They stay in your memory for decades. For reasons that are hard to explain, you can’t remember you neighbor’s name. Yet, you remember every frame of the beginning of your favorite TV show from when you were ten.
Part of that is those songs. TV theme songs are ear worms if ever there was. Catchy little ditties that instantly sear into your brain and decide they are never, ever, going to leave. Names like Henry Mancini, Bernard Herrmann and Quincy Jones were not uncommon sights for composer credits.
Several of said songs have even gone on to become hits, played on the radio and in elevators for years until you’re begging for mercy for it to stop. Songs that couldn’t be escaped. Songs that people can hum three notes of and someone will name that tune.
But that’s only the beginning of things.
TV openings are about far more than great theme songs. They are about instantly putting you in the world of the show. Magic teleport devices which rip from your planet and instantly project you into the realm of Tony Soprano or some other character.
Some opening sequences are staggeringly good examples of graphic design and filmmaking.
They are truly stunning. Tiny little art pieces to lure you into the program. They make you feel something before a single word of dialogue has even taken place.
And it happens in a matter of seconds.
Title sequences are not very long. The shortest of them run just forty seconds. A fraction of the length of an average pop song. A very tiny percentage of the running time of the actual show.
But they are vital. They do things to your brain. Scary things.
See if any of the clips below jog your memory. My guess is that a river of notes and images will come flooding back. You will know the songs. You will know the shots about to flash before you.
Before you even realize it, time will have shifted. You will find yourself humming tunes you had forgotten you even knew. You will find yourself reliving entire episodes of shows canceled long ago.
Such is the power of the brilliant title sequence.
tHE SOPRANOS, 1999
“Woke up this morning, got myself a gun…” See. It’s already happening to you. Your brain is already there. You can hear the song by some obscure British band called Alabama 3. You can see the images in your mind.
The opening to the SOPRANOS may be the best of all time.
It launched a TV show on a cable channel better known for bland Hollywood movies, featuring an unknown actor named Gandolfini, that would become deeply ingrained into American culture.
And it started with those first notes and those first images of Tony Soprano in a car.
We see his journey from cosmopolitan Manhattan, Twin Towers still standing, as he drives away on the New Jersey Turnpike. We see the geography change. City glitz replaced by industrial grime. New York City receding into the background, replaced by the dying working class towns of Eastern New Jersey.
We drive past that pizza place and the unpretentious little main street of butcher shops and local hardware stores. The kind of place people might call each other Vinnie and argue loudly about the Rangers/Devils game.
And then we arrive at the land of the modern American dream. A neighborhood filled with large, newly built houses and well manicured lawns.
A quiet and comfortable suburban life for those with means.
And that’s where he gets out. We are home with Tony. Just another family man, living the life of a successful business executive. A man living side by side with Senior Vice-Presidents for insurance companies and well-dressed lawyers. A man who loves nothing more than back-yard barbecues and spending time with his family.
There’s only one difference. Tony is a mobster.
We lived all of that. Experienced all of that. We already understand Tony and his world. We are there with him, waiting to see what he does next.
And it took all of ninety seconds.
Like I said, Best of All Time.
HAWAII FIVE-O, 1968
You see that massive wave. You know, already.
And then that song kicks in. That theme song by Henry Mancini. A man who would go on to win four Academy Awards and twenty Grammys. A man with enough credits and accolades to be considered by many to be the greatest film and television composer of all time.
Among Mancini’s many, many…..many credits are the theme to THE PINK PANTHER, the title song for PETER GUNN, “Baby Elephant Walk” and “Moon River” of BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S fame.
Not that any of that matters when you’re watching the images unfold of ever so beautiful and exotic Hawaii. Grass skirts, sandy beaches, gleaming white resort hotels, pretty girls, silver jets, dugout canoes….It all flashes before your eyes set to that amazing song.
Hawaii. Gorgeous, exotic, Hawaii.
Keep in mind, this was 1968. Hawaii had only been a state for nine years. And flying was not cheap. Hawaii was not like it is today.
The fact that the show was shot on location in Hawaii was huge. CBS wanted to make sure they milked that factor from the very first second of the show.
Even now, most shows are shot on the stages and lots of Los Angeles. Back then, it was even more common. Shooting a show in Hawaii was a very big deal. It was expensive and difficult. Something the producers of the show learned in earnest once shooting began and they realized there were almost no trained film crews or proper technical facilities anywhere on the island.
Tony Soprano got New Jersey. Jack Lord’s, Steve McGarrett got Honolulu. Yet, the effect is the same. Because of the title sequence you are there with them, in their world. Ready and waiting for more.
One last thing, there was another really good opening which almost made this list but, ultimately didn’t. It was for a certain TV show by Michael Mann. Then I realized how very, very similar that it was to this one.
Coincidence or just the power and influence of HAWAII FIVE-O?
THE AVENGERS, 1966
Just to state the obvious, THE AVENGERS I am referring to here is not the mega-budget, overly fragmented and often incredibly boring movie and comic book franchise currently making billions.
THE AVENGERS I am talking about is the super-cool, super sexy, often a bit strange British show which ran from 1961 to 1968 in the U.K. and ran in America from 1965 on.
The title sequence is, in many ways, the opposite of the others I have been praising so far. Whereas something like Hawaii Five-O is about the location, a panoramic vista of where the stories take place, THE AVENGERS opening is clearly shot in a studio.
Not just a studio but an almost empty one with a few pieces of furniture, flowers and some champagne. That’s all there is. Aside from the main characters, Emma Peel and John Steed, of course. Characters which do some slightly unnatural things in the sequence. Is that modern dance at the end, there?
Throw in a theme song by Laurie Johnson and you have a titles sequence as odd as the show itself.
THE AVENGERS was a spy show set in an alternative Britain. A place of cybermen, carnivorous cats and and a menagerie of very strange characters. A place which is often heavily stylized and weirdly empty.
This title sequence sets you up for that unique Avengers world where anything can happen. A world which doesn’t really bother with trying to be realistic because that would just be boring.
TWILIGHT ZONE, 1963
TWILIGHT ZONE had many great title sequences over the years. You can see a video of all of them here. But this is, arguably, the best if them.
The visuals are terrific. A door. A window. An eye. A formula. A diver. A watch. All floating over a dark, star filled sky. A simple but effective way of preparing you for entering a world not quite our own.
And then there is the music. Even people that have never seen the show know it. It’s that famous. That ingrained into popular culture.
It was written by none other than Bernard Herrmann, the man who worked with Hitchcock on so many films including VERTIGO, THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH and NORTH BY NORTHWEST. He also created those famous violin shrieks for PSYCHO.
In addition, he wrote the scores for CITIZEN KANE, THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, TAXI DRIVER and many, many more. A true heavyweight in the field, if ever there was.
The visuals and that music were probably enough, right there, to make this opening a classic. But there’s another ingredient. Another element which makes this one of the all time greatest TV show openings ever: Rod Serling.
Writer and show creator Serling narrates these lines over those images and that music. Lines that have became as classic as the show itself.
“You’re traveling through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind; a journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. That’s the signpost up ahead—your next stop, the Twilight Zone.”
Just seeing it in writing gives me chills. It’s an amazing piece of narration. Something which now seems inseparable from the sound of Serling’s voice presenting it.
Trippy visuals. Music. A brilliant voice over. It all adds up to a title sequence as great as the show itself.
MAD MEN, 2007
It’s a beautiful bit of graphic design.
The opening sequence was directly inspired by the work of Saul Bass. Specifically, the title sequences for Hitchcock’s NORTH BY NORTHWEST and his poster for VERTIGO.
The music is an edit of a piece by a composer/musician calling himself RJD2.
The result of combining the those Bass inspired visuals and that music is a hypnotic little movie of a man falling.
It is a sequence not so much about the external world of the show’s main character but about his internal one.
It shows a man falling and somehow ending up the calm, cool, shadowy figure of man sitting in a chair smoking. A man who seems to portray advertising executive, Don Draper.
Don Draper. A man who uses his creative genius and cynicism to sell product. And everything is a product. Women. Family. Friends. Marriage.
There is nothing that can’t be packaged and sold.
The opening sequence captures all of that. It is as slick and polished as the show itself. The dark side of The American Dream. But damn, does it look cool.
The first thing that grabs you about the opening of IRONSIDE is the way the song starts. It was the first television theme song to feature a synthesizer. And it was written by none other than legendary producer, composer, musician QUINCY JONES.
The song’s attention getting, lodge-in-the-brain-forever, ear candy quality make a lot more sense when you realize that the man that wrote it produced Michael Jackson’s THRILLER.
The graphics are clean and simple. Like MAD MEN, they are similar to/inspired by the work of Saul Bass. They are as bold and aggressive as the theme song. A combination which works extremely well.
However, the music or graphics alone aren’t why this title sequence is a step above other show openings. There is something else contained in the IRONSIDE opening sequence which puts it over top.
This title sequence contains vital backstory information which is required to fully understand the show.
IRONSIDE is the story of a former Chief of Detectives who is shot and confined to a wheelchair as a result. The show is about that character, played by Raymond Burr, as he helps the San Francisco Police Department solve crimes.
That information about how Burr went from Chief of Detectives to wheelchair bound consultant is contained in the first thirty seconds of the title sequence. Not in detail. But enough to “get it” when you start watching any particular episode.
Then again, maybe you don’t really care anyway. The show is fine and all but that song…You just need to hear it one more time.
THE SIMPSONS, 1989
The standard Simpsons opening is extremely good. It shows us each of the members of the Simpsons household going about their lives individually throughout Springfield. Then it ends as they each arrive home and gather on the coach to watch TV.
All of this is set to the music by Danny Elfman, one of the most in demand and prolific film composers of modern times. He’s done scores for over a hundred films and countless television projects. Not bad for the former lead singer and songwriter for 80s New Wave band, Oingo Boingo.
There have been two major revisions of the entire title sequence. There was one in the second season. There was also another major overhaul in 2009 when the show switched to HD.
However, what really sets the Simpsons openings apart are the way they are customized.
At least three things will change every show. One, what Bart writes on the blackboard. Two, Lisa’s saxophone solo. And three, and the most varied, the gathering of the Simpson family on their sofa.
This last element has evolved into “the coach gag.” It is sometimes extremely elaborate and has occasionally been done by guest animators such as Bill Plympton.
But it gets even more bespoke than that. Entire openings are done which are unique to their episodes. Not just the Treehouse of Horror, Halloween episodes but many others.
In fact, THE SIMPSONS did a tribute to THE SOPRANOS title sequence. Which brings us back to where we began.
Honoring some of the most brilliant TV openings of all time.