Wednesday, September 10, 2008

From the archives: It's all in the title ... sequence, that is.

Somewhere through the huge list of comments for the discussion of the best TV pilots ever, someone asked if I wanted to talk about the best opening title sequences of all time. Conveniently, Matt Seitz and I teamed up(*) on just such a story five years ago, and I just posted it to Read and discuss. Lots of great sequences in the last few years that would no doubt be on the list (say what you want about "John From Cincinnati," but its title sequence was awesome).

(*) Though we wrote it together, and most of the better rhetorical flourishes no doubt came from Matt, I was the one who had to sit on the phone for a half-hour with the unhappy "Petticoat Junction" and "Beverly Hillbillies" fan who neither appreciated nor understood our dissing of his favorite shows. It was actually one of the more polite calls of this nature I've ever had -- no raised voices, no profanity, no invoking of deities -- and yet it went on for-fracking-ever, because the guy seemed determined not to hang up until he had convinced me of the justness of his cause. At one point -- after a crowd of copy editors had gathered around my desk, all of them wondering how long I could stay on the phone explaining over and over why I didn't think Jethro and Elly May were funny -- the guy said, mystified, "I'm not sure what I'm supposed to do here. I keep giving you all these reasons why those shows were great, and you keep saying you didn't like them." I tried to gently explain the concept of agreeing to disagree, but we were on the phone for at least another 10 minutes after that. And that is why I love my job.


Anonymous said...

Grey's Anatomy has a really cool opening....

Alan Sepinwall said...

Grey's Anatomy has a really cool opening....

How long has it been since they showed the full opening? I don't remember it popping up even once last year.

That's maybe the biggest change in the last five years. Title sequences were already becoming rarer as the commercial load per hour got bigger. But now it's so large that even shows that originally had title sequences can't afford to show them, as it gives them 30-60 seconds of extra story when they badly need it.

Unknown said...


(the end)

Adam said...

Law & Order: Original Recipe -- the guitar, the photos.

The Love Boat: dammit if I didn't love seeing who'd pop up with a silly grin inside the porthole every week. Also, with "Ted Lange as Your Bartender," etc.

Anonymous said...

The new Battlestar Galactica opening.

Alan Sepinwall said...

The new Battlestar Galactica opening.

Which has certain things in common with the original Mission Impossible opening, in that they show scenes from the episode you're about to watch. Question: do people like that, or are they like me and they avert their eyes when that part of the title sequence comes up?

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I really miss title sequences. They're often the most identifiable parts of a show and help you learn who the actors are too. I wish they'd come back.

Anonymous said...

HBO's Carnivale had a very cool opening.

Chris Lawrence said...

Babylon 5 had a couple of great opening sequences; I think season four's was the best of the bunch.

As far as contemporary opens go, I like House's open. I'm always trying to figure out if the producers are trying to communicate something about Cameron by having Jennifer Morrison's name be the only actor credit not over an anatomy drawing. Mostly though I like the instrumental from Teardrop.

Anonymous said...

No "Miami Vice"? No "Hill Street Blues"? I'd include both, not only on their own merits, but because they were such stylistic groundbreakers. Without Hill Street, you don't get the "ER" opening that made your list; without "Miami Vice," you don't get "The Sopranos."

Beyond that, I second the nostalgia for "The Love Boat." My college roommate and I invented a drinking game that required you to predict the episode's hookups strictly from the porthole title sequence ("Shelley Winters and Don Rickles!"), and to drink whenever you were wrong. Or right. I can't remember.

Anonymous said...

I'm always trying to figure out if the producers are trying to communicate something about Cameron by having Jennifer Morrison's name be the only actor credit not over an anatomy drawing.

I don't watch House regularly but I noticed the difference immediately and wondered about it as you do.

Alan, re: scenes of the upcoming episodes in the opening - I don't avert my eyes for two reasons: one, in BSG's case, the frames are so short many times it's difficult to know what's really happening. Two, I'm not a spoilerphobe. But, I can absolutely understand why people don't like scene snippets. What I do love about the scene snippets is that because of the short cuts and the music ratchets up my anticipation of what I'm about to watch.

Anonymous said...

Weeds! Weeds and Six Feet Under are the ones I think of right away of recent-ish shows. But I TOTALLY agree with Dexter, too, now that someone mentions it. It's probably the best opening of all current shows. (Weeds changed theirs--the new way is OK but nothing tops how Little Boxes with the weird suburban scenes would accentuate my excitement of being about to watch a new episode during those first two seasons).

Alex said...

Listen, let me explain more clearly why Beverly Hillbillies rules your face...I'm sure you'll get it eventually.

No "Match Game"? C'mon now!

I forget what my point was, but it was that you should repost the article about the best music too. We could really fight about that! I assume you did include "Greatest American Hero", which is distressingly difficult to sing at karaoke.

Bobman said...

1. Totally agree about Dexter. Such a great opening (to such a great show).

2. I think it's been brought up in the comments here before, but I also cover my eyes during the BSG opening credits. I didn't used to, but found myself watching the show in anticipation of what I had seen during the opening scenes. "Ooo, I saw Starbuck all bloody, I wonder how that will come to be...." Destroyed watching the show for me. But I like the fast-paced tribal drum music so much that I just cover my eyes rather than hit it with a 30-second skip :)

Anonymous said...

Some of my favorite openings:

DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES (say what you will about the show, but the art/music on the full opening is nicely done)

TL said...

Question: do people like that, or are they like me and they avert their eyes when that part of the title sequence comes up?

The BSG "flash forwards" in the credis are so quick and so out of context that I've never thought anything was spoiled by watching them. I've even tried to look out for what I've seen in the credits while watching the show and most of the time I can't remember what I've already seen to notice when it come up in context.

Anonymous said...

I'm still fairly fascinated by the editing in the Scrubs opening.

MASH and 6FU are a couple of my favorites, off the top of my head.

Fun topic, I'm sure I'll pop on later as more occur to me.

BTW, worst opening ever: Two and a half Men. I hate that opening with the heat of a thousand suns.

wcdixon said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
wcdixon said...

I went down this road last year:

It seems like the premium pay nets (Showtime, HBO) are pretty much the only ones making 'real' title sequences anymore - see 'True Blood'

Grunt said...

Can I do a little plug here for How I Met Your Mother's opening? Short, catchy, and fun. Perfect.

Anonymous said...

Freaks & Geeks

Joan Jett plus the yearbook photoshoot, the outcome of which defines each character's personality in a single frame.

Anonymous said...

I knew title sequences were a thing of the past when ER stopped doing them.

Anonymous said...

Hill Street Blues

The tune - Great

The shots - Rollin' out to the most decrepit urban vistas - This ain't Mayberry (which by the way also had a pretty good opening: Who wouldn't want to go fishin' with Andy and Opie?)


Unknown said...

I like the Psych titles, though I really liked the longer version (and the Christmas, and the Spanish) that all got trotted out once especially.

Anonymous said...

The title sequence in “Big Love” set to “God Only Knows” by the Beach Boys expertly conjures up the show’s various themes: religion; romantic love; and the quartet’s dreamy notion of their family--when in fact they’re constantly on thin ice.

Two classic sitcoms with standard opening sequences that set the mood perfectly were “Newhart” (Mancini-composed, Riddle-arranged strings set to idyllic Vermont scenes as you make your way toward the Stratford Inn) and “Taxi” (the somber yet tuneful Bob James composition as a Checker cab drives endlessly across the Queensboro Bridge)

But as far as getting the job done (where a catchy tune and a memorable scene mesh perfectly and immediately transport you to the show’s locale), I’d have to say the all-time champ is “The Andy Griffith Show.” With three notes, you’re in Mayberry with Andy, Opie and their fishing poles. Likewise, if you see five seconds of the opening without sound, it’s impossible to refrain from whistling.

I do think that the cold opens hurt the overall experience, and that this is one of the reasons why the HBO shows seem to have a more ardent following.

Nick Edwards said...

I think the BSG opening "spoilers" often make the show better. They're usually short, violent, and out of context enough to be meaningless when you first see them. However I often find myself flashing back to them a few seconds before they occur in the episode proper, which sets up a lot of nice "Oh!" moments.

That said, there's a lot of potential for them to go wrong if they weren't done by a show as competent as BSG.

My all time favorite show opening was Carnivale, which still blows me away. And my favorite from recent crops is Journeyman's, which I find mesmerizing, both the great instrumental, and some of the rewound footage.

My candidate for opening that's far better than the actual show was New Amsterdam, which had a nice pseudo-timelapse opening.

Anonymous said...

from the chalkboard to the sax solo to the way they sit on the couch, the simpsons opener is great. i think you can tell from the way the family takes the couch whether the episode will be good or not. the quality is inversely proportional to the complexity of the gag. if they sit down and the couch simply falls over, it's gold. if there's some elaborate sequence featuring ancillary characters, you're screwed.

Anonymous said...

I hate to parrot others, but Dexter's title sequence is by far my favorite. I also agree with the poster that said Freaks and Geeks accurately described each character with little more than a few seconds of screen time.

I thought that both the Deadwood and Rome titles did a really good job of conveying a tone but not necessarily showing all their cards. You knew you were about to enter a dangerous world that would take over your TV screen for the next hour.

The Wire’s opening titles are still one of the few that I actually sit through and enjoy even while watching consecutive episodes on DVD.

Anonymous said...

Gotta be The Prisoner.

Best opening sequence of all time. 3! full minutes long and yet every time I watch an episode I watch the entire thing, fascinated. In an era before fast-forwarding, they came up with a fast-forward-proof opening sequence.

Anonymous said...

YES to Newhart, Taxi, and Match Game!

And I thought of another: DARIA. Love that opening sequence. (Oh how I wish they'd release that one on DVD--it has the all too common music licensing problem).

I'm actually not a huge fan of the Big Love sequence, much as I love that show, and the song too. The metaphor's a bit obvious for my tastes. I suppose you could argue that Weeds or Six Feet Under is just as ham-handed, but maybe not having the characters themselves acting it out makes it a little more palatable to me.

Mapeel said...

Ah, The Avengers, both the black and white and the color versions. Great song, completely captures the characters.

Miami Vice. Deadwood. Both still give me chills.

Anonymous said...

Are Rosie O'Donnell & I the only ones who think "The Nanny" is the greatest title sequence ever? I love how it just captures the cartoony zaniness of the Sheffield household (and a woman from Flushing, Queens).

Steven Timberman said...

I feel dirty for hopping on the Mad Men Love Train so late, but I love the great title sequence of Don's shadow falling through the evolution of sixties advertising.

Also, thanks for talking about Boomtown. I know that the show was often times a confusing mess, but I enjoyed the heck out of it just because it tried something new.

And it had a killer title sequence.

Unknown said...

Chris Lawrence said, re: House

"Mostly though I like the instrumental from Teardrop."

Actually, the title of the song is "Teardrop" and it's by a group called Massive Attack. From the album Mezzanine.

Plus, there are words, eventually: "Love, love is a verb; Love is a doing word. Feathers on my breath..."

Great, great song, a personal favorite.

Matt said...

I think in part the drop in title sequences has hurt actors looking for recognition--it used to be that the title sequence gave every regular cast member a chance to have their head shot linked with their name. Now, that happens so rarely that sometimes, people can't identify the actor that goes with the character.

Anonymous said...

No question, Police Squad had the best opening of all.

Great music theme.
A guest star who gets killed in every opening.
"And Rex Hamilton as Abraham Lincoln."

Anonymous said...

Murder One. It was a good show, but I'd have watched it just for the sake of its opening credits.

Rev/Views said...

My favourite title sequences are (In alphabetical order):

The A-Team (They still make me feel like a little kid again)
Captain Scarlet
Dead Like Me
Firefly (mostly for the song)
Fresh Prince of Bel Air
Homicide:Life on the street (Earlier version, the one mentioned in your article).
Police Squad
The Prisoner
Six Feet Under
Sledge Hammer
Yes Minister/Yes Prime Minister (just delightful to watch)
The Wire (Season 1 especially, but I love the use of the different covers for "Way Down in the Hole" in each season)
The 4400 (I just adore the song)

Man, that's more than I thought it would be when I started.

Anonymous said...

My favorite title sequence is Mad Men's. It's so classy, with the violins and the cello. And those bongos? That's the beat of the future.

I also love its slick visual style. You feel 10% cooler just because you're watching a show with a title sequence that hip.

My second favorite title sequence is the one from the animated series Batman Beyond.

Created by the world-class cartoonist Darwyn Cooke, its design sense is impeccable and it would probably surprise people how good it is considering it was made for a Saturday morning cartoon.

Anonymous said...

"Miracles" had one of the best creepy, atmospheric openings.

The opening theme song for "Wonderfalls" was really fun, quirky and catchy.

It's a shame that so many series now forgoe an opening theme for a brief title card.

Anonymous said...

How could you forget "Fantasy Island"? As a kid on Saturday night (after Love Boat) my siblings and I would always ask to stay up just long enough to see "da plane, da plane"

Also, I gotta say I'm a fan of the

Big instrumental openings L.A.Law and Dallas - They set the tone for the "over-the-top"ness of these shows.

The 'catchy' song openings e.g. Family Ties, Growing Pains, Good Times, The Jeffersons, Facts of Life ... I miss these

Anonymous said...

Re: The new BSG. I also hide when the spoilers come up. I skip the previews form the week before, why would I wnat to seee a preview just before it starts?

Re: Opening. One I haven't seen mentioned was Land of the Lost.Not a primetime show but C'mon, Now that's an opening! Catchy song, rapids, a star with only one name and Dinosaurs. What more do you want?

Matthew said...

So "Beverly Hillbillies" fans are worse than Moonlight fans? Who knew.

That's maybe the biggest change in the last five years. Title sequences were already becoming rarer as the commercial load per hour got bigger. But now it's so large that even shows that originally had title sequences can't afford to show them, as it gives them 30-60 seconds of extra story when they badly need it.

Desperate Housewives is another one like that. They used to only have the abbreviated title sequence for season finales, so they could have enough time to fit in as many shocking revelations as possible, but now it seems to be the default position. (And no, I don't know why I'm still watching Desperate Housewives.)

Which has certain things in common with the original Mission Impossible opening, in that they show scenes from the episode you're about to watch. Question: do people like that, or are they like me and they avert their eyes when that part of the title sequence comes up?

Personally, I like it. I think there was one episode where I actually felt that the title sequence had actually spoiled a major development in the episode (I can't think what it was though), but generally I feel like the snippets are too quick and out-of-context to actually spoil anything. All it does is get me excited for what I'm about to see. (As someone discovering the original Mission Impossible series on DVD, I think those are slightly more spoiler-dangerous, since there is more variation in the episodes. But they also tend to be a bit more mysterious - why is there a shot of a cat running across a room? Why are they walking through a film set forest? Where the BSG tend to be more "explosion, cylon ship firing, sex, someone punches someone, end")

Nice pick on Survivor. I never would have thought of it, but they do do really great titles on that show. (Although I was always annoyed by the way they had them grouped by the starting tribes, even when the tribes were mixed up or merged. Then they started deleting people as they were voted off, and that was even worse.)

Regarding the House opening - in the US, you get the song Teardrop for the opening sequence, but elsewhere (such as here in New Zealand), we get a specially composed theme.

Eric said...

How about some love for MST3K? Not only a great opening scene, but watching the closing credits (Keep Circulating the Tapes!) always felt like an accomplishment.

And lots of other shows should tell their views "It's just a show, you should really just relax."

Anonymous said...

that 70's trick sounds great

And Alan, I cannot believe you left off two of the greatest openings ever....Dragnet, and the haunting sounds and peaceful pictures of Twin Peaks

as for modern day, I agree, rescue me is a great opening

Anonymous said...

Of all the shows mentioned so far, the opening credits that I really like are...
The Nanny, which uses the classic approach of re-telling the premise in a humorous song.
The 4400. I also love the theme song and still remember how the letters of the actor's names just sort of floated away.
I also like how the letters in the Sopranos credits slide off to the side.

Anonymous said...

I avert my eyes during BSG flashes. Even the quick glimpses give me too much of a roadmap to upcoming plot twists.

Some shows I haven't seen mentioned:
The Addams Family
Get Smart
Happy Days
The Office (British version)
Quantum Leap

I know you nixed cartoons, but something special has to be said for Spielberg's early 90's cartoons (Tiny Toons, Animaniacs, Freakazoid). Those openings were a step above other cartoon openings.

On the subject of kid's show, anything Jim Henson did had a great opening (Muppet Show, Fraggle Rock, Sesame Street...)

Finally, the most perfect opening ever is Baywatch. The opening was the show- and you knew exactly what you were in for when you saw it.

Anonymous said...

I love when a show has a really goofy opening song that makes fun of the show; someone's already mentioned MST3K, and I'd add "It's Garry Shandling's Show" to that list.

Anna said...

The Buffy titles are amazing. A couple years ago I watched all seven seasons of that show in like three months, and I never, never got sick of that song. I rocked out to it every time. Plus, my friend and I would try to play "name that episode" for all of the selected images, which was really hard but fun.

Six Feet Under, on the other hand... that titles sequence was amazing maybe the first three times I saw it, but by the fourth time I was freaking bored. I skipped it every single time after that.

And Mary throwing her hat up in the air is actually the only thing I remember about the Mary Tyler Moore Show titles. It's definitely iconic by itself, but I wouldn't be able to count it as a title sequence.

On my list I'd put Buffy, new BSG, MASH, Carnivale (though I hated that show), The West Wing, and Northern Exposure (the moose! come on!)

Anonymous said...

Re BSG: The second episode ("Water," if I recall correctly) was when I figured out that those flashes were from the ep I was about to watch. Totally ruined that ep for me by giving away the a big early plot twist. I've covered my eyes since.

Although I really don't care for the show, Star Trek: Voyager had an title sequence filled with astonishingly lovely images.

I've always thought Angel's theme music was a perfect fit for the show, catching the exact right mood. And not to come off as too much of a Whedon fanboy, but Firefly's opening song summed up the protagonists' ideology remarkably well, and the images accompanying it established the show's combination of high- and low-tech and its multicultural perspective quickly and effectively.

Lori said...

My hands-down favorite opening sequence of all time is from HBO's 'Carnivale.' It's visually stunning, and immediately conveys both the Depression-era setting and religious/supernatural themes of the show. The first time I watched Carnivale I rewound the title sequence and rewatched it twice before going on to the show, it was that awesome.

Unknown said...

Oh! Will you do a list of the worst title sequences, or elements that make a bad title sequence? I get completely creeped out by title sequences that involve face-morphing (Two and a Half Men, or example, or Roseanne in the later seasons).

Anonymous said...

What, nobody's going to give a shout-out to the Drew Carey Show opening?


Both the song and the opening credit video sum up for me what it's like to be from a town that only a mother could love.

Alan Sepinwall said...

What, nobody's going to give a shout-out to the Drew Carey Show opening?

It was mentioned in the original story I linked to.

arrabbiata said...

My all time favorite has to be The Six Million Dollar Man. Evokes aspects of military, medicine, computers, technology, espionage, and science fiction. The drumbeat, flashing lights, random numbers, radio chatter, NASA footage, superimposed graphics of instuments and life signs, the computer style displays and descriptions of the bionic parts, and of course, the famous narration. Probably the first prime time dramatic series that I watched regularly as a kid. The opening still holds up, though watching it now, I don't know quite what to make of scenes of Lee Majors running through fields and forests in a leisure suit.

Other previously mentioned favorites- Avengers (black and white Emma Peel episodes especially), The Twilight Zone (all 5 seasons) The Prisoner (including the everchanging Number Two/Number Six dialog), The 4400 (the lifting names, the showing of neglect/decay in the places left behind), The Sopranos, Mad Men.

Honorable mentions- The Incredible Hulk, Emergency, Hawaii Five-O.

I'm sure I watched plenty of tv shows in the 80's, but none that I remember had openings that would make my list.

The credit sequence for MASH is a classic, but I was always bothered by how the later seasons of the show used a rendition of "Suicide is Painless" that seemed way too upbeat and cheerful.

Anonymous said...

It was mentioned in the original story I linked to.

Oops! My bad; the link didn't show up when I hit "show original post" ... Well, glad to see you share my good taste in opening credits! (grin)

Anonymous said...

OK, now that I've actually read the article... (sheepish grin) ...

No props for Gilligan's Island? I'd put it in the "openers better than the show" category, but like the Beverly Hillbillies opening theme, it's a memorable, singable song that sets up the entire backstory while the visuals illustrate the characters and the situation that put them out there.

I've heard that the entire series was sold on the basis of that theme song: the network didn't want it because the backstory was too complicated, and the creator promised to put the entire backstory into the opening theme song. It worked!

Steve B said...

The Wire, The Wire, The Wire. Especially Season 4, but that may just due to that being my favorite season. I also liked Rome's, it was slick but understated at the same time.

I always look away during the Battlestar Galactica opening. That really is one where you love it or hate that they show spoilers.

samuel.x.killer said...

Recent: The Wire. Convinced me a title sequence could be art.

Classic: Mary Tyler Moore. I'm an aspiring comedy writer on my own in Hollywood far too young to have seen the pilot in first-run but bought it on iTunes. By the end of the title sequence, I was so inspired I was nearly moved to tears. No joke. *I* could make it after all...

Bryan Murray said...

I stopped watching the previews for upcoming episodes a few years ago on shows like Lost, BSG, etc. so I think BSG's opening flashes are brutal. Always avert my eyes during that part and I can't believe anyone actually enjoys seeing upcoming snippets of scenes. I thought Boomtown was a great show with a terrible opening and a song that didn't fit the show at all. Only one show had a theme song rapped by one of the biggest movie stars in the world however...Fresh Prince.

Anna said...

Oh, Roseanne! That had a great title sequence in the early years, with them all sitting around the kitchen table. I love that. But, yes, the face-morphing in the later years was awful.

Anonymous said...

The Andy Griffith Show
I Dream of Genie
Gilligan's Island
Sesame Street (I'm thinking of the sequences from the 80's, but the song + kids has always been the same)
All in the Family
The Jeffersons (Movin' on up!)
The Love Boat
Growning Pains
Saved by the Bell (perhaps just for gen X & Y?)
The Fresh Prince

Catchy themes, maybe not so iconic:
WKRP in Cincinatti
The Facts of Life
The Golden Girls

Bobcat said...

Did no one mention C.H.I.P.S.? I never saw a single episode, but i always watched the title sequence.

Anonymous said...

I really enjoy the "Mad Men" title's not too long and it's undeniably "cool."

All of "The Wire" openings were excellent, my favorite being Season 4 with the cyclical images near the end. That show was on something special in Season 4 (OK in every season but particularly 4)

Anonymous said...

My favorite opening sequence was Combat. Explosions that blotted the screen that pulled back to be the camouflage of Vic Morrow's helmet followed by the opening Combat March theme. If you grew up in the early 60's, you know exactly what I mean

Dan said...

Even though it's very short, I like the Scrubs opener a lot. The song "Superman" by Lazlo Bane is just perfect for describing the lives of the characters, and the way it's all edited is an original bit of imagery.