Saturday, September 17, 2011

TV Theme Songs that Evoke a Sense of Place: A Top 10 List...(Part 2)

We continue with our top ten list of TV theme songs that evoke a sense of place. Part one can be seen here. I was musing about the songs that have enshrined places to the extent that we are taken there whenever we hear the tune. We started with my top five choices, Hawaii Five-O, Magnum P.I., Gilligan's Island, Star Trek, and Bonanza.

Number 6 on my list will have to be a three-way tie. The locales are not famous geologically, but as geologists like to note, geology is everywhere, including under cities. Especially under cities where geologic hazards strike. So we have Taxi, Cheers, and Hill Street Blues, three shows that were tied to famous urban centers.

First, there is New York, setting for dozens of TV shows, but my favorite theme song comes from Taxi. NYC may be a hive of hyperactivity and paranoia, but the strains of this musical theme make me bliss out. The show was classic too.

The second tie for sixth place goes to Boston's favorite watering place, Cheers. The visuals are as sweet as the song, and I always get irritated when syndicated reruns cut out most of the song to make room for more commercials.

The third tie for sixth place goes to Hill Street Blues. "But wait", you say, "Hill Street Blues? What locale does it belong to?". And your point is well taken. The city is never named. The series was filmed in Los Angeles, with some exterior shots filmed in Chicago. The squad cars look Chicagoan. So we don't know, actually. So Hill Street Blues evokes a place that doesn't exist, but it sure was a hell-hole of a city wherever it was.

This leads me to the final selections: shows that evoke special places, but the places are not where we think they are. Number 7, for instance is M*A*S*H, which famously evoked South Korea, but was generally recognized as a proxy for the Vietnam War, and which was filmed in...Malibu Canyon, California! I still have no real idea what the landscape of Korea, North or South, looks like.

A picture from my recent visit to "Korea"
Number 8 on my list is famous in my mind for having no connection whatsoever with ANY landscape or sense of place: Mission Impossible. It was never clear where the MIF team was based, and their adventures seemed to always take them to small communist or totalitarian states in Eastern Europe or Central America, but their writers must have spent days coming up with imaginary names for each of these little city-states. The opening credits always reflected this ambiguity, since it was different every week, except for the music. That's what I like about the particular clip I found on Youtube; you'll notice that it restarts four or five times, with a different Hollywood set in each.

And then there are cost-saving measures related to filming in expensive cities. Number 9 on my list is my favorite cable series of all time, Monk. Adrian Monk is an incredibly obsessive-compulsive former detective for the San Francisco PD who is a genius when it comes to solving mysteries. The opening theme song begins with a view of the Golden Gate Bridge from the Marin Headlands, and continues through other parts of the city. The first season began with a ditty by Jeff Beal. The remaining seven seasons began with Randy Newman's "It's a Jungle Out There", which is a fine piece of work, but I always liked that first tune better.

But somehow, scene by scene, "Monk" looks nothing like the San Francisco I've ever seen. Few of those Victorian houses and unique hills and urban skyline (not to mention the fog). Season one was filmed in Vancouver and Toronto, while others were filmed in Los Angeles, with a few exteriors from San Francisco thrown in here and there.

Another cable show, Psych, is even more egregious. While ostensibly set in Santa Barbara, California, the exterior shots show very little of the town I once lived in. The locations and street names mentioned are right, but somehow, the Santa Barbara of the series is thick with conifers and green meadows, and there is very little Mexican or Spanish-style architecture in evidence. The landscape looks's filmed in Vancouver for the most part.

One other cable show, In Plain Sight, is set in Albuquerque, and even seems to be filmed most of the time in Albuquerque. Even when the characters are supposedly in Stockton, California (you can see the cactus covered hills in the distance!). I can't put the last two shows on my list because the theme songs don't evoke much of anywhere...

The last show on my list is actually one of my favorites of all time, and the music and visuals evoke the landscape most vividly: the little town of Cicely, Alaska. Northern Exposure begins with a moose wandering down the middle of the towns main street, and there is the memorable mural for the Roslyn Cafe. The show that followed included some of the best written dialog in television history. One of my favorite geology-based episodes involved the town enjoying a barbecue of frozen woolly mammoth (Dr. Joel had been trying to get a paleontologist out to the site when the mammoth disappeared).

The funny thing, of course, is that it wasn't filmed in Alaska, it was filmed in the former coal mining town of Roslyn, Washington, on the eastern slopes of the Cascades east of Seattle. The little town is proud of their heritage as a set for the series, and the Roslyn mural and the KBHR radio station are still maintained.

I could not find a Youtube for the Northern Exposure opening credits (UPDATE, see below), but I did find something I missed the first time around: the final five minutes of the 7-season series. It is nice when the characters of a long-running series get to say goodbye, and I had never seen this episode. Even nicer was the song they used, "My Town", by Iris DeMent, one of my favorite singers. I found this scene touching, given my familiarity with each of the characters.

UPDATE: Found a Northern Exposure theme video after it is:

That's my list. Of course it is highly subjective, and I would love to hear some of your favorite choices. While I was working through my choices, I came across a scene (not an opening credit) of one of the more powerful moments I've seen on television. I used to watch "ER", but kind of stopped paying attention after season eight when Dr. Mark Greene passed away.

The scene of his passing (in Hawaii as it happens) included one of the more beautiful pieces of music ever recorded, "Over the Rainbow-What a Wonderful World" sung by Hawaiian musician Israel Kamakawiwo'ole. Give it a look and try not to sniffle just a little...


Randy A. said...

Speaking of TV shows set in one place, but filmed in another, I have to mention "CSI: Miami". It's set, of course, in Miami. But it's filmed in Long Beach, Ca. On several occasions, when the show is theoretically on a Miami beach in flat-as-a-board south Florida, you can clearly see the Palos Verdes hills in the background!

Sping said...

Oh man, MASH and Northern Exposure do it for me. I feel I have to see Alaska even though NA wasn't filmed there. Thanks for the location where MASH was filmed, I'll have to go there as well.

ReBecca Hunt-Foster said...

Wow, that is pretty much the sound track to my childhood! All good picks. I am on board with ER, and when Mark died I cried so hard! That is one of the saddest moments in TV. For me right up there with when they killed of George on Grays Anatomy. But by far the best seriest ending I have ever seen was for Six Feet Under. It was perfect.

ReBecca Hunt-Foster said...

Darn it, you made me cry again!

Anonymous said...

Hey Garry,

I'm vaguely familiar with most of those, but I'd have to agree.

As per E.R., that's the only tv momment that's brought tears to my eyes. Love that song, how touching those moments are. I actually have a family friend that's the spitting image of Dr. Green, maybe that's why it hits me hard lol

Nice list!

rocking R rustics said...

Sarah said...

I remember watching Nick at Nite all the time when I was little, but for some reason I always think of my Great Aunt Betty's house in Lakeport when I hear theme songs from "I Dream of Jeannie," "Bewitched," and "I Love Lucy." When my family would visit my Great Grandma, I would stay the night at my Aunt Betty's and she would watch Nick at Nite with me. :-]

"All in the Family" is another one of my favorites. I love that theme song so much! I just think Edith is so funny.