Music falls on deaf ears: Great theme tunes on shows like Emmy-winning ‘Nurse Jackie’ go unnoticed

BY David Hinckley NY Daily News 8/31/10

Edie Falco may have won an Emmy for best actress, but her show 'Nurse Jackie' also won an Emmy for best theme music.
Edie Falco may have won an Emmy for best actress, but her show ‘Nurse Jackie’ also won an Emmy for best theme music.

When Edie Falco won the Emmy Sunday night for Best Actress in a Comedy, it probably overshadowed for most viewers the fact that her “Nurse Jackie” show also won an Emmy for Best Theme Music.

That’s how it’s gone lately for TV theme music. Very little attention, very little respect.

But fans who understand the way good theme music enhances a show will be happy to know the patient still shows signs of life.

Those could get stronger this fall if CBS‘ remake of “Hawaii Five-O” becomes a hit, because the producers have promised to feature that show’s classic original theme right up front.

This follows an earlier boost for theme music last spring.

The Television Academy, dispenser of Emmys, decided in April to scrap theme music as an award category. There simply isn’t enough new theme music to justify it, the Academy said.

A month later, the Academy reversed that decision, which is why there was still an award for Wendy and Lisa – yes, the one-time Prince cohorts – to claim for their “Nurse Jackie” theme.

For the record, the other nominees were “Legend of the Seeker,” “Justified,” “Human Target” and “Warehouse 13.”

In each of those shows, theme music helps set the mood and tone, as it does for the likes of “Big Bang Theory,” “Fringe,” “True Blood,” “Lie to Me,” “Dexter,” Craig Ferguson and “Mad Men.”

It’s a function theme music has played for TV shows from “I Love Lucy,” “M*A*S*H,” “Dallas,” “All in the Family” and “The Dukes of Hazzard” up through “ER” and “Friends.”

Today’s producers, though, are wary of making an audience sit through a minute or more of music while opening credits roll. If a show doesn’t deliver fast action or a quick joke right away, the thinking goes, viewers will pick up the remote and find one that does.

With the exception of the occasional “Mad Men,” which marches at its own deliberate pace, theme music has become shorter and less prominent.

That doesn’t make it less valuable, however, and the producers of “Hawaii Five-O” say that even though they’re determined not to copy the original 1968-1980 show, the music was too big a part of the legacy to ignore.

So they abandoned a plan to give the song a more modern sound when they rerecorded it. Then they decided they could play it for 30-60 seconds without losing the audience.

“I understand the idea of jumping right into a story,” says executive producer Alex Kurtzman. “But I also feel a great theme song is a lost art, and that’s why we really had to put this back up there.”

Executive producer Peter Lenkov cautions that the theme won’t get as much time as it did in the original show. But he also points out that the twangy tune first recorded by the Ventures is part of the reason “Five-O” was popular enough to be remade at all.

“It’s one of the key selling points of the show,” he says. “People want to hear it.”

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