Most opening sequences can be a good time to grab a snack. But these 22 series have credits that set the tone and get you in the perfect mood for the show that’s to follow.
Shattering the mold for TV credits, Homicide kicked off each show—at least in the early seasons—with a surreal, impressionistic montage showing extreme angles of Baltimore row houses, police-station desks, and one metaphorically vicious dog, all set to a soundtrack of electronic shredding and high, rapid percussion. By the time the cast list comes around, the image totally breaks down, reduced to blurry streaks of light, before ending on a picture of a homicide-department door. Has the world gone topsy-turvy? Is life flashing before some victim’s eyes? Or is it all just another day of mayhem in Balmer? Whatever the credits mean, they get viewers hyped-up and nervous before the story even gets underway.
A3's growling blues tune “Woke Up This Morning” plays while we ride with Tony Soprano from Manhattan (where the NYPD wears blue and the criminal-justice system has two separate yet equally important parts), to Jersey (where, the opening implies, the story behind the story unfolds). It’s eye candy for fans of vérité location shooting. The Lincoln Tunnel and the New Jersey Turnpike give way to industrial smokestacks, pre-war housing, mom-and-pop stores, and finally, the Sopranos’ gated mini-mansion. The Manhattan skyline, visible in Tony’s rear-view mirror, featured the World Trade Center towers until season four—and then, an aching blank. This is the story of a commuter, a suburbanite heading back home from the city after a day of business. But it’s also the story of an out-of-state haven for the powers behind those Manhattan skyscrapers—or at least the concrete in their foundations and the trash they generate.
According to Showtime’s engrossing series Dexter, being a serial killer—even a serial killer who preys on his fellow killers—is all about hiding. Hiding bodies, hiding slides of blood in the back of an air conditioner, and hiding a pronounced lack of human emotion. But mostly it’s about hiding those pesky sociopathic tendencies that seethe just underneath the surface. Dexter’s opening credits hint heavily at those tendencies, with a highly sensory sequence of Michael C. Hall going through the motions of his morning routine. Hall swats a buzzing mosquito on his arm in extreme close-up, then smiles. From there, the fine line between morning routine and homicide gets blurrier and blurrier. The most graphic scenes come when Hall prepares his breakfast. He slices ham with a sharp knife, butter sizzles in the pan, a blood orange is sawed in half—all shot in the heightened style often referred to as “food porn.” Here, it’s closer to “food snuff film.”
The dreamlike opening to HBO’s series about polygamy, set to The Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows,” garnered some criticism from cultural conservatives, who interpreted it as an uncomplicated endorsement of plural marriage. But the standard-issue true-love-forever imagery has too many people crowded in for comfort. Bill Paxton takes Jeanne Tripplehorn into his arms as they skate smoothly on a frozen pond. Then he finds himself holding Chloë Sevigny, then Ginnifer Goodwin. Hand in hand… in hand in hand. It’s as though the usual soft-focus falling-in-love montage were taking place in a hall of mirrors. How can one man cleave to three women? The unbalanced composition of the final shot, where Paxton bows his head to say grace at the head of a table with two wives on one side, one wife on the other—along with a disturbing empty chair—tells the tale. A lot about this family just doesn’t fit.
The TV literati venerate Freaks And Geeks for many reasons, but one thing it absolutely nailed was characterization. Even its opening credits do the work of a lesser show’s entire season, creating characters that feel lived-in before they’ve said a word of dialogue. The way each freak and/or geek responds to the forced rite of passage of school picture day speaks volumes: There’s eternal nice guy John Francis Daley, all dressed up to please his mother; perpetually stoned Jason Segel, barely registering what’s happening; Seth Rogen, impenetrable wall of cynical indifference. Hints of the internal conflict driving the show emerge in Linda Cardellini, who cops a standoffish freak attitude, but can’t help flashing a smile. And the split-second of self-loathing that crosses Martin Starr’s face after his shit-eating grin has faded is a heartbreaking moment, no matter how many times it gets replayed. All this, and the blood-pumping snarl of Joan Jett’s “Bad Reputation.” Damn, this was a good show.
There are three parts to the typical Love Boat credits sequence. First, the introduction of the guest stars, all smiling and glamorous in their little circles. Then, the dynamic shots of a cruise ship cutting through the waves. Lastly, the relatively bland introduction of the cast. Frankly, the first and last can take a hike, but that second part’s pure genius. Even if any given episode’s cast isn’t too exciting, we’ve always got that boat, offering a promise of luxury that any middle-class schmo with enough accrued vacation time can experience first-hand—or any latchkey kid in an low-rent apartment complex can take in by proxy. Let it flow, everybody. It floats back to you.
(Clip note: Check out this cast! Halston and Bob Mackie and Gloria Vanderbilt! Must be a two-hour special.)
It isn’t just the chipper whistling that makes this super-short opening so memorable. It’s the image of Andy Griffith and Ronny Howard as father and son, ambling down a dirt trail to the perfect fishing spot, with nothing better to do that day and no concern that anyone will bother them. We start with the boys approaching us and end with them turning to walk away. Who wouldn’t want to follow?
It would be wrong to discount the importance of All In The Family’s opening credits to the show’s immediate success. If all viewers ever saw of Carroll O’Connor’s Archie Bunker was him griping at his wife and spewing bigotry at his son-in-law, he’d be impossible to like. But from the very beginning, we catch him a tender moment, singing a song about times past, with his braying wife right by his side. They still love each other, and still love the working-class neighborhood that we see in shaky tracking shots. They may be a couple out of time, but they aren’t going anywhere.
The money shot of Moore flinging her knit beret into a permanent freeze-frame—just as Sonny Curtis sings, “You’re gonna make it after all”—has been seared into the pop consciousness as the ideal image of a happy, liberated woman in the thick of the ‘70s. But like its timeslot partner The Bob Newhart Show, The Mary Tyler Moore Show also uses its opening credits to establish a sense of place. Newhart walks through a bustling, somewhat overcrowded Chicago, while Moore’s in a snowy, homey Minneapolis. Less neurosis, more neighborliness—just what a woman on her own for the first time needs.
Most of Get Smart’s humor is derived from the idea that no matter how bumbling he is, or how many times he falls victim to his own beloved gadgets, Maxwell Smart is still convinced that he’s a suave man of mystery. And he is—for the first 15 seconds of every episode. Don Adams’ purposeful, self-assured strut through the secret doors that lead to CONTROL headquarters is the walk of a man with a mission, and the businesslike fold of his arms just before he’s whisked away in the phone booth says that this is just another working day for the dogged Agent 86. (If only things always went so smoothly). We can only hope that the forthcoming Steve Carell remake finds a way to pay tribute to this sequence without dissolving into parody.
Sunday nights on ABC in the mid-’70s meant space-age computer readouts, stock footage of test flights, and the cocked eyebrow of Lee Majors. The Six Million Dollar Man reviewed its premise in the credit sequence, opening with deadpan astronaut radio communications leading to Steve Austin’s tinny, desperate “I can’t hold it! She’s breaking up!” Medical boops, EKG readouts, and surprisingly sophisticated 3D armatures resurrect the Bionic Man with his superhero body parts, while Richard Anderson intones, “We can rebuild him… we have the technology… better… stronger… faster.” The swirling minor-key theme by Oliver Nelson situates the opening firmly in the ’70s tradition of lonely, laconic heroes forever separated from society by the barrier of their abilities and the burden of their missions. But the sequence’s split screens and overlaid images—taken from the period’s thriller-movie playbook—build to a pulse-pounding climax as Majors bursts out of the machines right into your shag-carpeted living room.
12. Buck Rogers In The 25th Century
It’s hard to fathom now, but 1979's Buck Rogers was to Buster Crabbe’s serials what today’s Battlestar Galactica is to the clunky original. For tykes at the time, even meatheaded Gil Gerard (a.k.a. Lee Majors Lite) seemed kinda cool. But the show pales before its spine-tingling opening sequence. After a few staccato stabs of brass, narrator William Conrad brings his hefty baritone to bear on these portentous words: “The year is 1987, and NASA launches the last of America’s deep-space probes.” (The far future of 1987, just imagine!) Over some cool split-screen shots, ostensibly made to look like a spaceship control panel, the score’s ominous orchestral swells give way to burping synthesizers before erupting into zero-G, vaguely disco-flavored triumph. The setup is undeniable: Astronaut Rogers and his shuttle are thrown from their flight trajectory by one of those handy “freak mishaps” (maybe loose foam?) and into suspended animation. Five hundred years later, he returns to Earth and proceeds to kick ass, bed aliens, and bring feathered hair to the fashion-starved future. The shots of ol’ Buck Van Winkle falling through stratum after stratum of space-time is damn near metaphysical. Not even South Park’s admittedly hilarious parody of the sequence is enough to put a dent in its corny, giddy glory.
Cases could be made for The Wild Wild West and Mission: Impossible, but the snazziest action-show credits sequence of the ‘60s arguably belonged to Mannix, which used split screens and off-angle action shots to assert a sense of dynamism, matched by the brassy Lalo Schifrin score. These credits set the standard for cop shows to come, launching the genre headlong into the modernist era.
Like a lot of ‘70s cop shows, Police Woman teased the episode we were about to watch before bringing on the theme song, but better than most—it always ended the tease on a tense scene and a seamless segue into music. Then comes the requisite rapid-fire, faintly ridiculous shots of Angie Dickinson and Earl Holliman in action, capped with the introduction of “Royster and Styles,” two characters whose goofy clothes and exaggerated machismo received a good mocking at the hands of the Beastie Boys in their “Sabotage” video, two decades later.
Speaking of “Sabotage,” decades before the Beasties made fun of cop-show credits, Charlie’s Angels essentially did the same, with an intentionally silly “origin story” that played up the series’ juvenile nature via fairy tale narration and copious clips of scantily clad, feather-haired actresses doing impossibly awesome things. Just a few years after The Mary Tyler Moore Show, the ’70s “liberated woman” was firing guns and striking fashion-model poses. They’d come a long way… and were apparently on their way back.
More cop-show parody, raised to the level of absurdity. Gunfights in police stations! Guest stars killed off in the credits! Incorrect episode titles! And, of course, Rex Hamilton as Abraham Lincoln! Either sublimely funny or supremely stupid, depending on your point of view, the Police Squad! credits certainly can’t be accused of misrepresenting the tone of the show, even when its facts are way off.
17. Hill Street Blues
Few opening-credits sequences can make a fan’s heart ache, but Hill Street Blues—like Taxi, below—does just that, from the plaintive first notes of Mike Post’s melancholy jazz theme to the flat, grainy shots of police cars rolling out of a garage onto grubby, rain-slicked streets. The show’s large cast is introduced in a series of smiling still shots, emphasizing a sense of camaraderie that we don’t see much of later. When the show actually starts, these characters all get set loose to fend for themselves in a perpetually overcast, often-indifferent metropolis.
Along with Barney Miller—and, oddly enough, Night Court—Taxi set the standard for downbeat, jazzy sitcoms in urban settings. In Taxi’s case, the Bob James theme song, so pretty and forlorn, plays over an endless shot of a cab crossing a bridge and never getting anywhere. It absolutely summarizes the theme of a show about people intending to head someplace—into the art world, or onto Broadway—but in no particular hurry to arrive.
The whistling theme song is spooky enough—sort of The Andy Griffith Show turned on its ear—but the images of UFOs, unnatural phenomena, and shadowy men in stairwells makes the uncanny look almost epic. Now add the flashes of newspaper headlines, indicating that what we’re about to see is grounded in a history that’s been hidden from us. The credits promise to let us in on a big secret, as indicated by the final words that appear on the opening of most—though not all—X-Files episodes: “The Truth Is Out There.”
The 4400's actual opening credits don’t tell the series’ backstory, which involves 4,400 people stolen from the past and dumped in modern-day Seattle. The producers do that via a quick introduction that gets the practical information out of the way. Then the actual credits come in with a dreamy theme—Amanda Abizaid’s “A Place In Time”—and a series of quiet, arty images meant to evoke that post-Rapture sense of people yanked abruptly from their daily tasks. A plate of uneaten food, a lit cigarette burning down, an empty bathtub starting to overflow, a book left unread on a park bench—they all speak to people yanked bodily from their lives with no warning. It’s like a sad little mini-movie, and Abizaid’s melancholy, whispery vocals make the images seem even lonelier. By the time the credits are over, the sight of living human beings on the screen seems warm and comforting by comparison, no matter what they’re up to.
Yoko Kanno’s virtuoso composing talent, which spans countries, genres, and eras, is a large part of what made the anime series Cowboy Bebop such a mega-hit; the episodes are titled after musical genres, which generally tie into the plot and the mood, and Kanno’s music is often key to their pacing and mood. She gets things off to a rousing start in the opening credits with the screaming jazz piece “Tank.” Meanwhile director Shinichiro Watanabe, following his usual mash-up muse, sends characters, locations, and cut-up images zipping past in an arty, dynamic collage inspired equally by James Bond films and classic cop shows.
The Simpsons’ opening theme is such a beloved international pop-culture staple that even a straight-faced live-action replication of it recently became an Internet sensation. Driven by Danny Elfman’s infectious theme—a ditty that owes a suspicious, if not lawsuit-worthy, debt to Andre Previn’s score for One Two Three—The Simpsons’ opening sequence finds each of the family members in a trademark pose. Lisa’s blowing a crazy be-bop saxamaphone solo, Bart’s in trouble, Homer’s racing away from work, and Marge is ensnared in domestic duties with Maggie in tow. Like all great opening sequences, The Simpsons’ grooves on ritual and repetition, but throws in a pair of curveballs in two constantly changing running gags: the couch gag, which is usually funny and inventive, and Bart’s opening chalkboard gag, which usually is not. Considering how conducive The Simpsons has been to insane over-the-top fandom, it’s only fitting that it’d feature a credits sequence that holds up to thousands of viewings.