So this past week I was reading TV Guide’s overview of the pilots being
produced for next season. One of the most buzzed about new shows, titled “Don’t Trust The Bitch in Apartment 23” has apparently been renamed “Apartment 23”. The name change, I presume, was inevitable but a) I wasn’t expecting it so soon and b) Apt 23? That’s the best name they could come up with.
I am well aware this is far from the official name and even if the show gets picked up this May, the title could change half a dozen times, until the network has to promote it, roughly 2 months before premiere
But it got me thinking. We’ve already eliminated theme songs from
most primetime TV shows. It would seem to me that a clever and descriptive title is vastly important in this hard to break through TV climate.
In the case of “Don’t Trust the Bitch” it really does say this show has a unique and irreverent tone. But it also lays out the basic logline of the show in the title. There’s clearly a “bitch” and it’s a warning to our protagonist to steer clear. “Apartment 23” could be anything – a Melrose Place type Soap or even a chaste sitcom from the 50s. It conveys nothing, whereas “Don’t trust the Bitch…” is instantly memorable. I imagine if ABC only ran a :05 second teaser this May with a screencap that said: “Don’t Trust The Bitch in Apt 23”… coming this fall…, it would instantly get people talking. Half the promotional job is already done. Interest would be piqued.
I get that a title with the word “bitch” is more than likely to change, but even “Don’t Trust The B@&*!” in the title is more interesting than “Apt 23”. Even “Don’t Trust the Girl in Apt 23” is far better and still conveys some of the irreverence and it’s still memorable. Obviously the Parents Television Council has already targeted this show and another ABC pilot “Good Christian Bitches” even before a frame has been shot of either show. If one or both are picked up, the names will likely change but they don’t have to change to something incredibly benign.
I remember as soon as 2 of last season’s shows were picked up, titles were downgraded. “Generation Y” became “My Generation”. “Kindreds” became “Harry’s Law”. Do I think that “My Gen” would have worked with the other title? Of course not. But it’s interesting to me that catchy and interesting titles were instantly replaced with ones that sounded like shows from the 70s. Also, am I by no means saying that a catchy title leads to a smash hit. Just like wonderful actors are not enough to save a poorly written show, so too, the best title cannot camouflage bad TV. But an irreverent, eye-catching name can only help a show that is deserving of attention, especially in today’s TV climate.
If I sound like I am putting too much stock in this, I am reminded by what Marc Cherry went through as he tried to sell Desperate Housewives. Much of this is recalled in Bill Carter’s fascinating “Desperate Networks”. The story about that pilot getting rejected multiple times is part of TV history now, but I found it very interesting how many times along the way people tried to get Marc to change the title to something like “The Secret Lives of Housewives” or “Wisteria Lane”. Whether you are a fan of the show or not, you can’t deny the uniqueness of that pilot, especially at the time, and the title DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES, succinctly, interestingly and memorably conveyed the specialness of it. Plus the title alone made you want to tune in – at least to the pilot. I completely understand why Marc Cherry stood his ground and why he immediately (in his mind) dismissed those that suggested he change it to one of those inferior titles. (Incidentally, “Grey’s Anatomy” was almost changed to the very unmemorable “Complications” shortly before it hit the air.)
Network TV has never had it harder to get a new series to break through. Cable is a force like never before. The internet is even a bigger draw for many of the younger generation. Currently MTV’s Jersey Shore has been outperforming every network show except American Idol in the demo. Good, different and unique shows should be championed, and a wild title that lets it stand out from the pack and highlights it should be sought. Many times when the PTC start screaming it only helps you get attention. NYPD BLUE was a wonderful show but those first few eps when all the controversy only surrounded the “blue” part of it, certainly helped get people in the door. Once they were there they saw what a special show it was. That was almost 20 years ago. It’s even harder to get people in the door now. Obviously I’m not running a network and don’t have to deal with the reality of having an off-color title, but even CBS made a somewhat profane title work to their advantage and that was for an incredibly ordinary sitcom. Network TV is gonna have to do what they can to stick out more, especially when they have the goods with a unique show.
Along these lines, I know the: 30-:45 seconds of theme songs are used for commercial inventory or more episode content these days, but in my opinion, those :45 seconds add so much to a show. Can any of us imagine The Mary Tyler Moore show without the Sonny Curtis sung theme song and Mary throwing her hat up in the air? 40 years later and we know that she can “turn the world on with her smile” from the opening lyrics. Isn’t part of the fun of Three’s Company, “Come and Knock On My Door”?
My entire childhood was spent being enthralled and entertained by the shows of the 70s and 80s. I’m sure I’m not the only uber geek who got excited when the theme songs to my favorite shows came on. When Jack Jones told me “love” was exciting and new, I believed him as I watched the parade of guest stars on that week’s ep of The Love Boat displayed in their “anchors”. Every September I was curious as to what new genre The Cosby Show theme would be performed in and to check out the new dance moves from the cast. Grant Goodeve singing Eight is Enough to fill our lives with love”, uh yeah I have never tired of hearing that (go ahead make fun). I loved Family Ties, but the opening them by Deniece Williams and Johnny Mathis warmed my heart. I can’t think of “Growing Pains” with out “Show Me that Smile Again”. Is the One Day At a Time theme any less catchy 40 years later? Not remotely. Can you even imagine Cheers without Gary Portnoy singing about the place “Where everybody knows your name”? These theme songs added so much character to our favorite shows and in many cases lyrically highlighted what we loved about all of them. Even Desperate Housewives had a memorable opening credit sequence till it was eliminated after a few seasons. Do did Grey’s (and if you were in doubt that the show was about sex & surgery, the clever opening titles spelled it out). So many of these theme songs were so memorable they even charted on Billboard (top 10 and even #1). When Seinfeld did a whole episode on Melrose Place at its height, you saw the cast even grooving to the opening credits, like we all did at home.
I know it’s a different time, but it’s precisely why I think a clever title and opening theme are more important than ever. To NBCs credit, many of their shows still have ‘em. The catchy instrumentals to The Office and Parks and Rec, the old school theme to Community. The Big Bang Theory also has a catchy clever title theme sung by The Barenaked Ladies. Even that short horn filled intro to Modern Family gets me excited. It is my belief that broadcast networks now more than ever need clever titles and opening themes to show off the character and personality of their shows. Could :45 be used to make more money? Well sure, but if an opening theme makes people remember and have affection for your show, isn’t that a bigger win in the long run?
TV Themes through the years: