This week’s question comes from reader Dan Hamann:
A great TV intro brings us into the world and feel of the show. This can be done with music, voiceovers, clips of the actors, sound effects, and so on. I understand why many shows in the modern era are opting to truncate or even eliminate intros to cram more commercials in, but I sort of miss the one to two minutes of transition as well.
Some of my all time favorites include Star Trek, Sanford And Son, and Hawaii 5-0, but I believe the best of all time is the original Muppet Show. What are some of your favorites and why?
While I’m tempted to go with my all-time favorite, Green Acres, I think as far as pure visual oomph goes, I’m going to say The Brady Bunch. The cheesy, boxy opening set the stage for the show’s happy-go-lucky gaggle-of-kids motif. Moreover, that opening was so iconic that it’s an enduring symbol of its program and its aesthetic to this day. Brady Bunch-inspired nine-box grids pop up all the time in pop culture, reminding us that good, clean design is eternal.
I’m kind of obsessed with TV intros in general. To me, they’re an opportunity for the show to set the mood; Twin Peaks’ intro, for example, is somehow both creepy and cheesy at the same time, which gives you a lot of information about the show; and Community’s always makes me feel like I’m hanging out with a bunch of my friends. (And then I get the song in my head forever.) I collect them as souvenirs of the shows I’ve loved, which means that I love dozens of them. But, if I have to choose one, I’ll choose Deadwood’s dreamy journey through the sounds and sights of its frontier outpost. Part of it is the music, which is a twangy fiddle piece that feels more gritty than folky, and part of it is that the theme showcases one of the coolest things about Deadwood—its fantastic, gorgeous set pieces. Add to that the direction of the intro, which offers us flashes of panning for gold, butchering, whoring, and gambling, and the result is an intro that sets the stage for the show’s lens in a lovely way.
Nearly every sitcom MTM Enterprises made after The Mary Tyler Moore Show started from the blueprint of the production company’s flagship series. For The Bob Newhart Show, that meant an emphasis on character-driven comedy and stories that split time between domestic spaces and the workplace. It also meant an intro sequence that followed the titular star around the show’s Midwestern setting, a dash of local color creating the illusion that the show didn’t take place in front of a live studio audience in Hollywood. As a kid, the Bob Newhart intro (with assists from Perfect Strangers and Family Matters) shaped my perception of Chicago: Wide shots emphasizing the twin corncobs of Bertrand Goldberg’s Marina City; elevated trains coming and going from the Loop; the overcast skies that don’t dissipate until Dr. Hartley gets back to Edgewater and Emily. Now that I live in Chicago, I love that I take essentially the same path to and from work every day—though my knowledge of the current CTA setup doesn’t jibe with Bob walking south across the river just to head north by train. The soggy grayness of the original intro sets up The Bob Newhart Show’s droll sense of humor, but the dregs of this winter have given me a newfound affinity for the sunnier, wah-wah fueled sequence that preceded seasons four through six.
I don’t know if I’d call this the “best” of all time, but I would feel remiss if this article did not include a mention of the weirdest, most unsettling TV opening sequence of all time: the first-season credits for short-lived sitcom (and Soap ripoff) Grand. Scheduled after Cheers toward the end of that show’s run, Grand was a soap sitcom set in a small town that was like a never-ending series of scenes from the class war in the United States. An unexpected success in its first season, the show was renewed for a second, but NBC removed most of what made it distinctive, and it promptly deflated. I’ve only seen a couple of episodes of the show—a couple are all that exist anymore, I half believe—but it’s not a particularly good show, even if it’s an ambitious one. Trying to do a show about the class war within the rigid constraints of the multi-camera sitcom format is one of those things people keep trying to do, but it’s just such a huge idea that it doesn’t fit easily within 20-25 minutes of TV. That said, you can get a taste of the show’s ambition in its kind of creepy opening sequence, which features the cast lip-syncing the theme song and pretending to play air piano, all while looking straight to camera. It’s like some weird combination of the “I Dreamed A Dream” sequence from Les Misérables and when everybody sang “Wise Up” in Magnolia, only done as a TV theme song.
As much as I appreciate the cheesy intros to old TV shows, I don’t feel nostalgic for those days. And I see the shift away from them having less to do with commercials than using that time for the actual show, not an introduction to it. As much as I love the beautifully art-directed opening sequences on HBO shows, or the maddening catchiness of the SpongeBob SquarePants theme, I’m going with the world’s most predictable A.V. Club answer here and say The Simpsons. Danny Elfman’s iconic score, the quick montage that sets the characters’ personalities up right away, the endless variations on the couch gag (and, less frequently now, the chalkboard), it all works perfectly. A boring answer yes, but it can’t be denied!
Obviously the best TV intro ever is the perfectly encapsulated beginning of The A-Team, a TV show about a crack team of well-armed army vets who help the little guy (sexy soda-plant owners, old men who might lose their farms) while managing to never hurt a single person. The narrator sums it up perfectly, choosing to speak instead of sing some silly ’80s song: “In 1972, a crack commando unit was sent to prison by a military court for a crime they didn’t commit. These men promptly escaped from a maximum-security stockade to the Los Angeles underground. Today, still wanted by the government, they survive as soldiers of fortune. If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find them, maybe you can hire… The A-Team.” The individual shots of each member also tell you everything you need to know: Hannibal is a master of disguise, Face is smooth and debonair, Murdock is crazy, and B.A. is very, very tough. And then there’s that massive melody, which you can probably sing to yourself right now, whether you love the show or not. It doesn’t get any better.
It’s hard to imagine a more delightful way to begin a half-hour of TV than to hear Johnny Olsen intone, “Get ready to match the STARS!” But that’s not the only reason that I love the opening to Match Game ’7X. If the show debuted today, its opening would surely feature CGI graphics that swooped and sparkled across the screen, but this ’70s opening sequence establishes its atmosphere of silly fun and cheap glitz with motion. Real, physical motion. The lights chase. The marquee screen spins. The doors zip open. The contestants’ platform turns slowly around to the stage. It all has an entrancing rhythm to it, and my appreciation for it is heightened by the fact that it was all done live-to-tape. There was no post-production here, and no retakes. You can feel that seat-of-the-pants energy in a video that has been banging around the game show collectors’ circuit for years: an entire episode of Match Game with the director’s track intact. The whole video is mesmerizing, but the way that director Marc Breslow pilots the opening in particular—a sequence he had directed hundreds of times—is an electrifying glimpse of a broadcast operation in its groove. I especially love the low-tech way Breslow creates that first parade of celebrity headshots: He manually switches the shot every time the rotating green screen rotates out of view for a split second.
Some of my favorite intros are the simplest: no narration, no singing in the theme song, just a smooth, clean, kinetic collage of images and coldly futuristic music. And, in the case of Airwolf, Ernest Borgnine clumsily running. The intro to Airwolf is a study in ’80s action-show efficiency. Everything you need to know is fed to you frictionlessly, from Jan-Michael Vincent’s rugged, sub-Bond roguishness to Borgnine’s aforementioned lack thereof. His sidekick role may have been beneath the talents of late legend, but it nonetheless made my 12-year-old self love him a hell of a lot more than did, say, reruns of McHale’s Navy. Granted, they both pale before the true star of Airwolf: Airwolf, a badass, high-tech helicopter way cooler than the relative lemon featured in the film-derived Blue Thunder, a show that debuted, like Airwolf, in 1984. But all it takes is a glance at the shows’ intros to see just how superior Airwolf was (even if it did regrettably lack a young Dana Carvey).
In the all-time pantheon of TV shows with intro sequences better than the show itself, possibly nothing beats the original 1980s iteration of Thundercats, which opened with a rousing, repetitive whip-the-fans-into-a-frenzy theme set to animation better than most of what was actually seen in the show. This was an animated series where it was really clear whether a given episode went to the animation A-team, the B-team, or some guys the overseas studio pulled in off the streets to cover a bulk order of episodes, but the intro sequence looked better than most of the era’s animation. And it moved fast, introducing all the characters, giving a split-second sampling of what each one could do, and whipping through the villains as well. I’m willing to bet that high on the priority list for the people behind the current series was “Let’s make a show that consistently looks as good as the intro to the old show.”
It’s a prime candidate for the title of best sitcom of all time, so it’s only fitting that Cheers has an all-time great introduction. While it would have been the easiest thing in the world to simply run through photos of the cast, the colorized photos of a previous generation of barflies managed to capture the spirit of each character, and the nostalgia the photos evoke reinforces the warmth of the theme song. Cheers isn’t just a place where you want to hang out, it’s a place where people have always hung out through the ages. The next-to-last shot is a man holding up a sign that simply says “We Win!” Who wins? What do they win? It doesn’t matter. Like the theme song, it’s a reminder that, while life can drag down the bar’s collection of sad sacks (and us all), it still serves up small victories that are worth savoring.
Mike took my go-to for this, saving me from watching the intro or that Diet Dr. Pepper commercial and crying, because yes, the theme song to Cheers makes me well up. So, I’ll choose another TV show that I correlate with crying—Are You Afraid Of The Dark? The intro is perfectly creepy, tapping into true horror by making everyday objects—a row boat, a fan, a door, etc.—terrifying with the help of ominous music right before shedding some match-light on the situation and title card. It wasn’t the horror, however, that made me cry. Instead it was that a grade-school-aged me that couldn’t quite make it to 8:30 CST and would wake up hours later, devastated to find I had been tucked in and my TV was turned off, realizing that I missed not only one of my favorite intros, but also the whole damn episode.
While I’ve run hot and cold on the show, I’ve always found Six Feet Under’s intro to be a breathtaking little segment. Those jarring chimes perfectly begin a series of beautiful and morbid little scenes, starting with the black crow flying across an empty blue sky. Just the way those two hands at the beginning stay static until the music cues them to pull apart with perfect grace makes this one of the best openings I’ve ever watched. But the playful titles and strangely ear-wormy theme song propel the rest of it, as viewers are given brief glimpses into the work that Fisher, Diaz & Sons do on a daily basis. It’s playful, as well as deeply creepy, managing to be its own little meditation on death while also letting us know who the actors are.
This is one of those questions where I thought I was going to take me forever to narrow down the possibilities, only to have one suddenly hit me from out of the blue that is really the only possible answer: Police Squad! It’s designed to accomplish three things: to present the viewer with a genre (in this case, the cop show), to show the viewer that they’re going to be making fun of that genre (it starts with Leslie Nielsen, but it’s Alan North who really takes it over the top), and then clarify that things are going to get a little ridiculous. If the weekly introduction of Rex Hamilton as Abraham Lincoln and that episode’s special guest star—neither of whom ever actually appeared beyond the opening credits—doesn’t successfully underline the absurdity of the series, then the narrator’s continued insistence on reading a different episode title than the one appearing on the screen surely does. Although Police Squad! only lasted for six episodes, this should in no way diminish the fact that no one who caught its opening credits could ever say that they didn’t have at least some idea what sort of silliness they were getting into.
I’d like to elevate some ’60s gem like the ocelot-accompanied pop noir Honey West intro, but my favorite is probably the grungy, spiritual surfer sequence that opens David Milch’s John From Cincinnati. It starts with Joe Strummer And The Mescaleros’ pow-wow jam, “Johnny Appleseed,” which matches Milch’s So Cal sojourn in both peaceful spirit and almost comprehensible words. (Those words include a warning not to kill all the bees, which is allegorical and in no way related to the decline in California’s bee population dating back to around the time Austin Nichols washed up in Imperial Beach.) The video’s a travelogue for a worn out beach town with flashes of the sublime: washed out surfer footage, dilapidated vistas, experimental inserts, all heavily artifacted. Some moments reach heavenward like the dove or the baptismal opening, but the earthly push inland is vital. Not to go all Wes Bentley, but the insert of roadside litter helps keep this thing from floating away. Even the simple white block lettering is just right. Too bad about the show, but we’ll always have the opening credits.
I had an answer to this question more than 30 years ago, and it hasn’t changed: The Rockford Files. From the opening slow pan across Jim Rockford’s desk, adorned with a half-finished cup of coffee, a framed photo of his father, and the remains of his game of solitaire, to the weekly answering-machine gag, all the way to that fadeout image that sums up the glamour and excitement of life in Southern California in a split-second shot of a hellish-looking traffic jam, no series ever found a wittier, more economical way of telling you something about the hero and his way of life while saying, right off the bat, “This is not your father’s private-eye show.” I also like to think that the kinetic use of still images was a key influence on Chris Marker’s La Jette. (I know that La Jette was made first. This is a time-travel joke. Hello, is this thing on?)
A-here we a-here we go: Most of my best-remembered title sequences are from animated series, either from the classic Hanna-Barbera repeats that aired on cable or the Nickelodeon Golden Age. I’m glad Kyle took The Simpsons off the table because it lets me off the hook so I can talk about my favorite animated opening sequence: Hey Arnold!, Craig Bartlett’s animated series about a kid with a football-shaped head. When so much of what aired on Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network, and Disney Channel reflected life in suburbia, or anthropomorphized animals on adventures, Arnold offered the allure and grit of an urban setting. Jim Lang’s theme music has a lot to do with this, since the synthesizer-heavy jazz incorporates a lot of city noise humming along in the background, a staple of the show’s sound design. But the action of the title sequence incorporates a performative aspect to kids growing up in a city: Arnold walks around the darkened streets of Hillwood with a flashlight, slowly accumulating his friends, with trash cans kicking around and adults leaning out of apartment windows as Helga repeatedly shouts his name and gathers together the female classmates in the cast. The gender showdown doesn’t accurately reflect the nature of the series, but the busy atmosphere of the city certainly introduces the right mood.