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1. Big Love
It’s fairly common for television series to tweak their opening credits as the seasons progress, updating old character images with more recent ones, adding new actors to the roster, or jettisoning an opening voiceover to tighten up the run time. But some series go further, swapping out major elements in the title sequence to reflect major shifts in the series itself—or sometimes, simply to keep things fresh. Big Love took that to the extreme in its fourth season, completely scrapping the sequence of Bill Henrickson (Bill Paxton) and his three wives ice-skating to the Beach Boys, searching for each other in a sea of white fabric, and reuniting at the dinner table on their own celestial planet (a nod to the show’s Mormon backdrop). In its place was a much more foreboding sequence that ratcheted up the sense of isolation hinted at in the original credits, throwing the four leads into slo-mo freefall against a pitch-black backdrop to the melancholy strains of Engineers’ “Home.” The change coincided with the show’s turn toward the tragic—and melodramatic—in its final two seasons, as the Henrickson family struggled to maintain their connection in the face of increasing public scrutiny.
2. The Wire
Each season of The Wire expanded its examination of the effects of the Baltimore drug trade to a new sector of society, and the opening credits of each season reflected that change in focus both visually and aurally. In addition to incorporating new visuals related to that season’s narrative—street-level trade in season one, blue-collar dock workers in season two, the political sector in season three, the school system in season four, and the media in season five—each batch of credits swapped in a new version of the show’s theme song, Tom Waits’ “Way Down In The Hole,” that set the tone for that season, from Waits’ own gravelly yelp in season two to an arrangement sung by five Baltimore schoolboys in season four. Much as with The Wire as a whole, each season’s opening credits blended images of the series’ ongoing thematic concerns—institutional corruption, police surveillance, urban blight—with specific details reflecting the ever-expanding scope of those concerns.
3. The Muppet Show
Jim Henson struggled for years to find a regular TV home for the Muppets. When he was finally allowed to make a play in the primetime variety-show arena, The Muppet Show’s modest means and humble expectations showed through its intro sequence: a pair of Muppet chorus lines, some unassuming staging, and a brief cameo from the episode’s guest star. As the international success of the show enabled bigger budgets and a larger cast and crew, the visuals accompanying Henson and Sam Pottle’s sensational, inspirational, Muppetational theme song expanded in kind: By the show’s fifth and final season, a felt-and-fur cast of what seemed like dozens announced the start of every episode, peeking out from rows of lighted archways and demanding en masse, “Why don’t you get things started?” from the peanut gallery. Henson’s creations inspired skepticism in TV execs throughout the ’60s and ’70s, but at the start of the ’80s, they were the clear attraction of The Muppet Show, relegating their human guest stars to the briefest of mentions at the top of the theme song.
4. Boy Meets World
The consummate TGIF sitcom was a show that grew with its audience; as Boy Meets World’s episodic concerns moved from first kisses and basic sibling rivalries to alcohol abuse and the dangerous allure of cults, its intro sequence changed accordingly. All told, the show went through six intro sequences and five theme songs in seven seasons—the one analogy for puberty it never managed to work into a storyline. When the kids shipped off to college and the show grew broader—signified by the dumbing down of older brother Eric Matthews and the increasingly implausible presence of William Daniels’ Mr. Feeny—the new theme song came with lyrics that, appropriately, just repeated the show’s title over and over. Yet the show never lost its connection to the kid who received detention for trying to listen to a baseball game during class way back in the pilot: The final iterations of the theme sequence ended with a glimpse of the logo that first introduced Boy Meets World in 1993.
5. Mystery Science Theater 3000
The “Mystery Science Theater 3000 Love Theme” is the most efficient (and downright catchy) method of explaining a premise that even the most hardcore MSTie has trouble clarifying—man trapped in space, mad scientists, bad movies, robots, don’t think too hard about it—all laid out in 90 toe-tapping seconds of mechanized surf rock, the ideal method of disposing with exposition at the beginning of the show. The intro’s main components held up in the face of the show’s revolving-door approach to casting, as well as its leaps from UHF to cable’s Comedy Central forebear The Comedy Channel, and from cable outlet to cable outlet, as it transitioned to SyFy (back when it was Sci-Fi Channel) in 1997. The “Mystery Science Theater 3000 Love Theme” sequence served as the televisual Mad Libs that eased all of those transitions, reflecting a refinement of the show’s puppetry and set design, but never losing the handmade quality that lent fans of the show a sense of ownership.
6. The Dick Van Dyke Show
Splitting its attention between the writers’ room at the fictional Alan Brady Show and the home of its head writer, Rob Petrie (Dick Van Dyke), the original opening of The Dick Van Dyke Show underlined the series’ showbiz connections by introducing the cast through a pile of glossy 8-by-10s. But once the show’s two worlds were established by a first season’s worth of episodes, its weekly introduction was free to play up the way the parts of Rob’s life bled together—while also emphasizing Van Dyke’s knack for physical comedy. Greeted by his family and coworkers in the Petrie living room, Van Dyke would tumble over an ottoman, trip over the carpet, or fall into the arms of TV wife Mary Tyler Moore. Each pratfall was a punchy illustration of the stumbling blocks in the path of the working family man, as well as the support system that got him on his feet after every fall.
7. Happy Days
A series extended well beyond its natural life, Happy Days didn’t just change intro sequences as its decade-plus ABC tenure wore on—it changed theme songs, the billing of series regulars, even its format, following its single-camera freshman and sophomore years with a much more crowd-pleasing “filmed before a studio audience” look in seasons three through 11. What started as a naturalistic-yet-rose-tinted look at American life in the ’50s soon displayed the sunniness of Charles Fox and Norman Gimbel’s “Happy Days,” the song that succeeded Bill Haley & His Comets’ “Rock Around The Clock” as the show’s opening number and went to No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 the same year Happy Days became America’s top TV show. Alongside the improvement of the show’s fortunes came the rise of The Fonz, and though Henry Winkler was nowhere to be seen in the show’s original intro, Arthur Fonzarelli sits atop the sequence in the show’s final season, buffing his famed leather jacket in a boob-tube purgatory that finally released him the following spring.
8. The Flintstones
One of the most recognizable theme songs of all time didn’t even exist until two seasons into The Flintstones’ run. In the original 1960 sequence—which bears a good bit of the DNA that ended up in The Simpsons’ opening—Fred makes his way home to the jazzy strains of the instrumental number “Rise And Shine,” stopping off at the tailor’s to pick up his formal ragged tunic before arriving home to Wilma and Dino, where he settles in to watch TV. In season three, however, “Rise And Shine” was replaced with the iconic “Meet The Flintstones,” and the rest of the opening was expanded to incorporate other elements of the show, from Fred’s signature “Yabba-dabba-do” to the inclusion of Pebbles and “the family down the street,” the Rubbles, who all make their way, courtesy of Fred’s two feet, to the Bedrock drive-in to take in that week’s episode.
9. The Simpsons
Though bookended by chalkboard and couch gags that are never the same (except when they’re recycled), The Simpsons’ opening sequence remained all but unchanged for the bulk of its run. Minor tweaks were made during the first season: Mr. Burns and Smithers replaced the generic power-plant worker seen eating a sandwich; Bart no longer swiped a bus-stop sign, upsetting a group of generic, never-seen-again Springfieldians, etc. But the biggest upheaval came with the unveiling of The Simpsons in HD in 2009, which—in addition to adding modern touches like giving Sherri and Terri cell phones and the family a flat-screen TV—crammed the credits with dozens of minor characters and inside-joke references, commemorating 20 packed years of cranking them out.
10. Remington Steele
The first season of this spoofy detective series opened with a stylish title sequence designed to set a suggestive, sexy tone for the show, while laying out its complicated premise. Over a montage of still photos, the voice of the heroine, Laura Holt (Stephanie Zimbalist), explains that, when she started her detective agency, nobody wanted to hire a female P.I. So she created an imaginary boss with “a very masculine name,” but that fictional identity has been hijacked and made flesh by a seductive interloper, “with his blue eyes and mysterious past.” By the end of the first season, trying to seem stylish and suggestive had kept the show on the bubble for cancelation, so this was replaced with a brasher opening, set to a peppier theme song by Henry Mancini, in which the heroes sit in a movie theater, getting hot and bothered while watching their own exploits on the big screen.
11. The Mary Tyler Moore Show
When Mary Tyler Moore’s classic sitcom debuted in 1970, the show’s intro depicted a young, mini-skirted, beret-wearing Mary Richards walking around downtown Minneapolis, enamored by the fact that she’s landed in the big city, at a job producing the news at a big-time TV station. She’s looking in windows, and generally exploring her new surroundings. Her exuberance culminates in her tossing her beret in the air. While the beret-toss remained in subsequent years, the intro morphed into scenes of Mary at ease in the big city, looking more sophisticated while doing things like shopping for meat at the supermarket and interacting with Lou, Murray, Ted, and the rest of the folks in her second home, the newsroom of WJM.
12. Lou Grant
This spinoff series begins with Lou (Ed Asner), who was fired from his job at a low-rated Minneapolis TV station at the end of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, relocating to Los Angeles and taking charge of one of the city’s venerable newspapers. Perhaps to help him maintain perspective (and ease the transition for viewers who were used to Lou as a supporting character on a sitcom, but were now asked to accept him as the hero of a dramatic series), the first season’s title sequence was a short film depicting the lifespan of a newspaper. It begins with a shot of a birdie in a treetop, then shows the tree being cut down, pulped, and turned into a copy of the Los Angeles Tribune, which, in the final shot, winds up lining the bottom of a birdcage. But the longer the show went on, the less humor it seemed to have about the sacred profession of journalism, and the opening was changed to one showing Lou interacting with the other characters in the newspaper office.
The first season of this other Mary Tyler Moore Show spin-off opened with a snappy little animated film narrated by Valerie Harper’s Rhoda Morgenstern, telling her life story. It’s fun, but it only needed to be heard so many times, so it was phased out in favor of a more conventional title sequence, with clips celebrating Rhoda’s new life as a married New Yorker—at least, until the character got divorced at the start of the third season.
In the first season of this long-running detective series, Mike Connors’ eponymous hero worked for a computerized detective agency run by Joseph Campanella. In the title sequence, the familiar action shots of Mannix running, driving, fighting, and apparently trying to punch out a helicopter were wrapped around shots of rows of computers the size of gym lockers and Campanella’s Lew Wickersham holding up an old-fashioned printout card bearing the name of the series. But after the first season, Mannix got tired of listening to speeches about how he was a dinosaur and quit the agency, and the computers and Campanella disappeared from the credits—leaving only the physically exerting derring-do, sans ironic counterpoint.
15. Space Ghost Coast To Coast
As a deconstruction of the talk-show format, Space Ghost Coast To Coast was only fleetingly funny—merely recycled Hanna-Barbera animation reacting to chopped up press-junket interviews. It had a psychedelically freaked-out take on a standard chat-program intro in those days (scored by the late experimental guitarist Sonny Sharrock), which was replaced by a CGI tour of the show’s fictional home base when the show’s ambitions grew beyond making the celebrities of the day appear foolish. Eventually, as the show leaned heavier on non sequitur and blazed a trail of absurd digressiveness for the shows that would assume its Adult Swim mantle—becoming truly hilarious in the process—Space Ghost Coast To Coast lost its title sequence completely. It only makes sense: The opening was the last remaining thread tying the show down to the staid television tradition it worked so hard to upend.
16. Petticoat Junction
Like country cousins The Beverly Hillbillies and Green Acres, Petticoat Junction was defined by a light, easygoing tone, underlined by the coquettish central image of its opening credits: Kate Bradley’s (Bea Benaderet) three comely, and assumedly nude, daughters popping their heads over the side of a water tank to retrieve their undergarments. It’s ironic, then, that the only major changes to that sequence (and to the series at large) were predicated on tragedy. When Benaderet died of lung cancer in 1968, producers were forced to cut a temporary version of the show’s opening that lingered for a few beats on models of the Shady Rest and the train that supplied its guests, the Hooterville Cannonball. It’s an oddly still scene, one marking the suddenness of Benaderet’s passing and the disruption caused by the unfortunate loss of the show’s female lead.
17. The X-Files
For seven seasons, the main titles of The X-Files changed only when the themes of an episode dictated a substitute for the show’s credo, “The Truth Is Out There”—like “Trust No One” in the twisty season-one finale, “The Erlenmeyer Flask.” But with David Duchovny stepping down from series-regular status in the show’s eighth season, the addition of faux FBI credentials for Robert Patrick was accompanied by an update to the series’ opening montage of supernatural imagery: a fetus indicating the pregnancy of Agent Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) and a plummeting Agent Fox Mulder standing in for the original sequence’s Saul Bass-esque falling silhouette. With further changes in place for its ninth and final season, The X-Files gave into a slick update for the new millennium, replacing bootleg-VHS fuzziness with DVD-smooth CGI. Like the show itself at that point, it just wasn’t the same—or as good—as what came before.
Even though F-Troop lived on for decades in syndication, it was only on ABC for two seasons, one in black and white and one in color. The black-and-white first season has the classic intro everyone remembers, where a catchy song not only introduces how bumbling Captain Parmenter (Ken Berry) managed to get his own fort to command, but also contains the oh-so-inappropriate line “Where Indian fights are colorful sights / And nobody takes a lickin’ / Where paleface and redskin both turn chicken.” The second season’s intro is a much quicker affair; the lyrics are gone, and various characters are shown in different aspects of a large illustration. A possible explanation for the change was that it would have been hard to reshoot that opening sequence in color, and ABC had no desire to invest the money, given how little faith it had in the show. But that’s only a guess.
19. The Cosby Show
After launching with a fairly standard (but still adorable) still-photo intro showing the central cast enjoying a day in the park, The Cosby Show switched up its opening credits almost every year it was on the air. Using seven different versions of the theme song—“Kiss Me” by Stu Gardner and Bill Cosby—the show had seven different sets of opening credits over eight years, the vast majority of which featured the ancillary players dancing with Cosby and ended with him making a funny face. While all were variations on a theme, each interpretation had its own distinct feel. Season four, for instance, had the cast dressed in formal wear and swinging to Bobby McFerrin’s take on the theme, while season five’s opening had the growing family doing a choreographed dance to an orchestral version, all while wearing calypso-style duds.
20. The Bob Newhart Show
For the first three seasons of The Bob Newhart Show, psychologist Dr. Bob Hartley (played by Newhart) commuted from his office to his apartment, moving through the bustle of Chicago to the jazzy theme song “Home To Emily,” co-written by the show’s creator, Lorenzo Music, and his wife, Henrietta. For the last three seasons, the theme song picked up more of a funk vibe, as Bob traveled in the other direction: from the arms of his wife (Suzanne Pleshette) to the kooks at his practice. Whatever Bob’s path, though, the overall imagery and feel of the credits remained the same: impressions of a big city, and of one small, ordinary man trying to navigate his way to safe haven.
21. The Facts Of Life
Like an awkward teen blossoming into adulthood, The Facts Of Life made numerous changes as it aged into maturity. The Alan Thicke-penned, instantly recognizable “You take the good, you take the bad” opening couplet didn’t coalesce until later, with the first season featuring star Charlotte Rae warbling a far more detailed song about adolescence while the credits played up soon-to-be-abandoned adult co-stars, like John Lawlor’s headmaster. Over the years, the intro reflected even more of that constant retooling, with Mrs. Garrett’s stable of girls slowly dwindling to its core four before they graduated and donned aprons (and abandoned their own futures) to work in Rae’s restaurant and novelty store. By the show’s final season, not even Rae remained. She was replaced by Cloris Leachman, adorable scamp Mackenzie Astin, and the weary feeling that, indeed, it takes a lot to get ’em right.
Over the seasons, the Roseanne opening-credits sequence was occasionally updated to reflect the changing faces of its kid actors (and its star, for that matter), but the general vibe of a casual gathering around the dinner table stayed mostly consistent; the Conners switched from playing cards to eating pizza to having Chinese take-out, but the bluesy instrumental theme song and the capper of Rosanne’s unmistakable laugh remained mostly consistent. (The theme’s arrangement varied slightly here and there.) But that changed in season eight, when the show adopted then-novel face-morphing technology to cycle through its characters’ aging faces—or, in the case of Becky, the completely different faces of Lecy Goranson and Sarah Chalke. Then, to coincide with the biggest upheaval in the series’ history—the Conners winning the lottery in the ninth season—Roseanne made the most jarring change of all to its opening: adding lyrics to its theme song, courtesy of Blues Traveler’s John Popper.
23. Sons Of Anarchy
“This Life,” the distinctive opening theme of Sons Of Anarchy—sung by the bluesy Curtis Stigers—sets the tone perfectly for the show’s gritty, Harley-mounted gangland drama. But in season three, the antiheroic members of Charming, California’s SAMCRO travel halfway around the world to Ireland in search of the kidnapped son of the motorcycle club’s vice president, Jax Teller (Charlie Hunnam). To commemorate the multi-episode shift in setting, “This Life” was temporarily recast as a Celtic folk tune, complete with banjo, fiddle, and tin whistle. Stigers’ original vocals were retained, but the temporary reinterpretation of the underlying music beautifully underpinned the fact that Teller and the MC are fish out of water on the Emerald Isle—while reinforcing the fact that the gang, like the song, is a thing of international scope.
This recently deceased science fiction series started out with a simple title sequence: just a few suggestive images and words representing “fringe” concepts (such as “reanimation” and “psychokinesis”) flashing on the screen, accompanied by a minimalist score. By design or lucky accident, this turned out to be a handy thing, as the series began to jump around in time and spend whole episodes in alternate realities, which could be signaled by slight tweaks made in the title sequence. (In an episode set in 1985, the freakish concepts name-checked in the titles include “stealth technology” and “DNA profiling.”) Finally, in its last season, the show jumped ahead decades into the future, where mankind is making one last stand against tyrannical invaders; for that season, the “fringe” concepts included “individuality,” “private thought,” and “free will.”
25. Crime Story
Michael Mann’s ambitious cops-and-gangsters serial was originally set in Chicago in the early 1960s, and the graphics department came up with a killer intro, full of period cars, clothes, and local landmarks, all set to Del Shannon’s rockin’ remake of his classic “Runaway.” But before the first season was over, all the main characters up and moved to Las Vegas, which meant the people responsible for the titles had to rip out the flooring and install a whole different set of location shots. The good news is that “Runaway” apparently goes great with anything.
Stephen J. Cannell’s crime thriller was revolutionary at the time for its use of complete story arcs, which let the writers tell stories with a beginning, a middle, and an end; undercover Fed Vinnie Terranova (Ken Wahl) would insinuate himself with one nest of vipers, tear their playhouse down, then move on to the next case. In the first seasons, the opening credits began with Vinnie getting out of prison (where he served some time to establish his cover identity) and reporting to the Organized Crime Bureau. Then a door would slide open to reveal glimpses of what he was in for this time. After a few years, the gang in the editing room must have decided they’d tweaked this footage enough for one lifetime, because they traded it in for a generic, all-purpose title sequence showing Vinnie and his colleagues—who, in the show’s best days, seemed barely able to stand the sight of each other—hanging out together and yukking it up as if they were in a beer commercial.
27. Game Of Thrones
As the scope of Game Of Thrones expands to the far reaches of Westeros and beyond, not every storyline and location makes its way into every episode, and the ever-changing title sequence reflects that. The episode-to-episode changes to the opening are relatively subtle, as the tilt-shifted clockwork-map visuals and theme song don’t change, but attentive viewers can glean hints about the upcoming episode through the details of that map, which changes slightly to reflect the locales that will be visited that week. Expect to see a few new points make their way onto the map when the show returns for its third season this spring.