This is one of those lists that varies wildly depending on the ear of the beholder, but I like to think this countdown touches both on my personal favorites and some of the most emblematic '80s TV themes implanted permanently in our collective memory. Compiling this list was a rewarding process, mainly because songs written especially for television shows are full of potential for mockery, parody and, of course, measured admiration. Take a trip with me a quarter-century back, to a time when many kids were held hostage by the limitations of non-pay TV but managed to spend countless hours in front of the TV anyway.
The deeply recognizable, regal theme from this stalwart primetime soap may not feel much like the '80s with its horn-inflected, orchestral integrity, but the series it introduced makes up for that aplenty through its quintessence within the decade's pop culture. This is snooty stuff, just like Dynasty's central Carrington clan, but as with that heavily moneyed throng, there is something absolutely mesmerizing and even gripping about the strong elements of its core. Other themes may come to mind more quickly than this one, but I have a hard time believing that there was one heard more often during the primetime hours by viewers in front of their huge console sets, especially before cable became the norm in American households.
I must confess a soft spot for this buddy-crime series that I always thought went underappreciated throughout its brief run during the mid '80s. Therefore, it may spring immediately to my mind even as it's nearly forgotten by fellow children of the '80s. But the theme, written by the famed team Mike Post and Pete Carpenter, stands as one of the finest full-tilt pop/rock ditties, complete with lyrics, to accompany a primetime show. And amazingly, it doesn't even really sound all that dated, particularly compared to some of the actual pop music of the era. This one could have and perhaps should have hit the pop charts, especially when you consider that Post's famous theme for The Greatest American Hero did, in fact, become a bona fide hit.
While this sitcom with an absolutely idealized and rather ridiculous concept actually began in 1978, it enjoyed most of its considerable run during the '80s, becoming one of the most-watched shows both on primetime and in syndication. Its theme embodies the highly commodified, seemingly focus-grouped-to-death pop sound of most TV themes, but somehow it does so while retaining some real emotion and exciting freshness in the melody. We all know how catchy commercial jingles can be (an entirely different subject well worth treating), and certainly that infectious, tooth-rotting kind of universality exists here. But I guess the blind idealism of the show's concept must have infected me a bit, as I admit that I still enjoy this tune immensely.
Well, it's essential to fit a game show on this list, and although the revival of Jeopardy certainly lays claim to greater longevity and universal theme recognition, for me it's the quavering electronic theme to a different game show that takes me back most to pre-cable '80s evenings, where viewing decisions were made for us by TV syndication. I always enjoyed the show and even tolerated Wink Martindale, but the real attraction for me was the unabashedly electronic theme by Hal Hidey. A former co-worker and I once gleefully discussed that someone should try to attach mournful, melancholy lyrics to this tune to give it an ironic twist, but the crude instrumental, matched with the show's pre-Atari graphics, simply spreads joy, just as it is.
Another show with ties to the '70s, this Soap spin-off was racially intriguing in concept (casting a black man as a butler but also having him be the smartest, most capable character in the governor's mansion), but its unmistakable instrumental theme, to me, was always one of the most comforting elements of early-'80s pop culture. Not that I needed a particularly high amount of comforting as a preteen, but I can think of few TV shows as occasionally silly but ultimately dignified and fortifying as this one, and that goes for the intro music as well. Benson apparently impacted my development significantly, as I believed for years that Clayton Endicott is mentioned in the Beatles' "Penny Lane." The Rene Auberjonois Principle, I guess.