Dean Stockwell and Scott Bakula in Quantum Leap

Once upon a time, in an era before DVRs, VCRs, and home-video box sets, television broadcasters couldn’t count on viewers watching every single episode of a TV series. For the producers of those series, one of the quickest and dirtiest ways to bring newcomers up to speed was a practice borrowed from the medium’s predecessors in radio and film serials: A spoken-word intro neatly summarizing the program’s premise. (“It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s Superman!” and “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?”)

On the small screen, the device found its gold standards during the late ’50s and mid-’60s, when the voices of Rod Serling (“You’re traveling through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound, but of mind”) and William Shatner (“Space: The final frontier”) primed audiences for the latest installments of The Twilight Zone or Star Trek. Introductory narration at its very best, these lead-ins evoked the spirit and tone of each show, piquing interest and engaging the imagination with poetic crispness. But there is, unheard by the average viewer (because they’re too busy hitting fast-forward), another type of voice-over intro, that is just as real, but not as brightly written. These intros exposit, they ramble, and they get bizarrely detailed—but they’re also lovable in their long-winded ways. (And even when they’re not actually that long, they still say too much.)

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1. The Outer Limits (1963-65) (133 words)

ABC’s answer to The Twilight Zone came with its own answer to Rod Serling’s iconic preambles, the first line of which is one part assurance, one part threat: “There is nothing wrong with your television set.” And then comes the next line, and the next, and the next, and so on. Pushing toward the outer limits of tedium, the so-called Control Voice (Vic Perrin, whose resume also included Jonny Quest’s Dr. Zin and Superfriends’ Sinestro) details a laundry list of the things he and his broadcast buddies can do to a TV: They control the horizontal, and they control the vertical. If they wish to adjust the volume, they will. If they get a wild hair and decided to blur the whole thing out, they can do that, too. They’re a wily bunch, this Outer Limits crew, and since they’ve colonized your TV set for a full hour, they’re going to make you listen to every last one of the Control Voice’s words—until it turns that control over to the next program. [Erik Adams]

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2. Rhoda (1974-78) (131 words)

Most opening credits voice-overs exist to explain a show’s high concept, but The Mary Tyler Moore Show spinoff Rhoda was a pretty straightforward sitcom, with Mary’s outspoken best friend navigating a not-always-happy marriage. Despite this, the first-season credits had the title character give her entire life story in voice-over, touching on birth, puberty, college, and a stint in Minneapolis (the character’s years with Mary). It finally ends with a succinct explanation of the spinoff’s premise: “Now I’m back in Manhattan. New York, this is your last chance!” [Mike Vago]

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3. Quantum Leap (1989-93) (100-11 words)

This early-’90s time-travel drama had one of the most complicated premises in TV history: Dr. Sam Beckett (Scott Bakula) had created a device that would allow him to travel back in time, taking the place of a different person from the past each week, whose problems he would try and solve, thereby setting right some wrong from recent history. With each wrong righted, he would “leap” into the body of another person, never knowing whether “his next leap… will be the leap home.” Despite a succinct explanation of all of this in less than 120 words, Quantum Leap still managed to have one of the wordiest television intros ever. [Mike Vago]

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4. The Fugitive (1963-67) (93-111 words)

The Fugitive’s irresistible premise is pretty easy to sum up: Falsely accused of murdering his wife, Dr. Richard Kimble is on the run from the law while searching for the real killer. But the wordy explanation that opened the pilot took odd philosophical detours—“Laws are made by men, carried out by men, and men are imperfect,” and “Richard Kimble ponders his fate as he looks at the world for the last time, and sees only darkness.” The rest of the first season carried a shortened version of that opening text. From the second season on, the series abandoned the dark musings of that opening for an intro that focused more on Kimble’s day-to-day (and episode-to-episode) existence, forced “to hide in lonely desperation, to change his identity, to toil at many jobs,” while searching for the one-armed man who was the actual culprit. [Mike Vago]

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5. That’s My Mama (1974-75) (63-90 words)

The short-lived black family sitcom That’s My Mama endures through infrequent but hilarious pop-culture references, as in the mention of the fictional “What’s Going Down” episode in Coming To America and Peter Griffin quoting the show’s wordy, spoken introduction on Family Guy. The opening sequence provides a rundown of the characters from Clifton Curtis (Clifton Davis), a Washington, D.C. barbershop owner surrounded by the family and friends he reintroduces in each episode, as if the audience might forget who they are. In the show’s defense, Clifton’s intro was pared down by nearly a third following the pilot, and amended to include Clifton’s sister and brother-in-law. The abbreviation was a smart move, but it was one of many changes to a show that clearly suffered from having too many cooks. In its second and final season, That’s My Mama replaced the spoken intro with a more traditional opening theme, thereby forfeiting one of its few distinctive elements. [Joshua Alston]

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6. The Flash (2014-) (84 words)

The only slow part of The CW’s otherwise riveting The Flash comes in the kickoff. Barry Allen himself (Grant Guston) tells the story of his mother’s violent death, and the wrongful imprisonment of his father (John Wesley Shipp, in a nice nod to CBS’ previous Flash series), who gets blamed for the murder. Barry also helpfully throws in details about his job, and how he got his powers, although nobody with a passing familiarity with the concept of superheroes will be surprised to learn that he uses his super-speed to “fight crime.” Although Barry accomplishes all of this in about 30 seconds like the speedster he is, at some point, The Flash is going to have to trust that its viewers have seen the show before. And now that Barry is getting closer to discovering the real culprit behind his family’s destruction, this intro makes less and less sense. An abbreviated version would be a great way to kick off The Flash’s already-confirmed second season. [Gwen Ihnat]

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7. The Odd Couple (1970-75) (81 words)

Neil Simon’s timeless tale of mismatched roommates had already been a popular stage play and an Academy Award-nominated film, but the introduction to Garry Marshall’s 1970 TV adaptation still went to extreme lengths to explain the situation in which one divorced man might move in with another—right down to the date of Felix Unger’s estrangement. (It’s November 13, which also happens to be Garry Marshall’s birthday.) With the same stentorian authority he later gave the phrase “Meanwhile, at the Hall Of Justice!”, veteran voice-over man Bill Woodson told Felix’s fall from marital grace in bruising detail, tempering the character’s optimism with a mean gut punch of introductory phrasing for Oscar Madison: “Several years earlier…” Though the voice-over was retired in later seasons, The Odd Couple was forever defined by the rhetorical question that caps Woodson’s intro: “Can two divorced men share an apartment without driving each other crazy?” If the answer was ever a flat “Yes,” there’d be no show. [Erik Adams]

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8. Buck Rogers In The 25th Century (1979-81) (74 words)

Hoping to cash in on the success of Star Wars, Universal ordered an adaptation of a well-known comic strip and movie-serial character from Battlestar Galactica creator Glen A. Larson. Buck Rogers In The 25th Century followed a NASA astronaut who was accidentally frozen in space, and revived 500 years later on an Earth rebuilt after nuclear war. But like sci-fi stories from The Postman to The Last Man On Earth (which could still be on the air when that show’s 2020 near-extinction takes place), Buck simply didn’t set its post-apocalyptic scenario far enough into the future. The opening narration starts with an overly optimistic, “In the year 1987, NASA launched the last of America’s deep space probes”—and it’s revealed that the nuclear war that devastated the planet took place later that same year. Probably just as well that Buck Rogers was canceled in 1981, because season eight would have had some explaining to do when neither deep space probes nor nuclear annihilation materialized. [Mike Vago]

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9. The A-Team (1983-87) (69 words)

Like a Vietnam vet forced to relive the horrors of war via flashbacks, every episode of The A-Team began with producer John Ashley rehashing a past its mercenaries would have loved to forget. “In 1972, a crack commando unit was sent to prison by a military court for a crime they didn’t commit,” he said, with Hannibal and company surely thanking him for spending yet another week telling everyone all about how they’re ex-cons wanted by the government. Never mind that, save Ashley, no one seemed overly concerned about that whole overarching plotline, as every episode practically depended on hitting the reset button. (Until the last season, that is, when The A-Team was finally apprehended by the military—and Ashley finally shut up about it.) Ashley also probably didn’t help by ending their introduction with the world’s worst Craigslist ad: “If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find them, maybe you can hire The A-Team,” he said, no doubt prompting The A-Team to ask themselves who the hell hired him to do their marketing. [Sean O’Neal]

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10. Hart To Hart (1979-84) (55 words)

It isn’t that Lionel Stander spends too much time introducing the Reagan era to its very own Nick and Nora Charles. Spoken in-character as Max, faithful manservant to amateur sleuths Jonathan and Jennifer Hart, Hart To Hart’s opening voice-over is relatively terse: To paraphrase, “Here’s Mr. Hart, there’s Mrs. Hart, I’m Max—I take care of them, they solve murders.” But it’s the spaces between those introductions where Max says more than he needs to, like when he punctuates a few words about Jennifer’s looks with an enthusiastic “She’s gorgeous!” But the best, strangest tangent of all arrives right before the killer tagline “When they met, it was murder!”: Max, having put his employers ahead of himself, suddenly realizes the viewers have been listening to a man they haven’t met. “By the way, my name is Max,” he adds, as if it was a recording-booth ad lib. It’s the afterthought that counts, as Max—who isn’t always on the ball, but isn’t absent-minded—slips a little filler into what’s otherwise a succinct statement of purpose. [Erik Adams]

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11. Tales From The Darkside (1983-88) (36 words)

Aware that the strongest fear is that of the unknown, the ’80s horror anthology Tales From The Darkside began and ended every episode with a thorough explanation of what nighttime is, so viewers were then free to concentrate on the show’s comparably lesser fears. “Man lives… in the sunlit world… of what he believes to be reality,” narrator Paul Sparer slowly croaked over shots of a peaceful, sunlit countryside, before unveiling the terrors of his big “but.” “But… There is, unseen by most, an underworld, a place that is just as real, but not as brightly lit,” he growled, pausing to add—just in case you didn’t pick up all the evil he’s laying down—“a dark side.” Over the end credits, Sparer returned to continue his goth poetry slam, dramatically intoning, “The dark side is always there, waiting for us to enter—waiting to enter us. Until next time, try to enjoy the daylight.” You see, the “dark side” is the opposite of light. It’s dark. Like, really dark. [Sean O’Neal]

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12. Law & Order (1990-2010) (33 words)

Law & Order is such a storied franchise, it feels like it’s always been with us. But in 1990, a show that was both a cop show and a lawyer show was unheard of. Producer Dick Wolf decided that TV audiences in that more innocent time needed a wordy explanation about the workings of the criminal justice system, namely that, “the people are represented by two separate, yet equally important groups.” It not only establishes audience expectations about the hybrid drama to come, it also firmly places the actors from each half of the show and their characters on equal footing. After 25 years, five series, and more than a thousand total episodes, most Americans can recite at least one of the L&O intros from memory. Apparently that still doesn’t eliminate the need to tell us which crimes are considered especially heinous, who pursues the worst criminal offenders, and that these are their stories. [Mike Vago]

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13. Soap (1977-81) (25 words or more)

ABC’s influential soap-opera parody had a relatively concise spoken intro, in which a narrator introduces the show’s central characters: sisters Jessica Tate (Katherine Helmond) and Mary Campbell (Cathryn Damon) and their respective families. But the full Soap intro, which includes a rundown of all the intentionally overwrought plot points, takes up significant real estate. Rod Roddy provided the narration, which doesn’t stop at the intros and creeps into the episodes. According to lore, Casey Kasem was to be the voice of Soap, but quickly backed out of the gig due to the show’s racy sexual content. But in hiring Kasem, then Roddy, the producers clearly intended to choose a voice the audience would enjoy, which was a shrewd move considering the narrator’s tendency to be loquacious. [Joshua Alston]

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