Behind the scenes of Rolling Stone's best theme songs ever list
Plus, revisiting 'Andor' after that riotous finale, and saying a distant goodbye to 'The Walking Dead'
Happy Black Friday to all who celebrate! A busy new installment of What’s Alan Watching? — with thoughts on Andor, The Walking Dead, and the new Rolling Stone ranking of TV’s best theme songs — coming up just as soon as I insist that, as God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly…
Twitter seems to have, for the moment, survived the mass exodus of engineers. Nonetheless, I have now set up accounts at many of the potential social media lifeboats, figuring at least one of them will manage to stay afloat. Still figuring out how I best want to use each of them, but you can nonetheless follow me at @sepinwall not only Twitter and Instagram, but on Mastodon, Hive, Post.News and Counter.social. (I’m AlanSepinwall on Facebook for uninteresting reasons.) And I set up a Linktree to make it easier to see all of these things, plus stuff like Letterboxd, the podcast, etc. (The one absentee so far is Hive, which is app-only, and has eluded my ability to make a link to.)
Thanks for reading What's Alan Watching?! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
Eventually, this will all calm down — heck, it’s entirely possible Twitter will get back to being just fine, whether under current management or a new owner — but the good thing about being a subscriber to this newsletter is you can find me no matter what.
Is ‘Andor’ good and/or bad?
As promised, I checked in again on Andor after this week’s season finale. My opinion of the show as a whole improved substantially from what I wrote after the first four episodes, even as my skepticism about Cassian Andor as the central character never did. I wrestled with the contradictory nature of a donut show(*), where the outside is sweet and delicious but the center is empty.
(*) If my Lexis/Nexis search skills are correct, I first used the term on, of all things, Huff, a barely-remembered Showtime drama from the mid-2000s starring Hank Azaria as a therapist undergoing a mid-life crisis. Loved the supporting performances by Oliver Platt and others, but Huff himself was pretty dull. There are far better examples of what’s more famously known as The Protagonist Problem — where the hero or heroine is the least interesting part of the story — but I couldn’t resist choosing a metaphorical donut. Mmm… metaphorical donut…
I tried to get at why so many other pieces of the show worked so well even as Cassian did little for me. Curious how this column is received, not only because there’s so much Andor-ation for this show, but because the Internet has developed something of an allergy over the years to mixed reviews, with lots of people assuming you can only love or hate something, no middle ground allowed.
RIP, ‘The Walking Dead’
I had a weird recapping relationship with The Walking Dead, which aired its season finale on Sunday, long after many viewers — myself included — had fled.
For a while, I wrote about TWD because the first episode was just so great that I wanted to see if the ongoing series could find a way to live up to it. Every now and then, they would give us an episode, or even a four- or five-episode stretch, that fulfilled that often-dormant potential. After a while, though, I grew tired of waiting for consistency, and also struggled when characters I found interesting got killed while ones I found dull stuck around for a while. And even then, I kept with it for another season or two because the show was so popular that the traffic to HitFix was worth me being annoyed with the show two-thirds of the time. But when we got to that ridiculous Season Six-ending cliffhanger with Negan about to swing his stupid bat, I gave up for good. Haven’t watched since, and am frequently amused when I see tweets from peers who have stuck with it, many of them referencing characters I’ve either never heard of because they were introduced after I quit, or who I barely remembered from when I was watching. (I was flummoxed, for instance, to learn that Rosita stuck around until the end, since she was a complete non-character at the time I quit.)
What’s most interesting to me is the divergent paths that TWD and Game of Thrones took. The two were often linked together in the early 2010s as the series that had ushered cable TV out of its boutique prestige drama period and into a more blockbuster-friendly era — i.e., the Jaws and Star Wars to the likes of Mad Men or The Wire as the early Seventies indie movies. But Game of Thrones kept on building and building in popularity, and even after a mostly-derided final season, its spinoff House of the Dragon came along this year as a ginormous hit. Walking Dead, meanwhile, has been bleeding viewers for years. AMC has various spinoffs in the works — including those Rick-centric movies that were once slated to be released theatrically — but I can’t imagine there’s a ton of enthusiasm for them at this point. The series followed the more typical career path for a TV phenomenon: huge ratings at the start, followed by gradual erosion until only the die-hards are left at the end.
When The Walking Dead was good (the pilot, “The Grove”), it was awfully good. But when it was bad (Glenn surviving an overwhelming zombie attack by climbing under a dumpster), it was awful.
I'm sensing a theme...
Finally, one of the big projects I alluded to in last week's newsletter has been published: the official Rolling Stone ranking of the 100 best TV theme songs ever.
I explained a lot of our methodology in the introduction to the list — and, yes, I know that nobody reads introductions to ranked lists, because they want to get straight to figuring out what they should be mad about — so I don't need to rehash most of that here. But given how much time we spent talking about this for months, I thought I would offer a few additional peeks behind the curtain of how this all came together:
I had more sway over this list than I did the Rolling Stone top 100 shows ever list, which was crowdsourced among a group of actors, showrunners, and critics. It was still a group effort, but I generated the initial draft of 100 shows. Other staffers and editors proposed cuts and additions, and we talked about it extensively, but the initial skeleton of the thing was mine. So if there is something that annoys you — whether its inclusion, exclusion, or placement — odds are decent that it is my fault. Come at me. I can take it. Probably.
That said, I did not have final authority on anything. I felt very strongly, for instance, that "Nothing's Gonna Stop Me Now" from Perfect Strangers should be on the list, not only because we needed a representative from ABC's T.G.I.F. sitcom era, not only because I have rarely laughed harder at anything on television than that song's appearance on The Leftovers, but because it slaps, period. But very vocal and passionate arguments were made in favor of "Everywhere You Look" from Full House being the more iconic theme, and that opinion carried the day. While we tried as much as possible to consider quality of song, there were times when the sheer cultural footprint couldn't be ignored. (See also "Woke Up This Morning," which I do not at all enjoy outside of the context of The Sopranos credits, but which becomes something else entirely when accompanying Tony on his bizarrely-routed drive home from the Lincoln Tunnel.)
Conversely, I knew going in that, regardless of how long the list wound up being, I wanted one of the last spots to go to a song that almost no one remembered, from a show that almost no one remembered. It just took me a long time to decide which one. For a while, it was going to be Warren Zevon's "If You Won't Leave Me, I'll Find Somebody Who Will," from NBC's incredibly short-lived Nineties remake of Route 66 starring James Wilder and Dan Cortese. In the days before DVRs, streaming music, etc., I tuned into that dumb show every week primarily to hear that song, and just kept it on for the next hour. The next contender was also from a show about two friends on a perpetual road trip: Old 97's "Lost Along the Way," from an obscure Showtime series I have a soft spot for called Going to California. Ultimately, I couldn't resist going with a song from a buddy show where the buddies stayed within the confines of Ocean Beach, California: Terriers, with Rob Duncan's "Gunfight Epiphany." (This is also your periodic reminder that Terriers is, like so many past FX shows, streaming on Hulu.)
Among the more passionate debates: should we put Gilligan’s Island and The Brady Bunch together in the top spot, or go with something that we all felt was a better song? You can see the results for yourself.
The list is mixing a lot of apples, oranges, dragonfruit, etc. We've got sitcoms, dramas, and kids shows, among others. We've got instrumental themes alongside ones with lyrics, preexisting songs right next to ones written expressly for each show, etc. We tried to cover as many bases as we could in terms of style, genre of music, genre of show, and era, among others, but that's ultimately an impossible task. There's only one game show theme, one talk show theme, and one sportscast theme, and no reality show themes at all. (One of them got cut late in the process.) The top 100 shows list received some entirely fair criticism for leaning too heavily towards scripted TV. Making these lists is an impossible balancing act in many ways, where once you introduce one type of show or song, then you in theory should be considering all of them. (It's one of the reasons Matt Zoller Seitz and I put so many limitations on ourselves for TV (THE BOOK).) In some cases, we chose to avoid that kind of problem, like when someone proposed using "Handbags and Gladrags" from the U.K. Office, before everyone else recognized what a can of worms we'd be opening to have only one international show. But we probably could have cast a wider net in terms of the kinds of American series featured.
In terms of time periods, the gravitational pull of those Seventies songs was incredibly powerful. What an amazing, amazing decade for theme music, such that at least half the list could have been filled with songs from that era and there wouldn’t have been a single, “What is that doing there?” As it is, we had to leave off relatively famous ones like Baretta and What’s Happening??, as well as some more obscure ones like Making It. (My friend Joe Adalian suggested that when I wondered if we could use some disco; the CHiPs theme is probably the closest the actual list got.) The penultimate draft of the list was actually missing a few more, but we collectively decided we couldn’t leave off S.W.A.T., The Odd Couple, and some others.
I am the lone full-time TV writer at Rolling Stone, which meant I had to write every blurb for the top 100 shows list on my own. Fortunately, I have no shortage of co-workers who can write thoughtfully about music. It was nice to have everybody pitching in to help, and fun to see my colleagues approaching various themes from a different perspective than I might have. Also, like I said in the list intro, Jon Burlingame's TV's Biggest Hits (which I've had on one bookshelf or another since the mid-Nineties) was an invaluable resource, particularly for older shows like Have Gun, Will Travel.
Finally, there are a bunch of songs that most pain me to not have on the list, even though in nearly every case, I was the one who decided to cut it, either because there were too many similar things on the list, or because I realized something had a more urgent case for being on there. Besides Perfect Strangers, some of my more lamentable discards include Magnum P.I., Airwolf, The A-Team, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, The Kids in the Hall, The White Shadow, Barney Miller, The Patty Duke Show, and Freaks and Geeks. And as the days pass since it was published, I start second guessing other choices, like whether I should have given greater weight to the complexity of Bear McCreary’s Battlestar Galactica theme over his iconic but deliberately repetitive The Walking Dead theme. Give me another week, and I’ll regret the whole thing.
I'm sure you will have many questions, complaints, and expressions of disbelief in the comments. I'll do my best to answer them, assuming I don't wind up curled into a ball of regret after someone makes a 20-point argument about why we should have chosen Facts of Life over Diff'rent Strokes.
Thanks for reading What's Alan Watching?! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.