producer RJD2′s instrumental track, “A Beautiful Mine.” It perfectly encapsulates the longing and emptiness swishing around inside Mad Men’s characters like the last drops of scotch in a highball glass. (Wow, poetic.)


More than anything, a theme song needs to capture the tone of the show it’s introducing. And that’s what Dexter's main theme does, brilliantly. It could easily have gone too dark or too lighthearted–but Rolfe Kent’s score strikes the perfect chord of sinister and sexy. It’s hard to really describe what’s going on here–it’s a harpsichord piece with German, Creole and Latin flavors to it–but it’s amazing, and really fun to do your morning bathroom routine to. Very Kurt Weill! I also like how deliberately it takes its time, much like Dexter before a kill.

The Worst

American Idol

You’d think a show that has basically trampled the pop culture landscape for the better part of a decade in search of the greatest music the world has to offer would have a theme song that sounds like a TV commercial for a teen-marketed tooth whitener. It’s basically nothing but “sting” music, as they say in the business–there to amp you up for a payoff that never comes.

Gossip Girl

Is this even considered a theme song? It’s 12 seconds of a girl’s voice (okay, fine, Kristen Bell’s voice) saying bitchy things over a generic backing track. A theme song shouldn’t make you feel embarrassed to admit you watch a show. XOXO, me.


Oh, Outsourced, you racist mess. Of COURSE you have some Bollywood disaster of a theme song to lead us into every curry-related mishap on your Indian minstrel show. I cringe inside listening to this, much like when I watch the show–so I guess there’s points to be given for consistency.

The Daily Show

Oh boy, I’m going to get some blowback on this one. But I’m sorry, The Daily Show’s theme–which was there since Day One, back when Craig Kilborn wasn’t doing anything particularly interesting with the show–is a repetitive, dated snore of a bland, mid-tempo rock riff. You only THINK you like it because you’ve been conditioned, Pavlov-style, to associate it with hilarious, topical comedy. But trust me, it sucks. Replace, please!

Two and a Half Men

I realize this one has vocals, thereby violating my “instrumentals only” rule, but sorry, I had to include it. Doesn’t it just make you want to punch something? Like Charlie Sheen? What’s that? He’s no longer available? All right then, Ashton Kutcher will do. He’ll do just fine.

I’m sure I’ve left plenty of your own favorites (and least favorites!) off both of these lists. Feel free to suggest some of your own in the comments.

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