Weekend Music Break: TV Crime Shows (A Playlist)

[Video: “Teaser trailer” for HBO’s True Detective, Season 2]

Season 1 of HBO’s True Detective series made for pretty great viewing, if you like that sort of thing. (I do, in controlled doses.) What sort of thing? Gritty. Noir-saturated. A tone so dark at times that you had to glance away from the screen. Snappy but realistic dialogue. Sharply etched characters, right down to the uncredited-cast level. Touches of humor (although never for long)…

So when Season 2 was announced, I immediately put it on my must-watch list. I haven’t started to follow up on that yet, although a couple of episodes have been broadcast so far. (I watch it on HBO’s streaming channel, so can pick it up whenever I’m ready.) But I did start poking around in some of the series’ “extras”: making-of videos, cast interviews, and so on. Among them: the so-called “teaser” trailer for the new season, shown above.

Damn, I thought. That is a song

As it happens, it’s not the theme song for the season. (More on that in a moment.) But it did get me thinking about how many crime-and/or-detective television series have featured great theme music.

For this playlist, I’ve selected nine songs from a half-dozen of these shows. (Some of them had not just great themes, but also memorable music moments within individual episodes.) I could have gone on at much greater length: once you get started on something like this, it’s kinda hard to stop. If you, stray visitor, think of any obvious misses, let me know. I myself did think of a bunch of others, but decided to restrict the list just to those which immediately jumped out at me

In order:

  1. Peter Gunn (1958-61), theme (Henry Mancini): Old TV shows almost always had theme songs written specifically for them. This oh-so-cool series (starring Craig Stevens in the title role) featured a jazz soundtrack, the theme itself coming from Henry Mancini. Many people who barely remember the series itself, let alone any single episode, can still recall the theme song. (Some of those fans, sufficiently lubricated, may actually attempt to hum it. In this case, I advise against sufficient lubrication.)
  2. Miami Vice (1984-89): By the time this series debuted, straight-up jazz had become maybe a little passé for mainstream (i.e., young) viewers’ tastes. Not that they didn’t want to be jazzed-up by the music any longer — no, music had simply become infused with a more global feel. Natural, then, for Jan Hammer to come up with this theme for the South Florida-based show: distinctly Latino. But Miami Vice was also noteworthy for its inclusion of “real” songs scattered throughout the episodes, to highlight what one or another character was up to on-screen. Glenn Frey’s “You Belong to the City” stood out, for its use in the Season 2 premiere episode (“Prodigal Son”), in which main character Sonny Crockett goes to New York City for some undercover work. Frey wrote the song for this episode, and, like the Gunn theme, it became a hit almost from the moment it was broadcast.
    1. Theme (Jan Hammer)
    2. “You Belong to the City” (Glenn Frey)
  3. Gun (1997), “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” (The Beatles): I’ll be honest with you — I’d never even heard of this show before researching this playlist. It aired for only six anthology-style episodes, and apparently has never been re-run or issued in digital form. But it may be overdue. From the Wikipedia article:

    Each episode involves a pearl-handled .45 semi-automatic pistol as an important part of the plot. The characters in each episode are completely different and unrelated to those who appear in other episodes. The series was produced by Robert Altman and attracted numerous recognizable stars including Fred Ward, Kathy Baker, Carrie Fisher, Daryl Hannah, Randy Quaid, Martin Sheen and James Gandolfini in his first television role.

  4. The Sopranos (1999-2007), “Woke Up This Morning” (Alabama 3): Even if I’d included only the video above and nothing else in this playlist, this song would be here. (I’d have given anything to actually include the distinctive opening-titles sequence, but HBO has been very diligent in preventing its use in embeddable form. You can watch it here on YouTube, though (among various other places).) HBO continues to use that sort of staticky HBO intro for all its original programming — to this day, I can never hear that sound effect without expecting to hear it followed by “Woke Up This Morning.”
  5. CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (2000-15), “Who Are You” (The Who): CSI is of course an umbrella term for not just a single program, but a franchise of them. Although each separate show centers on its own setting, characters, and plotlines, they share one thing in common — their theme songs are all by British band The Who. (“Baba O’Riley,” previously mentioned here on RAMH, was the selection for CSI: NY.)
  6. True Detective (2014-15): The soundtracks for this HBO series are the handiwork, by and large, of Renaissance man T Bone Burnett. He didn’t write (much/any of?) it himself, but he’s curated an impressive mix of old and new songs scattered throughout the episodes, songs which — as with The Sopranos and Miami Vice — comment on and complement what viewers see and might feel at a given moment. His choices for theme songs do this for their respective seasons, too. An interesting aspect of True Detective is that its separate seasons (as with the separate programs in the CSI franchise) feature entirely different casts, plots, and so on: likewise, their themes.
    1. Season 1, “Far from Any Road” (The Handsome Family): I’ve had a draft post on The Handsomes in the RAMH hopper for a long time. Maybe it’s time to revisit and finalize that.
    2. Season 2 (official), “Nevermind” (Leonard Cohen): When this song began playing over the credits of the season premiere, supposedly, fans went crazy — where was that really cool thing they’d heard behind the teaser trailer (video at top of this post)? No explanation for the switch — if that’s what is was — has been forthcoming, as far as I know. But it’s telling that “Nevermind” likely works just as well. It’s just… different. If fans had never heard the next song in the playlist, maybe they’d never have missed it.
    3. Season 2 (teaser), “The Only Thing Worth Fighting For” (Lera Lynn): Since the “controversy” about “Nevermind” broke into what passes for the news, I have read that HBO is promoting the heck out of this Lera Lynn country-ish tune — and that it may play a significant role later in the season. I hope so; I really do like it.

Finally, here’s the playlist itself. Note that most of these come from the corresponding series soundtrack album; thus, they sometimes depart in one way or another from the version played behind the opening/closing credits. (The album versions tend to be longer.)

TV Crime Show Themes (Various Artists)

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