I won’t use this space to wax poetic about FNL’s various virtues; since its debut in 2006, television critics far more skilled than I have consistently praised the show’s creative team for the deft touch it displayed in depicting the “benefits and burdens” of community and what Heather Havrilesky called the “harsh continual sorting of winner from loser in American life.” But I will highlight one of my favorite features of FNL, one that gelled tonally with the intimate camera work and the emotionally honest writing and acting: its theme song.
It’s a common misconception that the opening sequence -- a lilting, operatic guitar riff (embedded above)-- was written by Explosions in the Sky, the Texas-based indie outfit who scored the FNL movie and whose work subsequently appeared in the television series. In fact, it’s the handicraft of W.G. Snuffy Walden, television’s pre-eminent composer. Walden is a Texas guitarist who relocated to Los Angeles in the early 1970s after dropping out of college and playing in a short-lived blues band. Once out west, he achieved moderate success, touring with Donna Summer and Chaka Khan and even receiving a credit on Stevie Wonder's Songs in the Key of Life. But his career took a strange and fruitful turn in the mid-1980s, when a talent scout searching for musicians for the little screen caught a monthly set he played at a Santa Monica nightclub.
“When they asked me about scoring for film and television, I wasn't sure what it entailed," Snuffy later wrote, "but I could see the handwriting on the wall for touring, and it wasn't pretty. I kept envisioning Holiday Inn at age 60." Like his contemporaries who set up standing gigs in Branson, Walden’s desire for stability proved advantageous. From a short 2001 profile in the Dallas Morning News:
He met with the producers of “thirtysomething” and "talked them out of some footage" for the series, which hadn't yet premiered. "Then I just sat and played to what they gave me until something started to happen. The process is basically still the same now. In bands, I was the guy who played the color and brought atmosphere to the songs. That's kind of what I do here. A lot of the time you're talking about pretty ethereal stuff. I kind of have to go away and play my guitar until something works." [...]
He's been scoring ever since, mostly for acclaimed series that enhanced his reputation whether they lived long and prospered (Roseanne, The Wonder Years, Sisters) or fought the good fight (My So-Called Life, I'll Fly Away, Cupid, Sports Night). It's enabled Mr. Walden to supplant prodigious Mike Post (Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law, The Rockford Files, Magnum, P.I.) as the Tiger Woods of TV music.
Walden won an Emmy for the stirring title theme he penned for “The West Wing,” and he continues to take an optimistic approach to his unorthodox craft, one that songwriters (not named Michael Giacchino) might dismiss as hackish. "I finally realized I wasn't going to be Eric Clapton or a rock star," he told the Morning News. "So this is really and truly a gift that most people aren't offered in their lives.”
Read this for more on Walden's creative process. And next time you flip on FNL, tip your cowboy hat to Snuffy. Without his musical chops, who knows if the Taylors would have survived for as long as they did.
*Nice try, “Lost.” You too, “The West Wing.” The only other contender would be “Freaks and Geeks,” but it’s tough to compare the two teen shows. And since the Apatow/Feig project started its run in 1999, I won’t.
**The first four seasons are currently available on Netflix Streaming.