TV Notes/Critics' NotesThe 25 best TV opening credit sequences of all-timeThe end of 'True Detective' prompts a look back at this unsung art form
By Alan Sepinwall, HitFix.com
Among the many delights of "True Detective," which concludes its first season on Sunday night, has been the show's creepy, evocative opening credits sequence, which juxtaposes mundane imagery with the sort of dark symbols of sex and violence that Rust Cohle and Marty Hart deal with every day.
That title sequence continues a long tradition at HBO going all the way back to "Oz" (which had the show's creator Tom Fontana getting tattooed with the show's logo, interspersed with jarring prison imagery), "Sex and the City" (Carrie Bradshaw's fairy princess moment is ruined by a passing bus), "The Sopranos" (Tony takes the long, geographically illogical drive from Manhattan to his suburban Jersey home) and "Six Feet Under" (haunting images of our fragile mortality). Not every HBO show has been great, but you can usually count on them to have a notable opening; "How to Make It In America" was about as bland and forgettable as a cable comedy can be, yet the combination of Aloe Blacc's infectious song "(I Need A) Dollar" and images of scrappy, hustling New Yorkers was a sight to behold (and always suggested the promise of a much better show than what followed).
Title sequences are one of the many reasons I'm glad that HBO and other cable channels started making their own series, because "The Sopranos" et al began to rise just as the broadcast networks were starting to phase out long theme songs and credit montages. There had been an effort once before in the early '90s, after research suggested viewers changed the channel the second a theme song began; then came "Friends" and its catchy marriage of "I'll Be There For You" and images of Jennifer Aniston and Lisa Kudrow cavorting in a fountain, and title sequences got a reprieve. But as the hourly commercial load has risen, TV producers have had to choose between dumping long credits or dumping story time.
For understandable reasons, they've dumped the credits — or, in the case of a show like "New Girl," built a long-ish sequence that can be shrunk down to a few seconds as needed — which has left more time for plot and/or jokes, but in the process, they've lost one of the most powerful weapons for building a bond between show and viewer. When title sequences are done well, they vastly enhance the experience and serve as an effective lure to keep watching out of reflexive loyalty. The most dangerous time for me to channel surf is on the half-hour, because if I come across an opening credits sequence I like, it doesn't matter how terrible the attached show may be — say, "T.J. Hooker" — because I will be watching a large chunk of it, if not the whole thing.
While some credits sequences are simply a theme song slapped together with footage of the cast, there are three basic types of credits sequence:1. Opening Credits as Expository Device.
These are your "Gilligan's Island" credits, your "Beverly Hillbillies" credits, even your "Streethawk" credits. Whether through song, narration, or a sequence of images, they make sure the audience understands the high-concept premise in a hurry so that nobody wonders what Mr. Drummond is talking about when he plays father to Arnold and Willis, or wonders which side of the Law/Order divide Lennie Briscoe and Claire Kincaid work on.2. Opening Credits as Explicator of Theme.
These often function as little short films that use images and music to tell you what the show is about. The credits on "Dexter," for instance, are a story of how everyday life is filled with unnoticed acts of violence. The "Star Trek" credits (which also have some exposition courtesy of Captain Kirk's "these are the voyages" monologue) sell you on a vision of wide-open space adventure. The "Cheers" credits suggest the long history and deep value of places where everybody knows your name.3. Opening Credits As Setter of Mood.
There's some overlap here with number 2, but these are more about trying to recreate the feeling the creators want you to have when watching a show than one that represents what the show is actually about. The Miller-Boyett T.G.I.F. shows like "Perfect Strangers" and "Full House," for instance, featured soaring ballads and celebratory images that didn't really capture the content of those shows, but gave you the warm fuzzies they expected you to feel for Cousin Larry or Uncle Jesse.
Across the history of television, there have been so many great title sequences — some attached to shows worthy of them, many not — that when Team HitFix got together to vote on our favorites, the recurring complaint was that no one could possibly vote for just 10, and even when we expanded the field to 25, it was damn hard. In the final results, embedded below, you'll note that there's no "Six Feet Under" (even though it's my favorite of all the HBO title sequences) and no "Dick Van Dyke Show" (whether the trip over the ottoman or the graceful side-step), but then when you look at what is there, well... there have been a lot of great opening credits sequences.
Good luck clicking through without stopping to play many, many of the embedded YouTube videos. [CLICK LINK AT BOTTOM OF ARTICLE] I'll just say that my week was much less productive as a result of this project — and also much happier.25. 'The Odd Couple'
What happened on November 13? Felix Unger was asked to leave his place of residence. f you had never seen the TV show before or were unaware of Neil Simon’s play, upon which the series was based, you were completely caught up by watching the opening sequence: The split screen perfectly portrayed their lives and instantly let us know that Oscar was a slob and Felix was a neatness-obsessed metrosexual (before the term was invented). It had everything but Felix’s trademark nasal honk. - Melinda Newman24. 'The Prisoner'
A crack of thunder. The most '60s of theme songs. Patrick McGoohan driving around London in the world's coolest car. That's just the beginning to the short-lived cult show's extended intro which is essentially just the first episode in short form, and quickly introduces viewers to the show's basic plot of an ex-secret agent being held prisoner in a strange, surreal English village. - Dave Lewis23. 'The X-Files'
Quick, make sure you turn on the lights lest the whistling tones call forth shadowy eldritch horrors to haunt your dreams and drag you screaming into the abyss. To this day 'The Truth Is Out There' rings more like a threat than declaration of hope. From the alien cloud to the ghostly apparition to the outline of a man falling through the darkness, the simplicity of the unknown was — and for this writer still is — enough to send the hindbrain into fight or flight panic. - Donna Dickens22. 'The Rockford Files'
On music along, this would deserve a high spot on any list, as the Mike Post-written blend of synthesizer, harmonica and blues guitar remains perhaps the greatest original composition ever used as a TV theme song. But when you add in the answering machine gag — which, like the chalkboard and couch gags on "The Simpsons," would change every week to give viewers a reason to pay attention — and the way the slideshow images demonstrated the mundanity of Jim Rockford's work life (working the pay phone, sitting in the Firebird for long surveillance work) and personal life (hitting the frozen food section of the supermarket) to convey the show's wry, humorous tone, you've got a work of televisual art. - Alan Sepinwall21. 'Wonder Woman'
Has any opening credits sequence done more to keep a mediocre '70s TV show alive for almost forty years than this one? Granted, there are at least two generations who can't imagine anyone but Lynda Carter as the Amazon warrior, the enduring appeal of Diana Prince's chic wardrobe and, of course, the amazing costume change twirl/explosion. The real key to the love of the show is the film's signature intro featuring a knockout disco-ish theme song and those beautifully animated exploding stars (really). Of course, the intro went through some different iterations over the show's three seasons, but to this day they are all still utterly fabulous. - Gregory Ellwood20. 'American Horror Story'
Even when the show itself has been laughably bad (which has been often), the opening credits for each season have been mesmerizing viewing that I'd gladly watch over and over again long after the show is over. Using music that sounds like Muzak for the evil dead, each intro is an evocative, David Fincher-esque montage of images both terrifying and oddly beautiful -- broken dolls, pickled fetuses, bloody surgeries (I will never be able to shake the image of a gloved hand dangling a glob of human... something), mysterious hooded people, a voodoo doll being jabbed and jabbed some more. Some images wash over us, others come at us too fast and leave too quickly to register -- at least, register the first time. These three intros are the "Nine Inch Nails" videos we never knew we needed. - Liane Bonin Starr19. 'M*A*S*H'
Yes, "Suicide Is Painless" was borrowed from the movie version of M*A*S*H, but I'm pretty sure a sadder song has never before or since been used to introduce a network sitcom. Even without the words, the music set the tone for a TV show that bucked tradition (Larry Gelbart fought hard to send the laugh track packing, but had to settle for a "chuckle track") and dug deep into the dark humor of wartime. Characters died, soldiers bore the emotional and physical scars of battle, and the series finale dealt with PTSD in a storyline that felt like a sucker punch but also seemed remarkably true. There's a reason why the series finale brought in 125 million viewers -- a sitcom that wasn't afraid to be poignant or even tragic, smiling through the tears, was one that many have since tried (not always successfully) to duplicate. - Liane Bonin Starr18. 'Dexter'
Designed by Eric Anderson for Digital Kitchen and set to Rolfe Kent's main title score, the opening to "Dexter" is a symphony on the violent banality of morning ritual, or perhaps the banal violence? The mere act of waking up in the morning is a vicious and bloody affair for Dexter Morgan, whether it's the suffocating act of putting on a t-shirt or the precision slicing of a close shave or the brutal sawing of an orange or the taut piano-wire garroting of flossing. The entire sequence is masterfully color-timed to match the show's Miami flair, while the juxtaposition of jaunty music and imagery reenforces and sets the stage for the show's humor. And, in the midst of it, is Michael C. Hall's hyper-intense visage. This is what it takes to get Dexter Morgan out the door each day. And wait til you see what he does next. It's great stuff. - Daniel Fienberg17. 'Gilligan's Island'
Similar to the “Brady Bunch” opening, the theme here was created by Sherwood Schwartz who also created both series. As for this one in particular, in the annals of television theme songs, “Gilligan’s Island” might go down as the single most memorable one of all time. Everybody knows the “Gilligan’s Island” theme song, all you have to do is say “a three hour tour” and everyone knows what you’re talking about. Fifty years later, the song remains a cultural touchstone for multiple generations. The visuals are, perhaps, not quite as unique (though we love the spinning wheel followed by the whole screen spinning), but the song is without equal, especially once they altered it for season two and made it “The Professor and Mary Anne” instead of “and the rest.” - Josh Lasser16. 'The Sopranos'
Sometimes opening credits are great for purely aesthetic reasons. Other times they're great for how they incorporate the show's themes and offer an introduction to the world the characters inhabit. The "Sopranos" opening credits fall into the latter category, as Tony's journey through the Lincoln Tunnel towards his suburban New Jersey home in a cloud of cigar smoke highlight how, despite his best efforts, the mafioso's criminal enterprises inevitably follow him home. And okay, that song (a remix of "Woke Up This Morning" by Alabama 3) is pretty great too. - Chris Eggertsen15. 'The Wire'
Some opening credit sequences remain the same season after season, no matter how much the show and/or its actors have changed. Few shows, though, changed as radically from season to season as "The Wire," and the opening credits reflected that change, with season 1's housing project imagery largely nudged aside for shots of the port of Baltimore, season 3 adding in political photo ops to reflect the mayoral campaign storyline, season 4 adding schoolkids, and season 5 images of the press. Certain unifying images remained, like Bodie throwing a rock at a surveillance camera, and there was always a version of Tom Waits' "Way Down in the Hole" to tie all the pieces together, but the evolution of the credits reflected the evolution and expansion of the series as a whole. "The Wire" packed a staggering amount of information into each episode and season, and the credits did the same, with a kaleidoscope of images conveying the flow of information, drugs, money, knowledge and political influence, for good or (mostly) for ill. It's hard to pick a favorite version — I'm partial to the Blind Boys of Alabama version of the theme song, even if I prefer some of the other montages — which is why we've embedded all five seasons in a row. - Alan Sepinwall14. 'Downton Abbey'
As much as fans of "Downton" claim they're hooked on the show because of the storylines or the characters, the intro suggests that "Masterpiece Theater" knows better. People love this show because of the stuff. Shots linger lovingly on ornate table settings, boiling kettles, jingling service bells and all of the upstairs/downstairs business of running an English estate early in the 20th century. Faces aren't necessary, because, hey, it's about the stuff. - Liane Bonin Starr13. 'Doctor Who'
Though the opening credits have gotten many, many makeovers through the years -- a floating Tardis here, a psychedelic planetary explosion there, a winking Doctor staring directly at the camera for a few years -- even today's 21st century reboot of the series has never changed all that much from the 1963 original. That version is far slower and longer, and the theme lacks the current one's propulsive quality (and, thankfully, the "Star Wars"-esque musical sting that popped up in 1996), but some elements remain the same. There will always be that spooky ooo-WEEE-ooh that the BBC long ago thought might be too scary for kids and the undulating smears of light that once looked like someone at the controls was just playing with a low-tech special effect but now suggest we're flying through space. While Doctors may come and go, and companions will cycle in and out, we'll always know it's time for "Doctor Who" when we hear the most memorable theme in TV history, and that's just fine. - Liane Bonin Starr12. 'Cheers'
Gary Portnoy and Judy Hart Angelo's "Where Everybody Knows Your Name" is one of the most beloved TV theme songs ever written, a wistful anthem to the way that a neighborhood bar — or a long-running sitcom about one — can be a welcome haven after the frustrations and humiliations of everyday life. The olde timey images of bar workers and patrons throughout the decades are not only marvelously matched to the characters — the loudmouth barfly doesn't look much like Cliff Clavin, but you'd know he was the Cliff of his day even without John Ratzenberger's name to help you out — but convey the long history of this kind of place and the kinds of people who treat the bar as their second home (or, in Norm's case, their first). - Alan Sepinwall11. 'The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air'
You know every word by heart. There's just something about colorful graffiti, blinding bright mismatched clothes, and a young Will Smith rapping about life that completely encompasses an entire decade for those who came of age in the halcyon pre-recession days of the 90s. Nowadays, the opening theme has become so pervasive to our pop culture it is sung by 90s kids — now parents — to their toddlers as a modern day nursery rhyme. - Donna Dickens10. 'Mission: Impossible'
Chances are you probably already know the theme from "Mission: Impossible" from watching one of the four Tom Cruise movie adaptations or the countless times it's been used in pop culture since its debut in 1966. What you may not immediately recall is the original TV show's signature opening that went along with that catchy tune. Each week, a single animated fuse burned from left to right on the screen as clips from that week's episode would appear teasing what difficult case our heroes would have to solve. It immediately became an iconic part of the show and elements have been copied by other programs, movies and web series ever since. - Gregory Ellwood9. 'The Mary Tyler Moore Show'
Set to Sonny Curtis' "Love Is All Around," the "Mary Tyler Moore Show" is the show in micro, a feminist anthem about a woman leaving her life behind and making it in the big city (or at least in Minneapolis). The rainbow of Peignot-fonted "Mary Tyler Moores" that opens the sequence is immediately iconic, as are the very '70s-style jump cuts and zooms. But really, it's the last shot that cements this opening as one of the greatest in TV history. The whole spirit of the show, its sense of freedom and release, is captured in that closing freeze-frame of Mary smiling and throwing her tam in the air. - Daniel Fienberg8. 'The Twilight Zone'
"There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man..." Rod Serling's sonorous voice could have been piped in over a black screen and still America would have stopped everything to listen. While black and white might have been a limitation for some back in the '60s, it was perfect for the more noirish episodes of "The Twilight Zone" and the opening is no exception. Serling's explanation of what the "twilight zone" is isn't necessary to understand the show (this is the dimension of imagination, done), but it sets a tone, telling us to expect the unexpected -- but not necessarily a happy ending. - Liane Bonin Starr7. 'Star Trek'
"Space...the final frontier" may be the single most well-known phrase in popular culture, recognized even by those who wouldn't sit through an episode of "Star Trek" if you paid them a million quatloos. With Captain Kirk's bold, expositional words and that far out theme song accompanying the Enterprise's race through space, "Star Trek" instantly set itself apart from other TV sci-fi shows in both its serious tone and endless imagination. The first ten seconds or so of the show's opening are still synonymous with the term "science fiction" for many fans. - Dave Lewis6. 'Game of Thrones'
A TV show's opening credits should, in theory, set the tone for a series. It should tell audiences what to expect for the next 30 or 60 minutes. With the 2011 Emmy Award winner for Outstanding Title Design, "Thrones" delivers a classic introduction into the television adaptation of George R.R. Martin's literary series and the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros. It immediately conveys the scope, danger and beauty of the Middle Ages-inspired world. As the camera pans above a three-dimensional map of this "world" (with the sun blazing high above it) it zooms from one location to another giving a viewer a tease at where the action in this week's particular episode will occur. The intro is so beloved that the show's fans look forward to seeing how each new city or locale will be depicted for the first time. And that score? How composer Ramin Djawadi got passed over for Emmy and Grammy nominations - let alone a win - is jaw-dropping. - Gregory Ellwood5. 'The Brady Bunch'
As stated with “Gilligan’s Island,” these two could really be paired. Both are television series produced by Sherwood Schwartz and he composed the theme for both. The genius here not present in “Gilligan’s Island” is that “The Brady Bunch” opening doesn’t just offer up every bit of information you need to know in order to enjoy the series if you’ve never seen it before (it’s the story of a lovely lady…), but those nine boxes into which the characters are put remain brilliant. As the boxes appear, you get to see the family relationships established and learn how they became the Brady bunch. Then, as you continue from the first season to the last, you get to see them get older (the theme is altered slightly as well). No matter the season though, the characters looking at each other is done so well that if you’re the right age it causes a bewildering “how did they do that” moment (in fact, I just had a discussion with my daughter last week about it). - Josh Lasser4. 'The Muppet Show'
If a show is going to be the most sensational, inspirational, celebrational, and muppetational of all time, the credits better show that, and the opening to “The Muppet Show” does. We all know Kermit and Piggy and Gonzo and Fozzie, but the number of Muppets that exist out there in the universe is tremendous, and these credits make that abundantly clear. Did it always bother us that they could somehow fit that number of muppets onto a multi-tiered platform all at once (we’re going with the archway opening and not the far smaller number of Muppets that appeared in the first version)? Of course it did – have you watched how the Muppets work? Would you want to stand on such a thing? But, let’s move past that as these credits do so much more. They show exactly the sort of good time you’ll have watching the series. There is great music, a mention of the guest star, and loads of humor. We can’t imagine it was easy coming up with a new gag for Gonzo and his trumpet (or drum), but they did it anyway and it was always funny. - Josh Lasser3. 'Twin Peaks'
Angelo Badalamenti's melancholy theme (initiated by that classic reverb-drenched guitar), coupled with David Lynch and Mark Frost's deceptively picturesque images of small town Americana, formed the perfect opening for the surreal soap opera. The short credits welcome viewers to Twin Peaks (Population: 51,201), while also providing an uneasy undercurrent that reflects the town's dark underbelly. For discerning viewers, primetime would never be the same. - Dave Lewis2. 'The Addams Family'
It’s creepy and it’s kooky and all together wonderful. From the irresistible finger snaps to Morticia’s deadpan stare, Gomez’s lecherous leer, and Lurch’s organ playing. Plus with the irony of the “neat, sweet, petite” voice over, the opening told you everything you needed to know about entering the spooky manse on 0001 Cemetery Lane. And you were going to knock on that door anyway. - Melinda Newman1. 'The Simpsons'
Set to Danny Elfman's iconic score, the "Simpsons" opening would be one of TV's best even if it were the same thing every time, if it were just Home leaving work with plutonium, Bart leaving Detention, Lisa leaving band practice, Marge and Lisa completing shopping, the entire family navigating through Springfield and past many or most of the show's beloved recurring characters and then converging on a battered couch for an evening of TV. If that were all that went down, "The Simpsons" would be a Top 10 credit sequence. What puts it over-the-top is its evolution and variations over the year. Bart's chalk board punishment has regularly changed to include political commentary, pop culture references, direct interaction with the show's critics and, when required, touching tributes. The varying couch gag has become one of the show's most enduring element, with punchlines as simple as the family converging and discovering themselves already seated to the extended conceptual trip from single-celled organisms through evolution. Even if the credit sequence had never moved to HD, it would still be a Top 3 sequence. But since the shift to HD, the credit sequence has evolved even further. New recurring jokes including a varying billboard have been added. And the credit sequence has become a playpen for some of the most gifted artists and storytellers working. Banksy, John Kricfalusi, Bill Plympton and Guillermo del Toro have all done credit sequences that came purely from their own voices. Even if you're one of those people who think "The Simpsons" has run out of creative juice -- You're wrong -- you can't deny that somehow, the opening sequence just gets better and better. - Daniel Fienberghttp://www.hitfix.com/whats-alan-watching/the-25-best-tv-opening-credit-sequences-of-all-time