The TV intro is both an endangered species and at the height of its creativity; with networks adding more minutes of commercials to shows the intro has been the first casualty (a half hour program in the 1950s or 60s would usually run 25 to 27 minutes of content; that number is now down to between 20 and 22. This means that when you watch old shows on cable TV, you're probably seeing edited down versions). A whole generation of kids is growing up without the amazing wonder of TV theme songs; imagine that bit in Stand By Me where the kids are singing the theme to Have Gun, Will Travel and replace it with the kids simply making the Lost opening whomp. It isn't the same.
At the same time, many cable channels have gone classic with their show intros, and we're seeing a creative boom on HBO, AMC and the like. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times as the man might say.
Recently a website called Pajiba ran an article listing the 60 'coolest' TV intros of all time. 'Cool' is essentially a nonsense word, which can mean anything the author wants it to mean. In this case it seems to mean 'Intros to TV shows with which I am familiar because they're from the last couple of years.' A scant NINE of the 60 'coolest' are from before 2000 (I am not counting Dr. Who, as it's the new Who that Pajiba features). Only The Twilight Zone is listed from before the 80s, and that feels like an obligation.
What are Pajiba's rules for coolest TV intros? It's unclear, as none of the intros have any text explaining what's cool about them, and the opening paragraphs of the article are confusing (the author dismisses shows whose intros are mostly clips from the show itself, and then lists Max Headroom, a program he probably only knows because it just came out on DVD). I have tried to reconstruct what this author would consider 'cool,' and have put together a list of the coolest TV intros this young person missed or never heard of, trying to focus on the 80s or earlier.
A note: Pajiba weirdly dismisses the theme song as an integral element of a TV intro, missing the idea that the branding power of a theme song is indelible. I bet most of you could sing the Gilligan's Island theme right now. With that in mind I have left off shows whose theme songs are better than their intros - shows like Barney Miller or Sanford & Son. As a result I have also left off M*A*S*H and All in the Family, as well as Gilligan's Island and The Brady Bunch; while I think these are among the best TV intros of all time - they perfectly set mood and character and, in the case of the last two, succinctly offer the show's concept - the actual intros aren't particularly 'cool.'
Also, since this is a response to Pajiba's list, I won't repeat the few things they got right. Game of Thrones and Mad Men both have some of the best title sequences ever, and belong on any list - but they're already on Pajiba's list.
A final note: for purposes of keeping this focused, I have left out any animated TV shows.
Here they are, in no real order.
The Wild Wild West
Yes, there was a The Wild Wild West before Will Smith. The original CBS show had this amazing intro - this one is from season 2, when it went to color, and which still included James T. West punching out a lady. I think this intro is amazing on a number of levels, not the least of which it's simply gorgeous and imaginative. What's more it sums up the light, fun tone of the program in a few seconds. I think if the theme song was as strong as the visuals, this intro would be much more famous.
Lost In Space
With some great shows it's hard to pinpoint what's the best version of the opening. Many series have changed their intros over time, and Lost In Space not only changed the intro graphics, but jazzed up the theme. Both versions of the theme song are by John Williams, and I prefer the second version. Both versions have a swinging, Saul Bass-inspired look, but the original black and white credits are filled with mod cut outs of astronauts tethered together by a rope. I like the color version, which opens with a heart-pounding countdown (over the final image of that week's cold open) followed by slightly more traditional shots of the actors.
I can't find the black and white credits on YouTube, but the show is on Hulu; click here and go to about 4:21. Here's the color version, with the cooler music. I expect raging debate over these intros in the comments.
The Outer Limits
Yes, The Twilight Zone has the more famous opening, thanks to the theme song and Rod Serling's amazing narration, but I think The Outer Limits truly gives that show a run for its money. The opening to The Outer Limits is straight up menacing, with a fourth wall-breaking conceit that must have been mind-blowing back in the day. Hell, it's still ballsy and incredible. What I especially love is the graphical simplicity on display.
So maybe I'm letting nostalgia get the better of me here, but wasn't everything simply cooler back in the day? The opening of The Avengers - no, not the Sean Connery movie or the Marvel Comics film - is wry and arch and fun and totally cool. I mean that in the most old-fashioned way - Emma Peel and John Steed are in control and laid back. Their feet are up on the table, for the love of god! And that Diana Rigg is pure sex appeal. Add to that Laurie Johnson's theme, called The Shake, and you have an indelible and awesome intro.
Fresh Prince of Bel Air
Will Smith's TV show features what is probably one of the last truly great theme songs in the tradition of the Sherwood Schwartz shows. Funky, funny and informative, you got the entire back story for Fresh Prince in a minute and change. What's more, the visuals, which were based on the videos of Fresh Prince and Jazzy Jeff, are cartoonishly great. This intro, like the best of-the-moment TV intros, dated IMMEDIATELY, but has now swung back around to being cool. What's more, this theme song is an unstoppable meme.
Another classic theme song that has penetrated the pop culture, Cheers' intro also has a wonderfully clever conceit - there are no shots of the bar today, just vintage pictures of people who sort of resemble the actors in bars. Not only are the hand-tinted photos cool, this intro effortlessly sets up the atmosphere of the bar Cheers - a place that has always been there, and that will always be there. And that the people within have always been there, and will always be there.
If I were ranking these in any order, Police Squad would be jostling for the top spot. It's jammed with jokes - Rex Harrison as Abraham Lincoln being one of my favorite of all time - it always has a guest star dying, and the title of the episode never matches what the narrator says. It's baffling to me that anyone could attempt a list of the best TV show intros and missed this, which stands on its own and is also a spot-on parody of cop show intros from the 60s and 70s.
I Dream of Jeannie
I've always had a soft spot for animated intros, like on I Dream of Jeannie and Bewitched. Jeannie's the best, I think, because of the mix of theme song and wonderful visuals. And like all the best intros, it sets up the show perfectly in just seconds - there's no need to ever explain how Larry Hagman came across a genie, because we see it in the opening!
The Six Million Dollar Man
When I was doing research for this article I found myself watching TV intros that I loved as a kid that didn't really hold up today. Turns out Manimal's intro is terrible! But The Six Million Dollar Man fucking WORKS even in 2011. I think part of it is that any intro with cool narration will still hold up, but a big part of what makes Six Million Dollar Man's intro remain fresh is that driving drum beat. Also still amazing: the superimposed 'high tech' military radar and dials, as well as all of the computer imagery. This intro, to be fair, promises something way more ass-kicking than the show could deliver on a weekly basis, but it's a fucking incredible opening nonetheless.
The Odd Couple
Not every great show had a great intro, but when the intro was as good as the show, legends were made. I think The Odd Couple remains one of the funniest network shows of all time, and I kind of like it better than the Neil Simon play or the movie. I know, I know. Anyway, the opening of the has a delightfully serious narrator giving us the back story while a perfect theme plays. I love the shots of Felix and Oscar going about their days - the characters are quickly and silently established. The show changed the opening over the years, with different ending bits - one time Oscar wipes his hands on Felix's shirt, another time he puts a shoe full of fountain water in Felix's pocket. Those scamps.
The Dick Van Dyke Show
Perfect. Simple. Elegant. Funny. Like many other shows, the intro to The Dick Van Dyke Show changed over time, with Dick missing the ottoman but tripping on the carpet.
More killer theme music. I love the absurdity of this intro, with the seemingly endless row of doors leading to... a telephone booth. This show, the brain child of geniuses Mel Brooks and Buck Henry, poked fun at spy movie conventions, and the intro does exactly that in a completely succinct way. And again, that theme song!
Classic theme song? Check. Crude, perfect visuals? Check. A sense of fun and color? Check. Yvonne Craig? Check (that's why I chose this latter version of the intro!). This was probably the weirdest omission from Pajiba's list, as I have to assume even 19 year old web writers have seen this.
You Can't Do That On Television
This Nickelodeon show has a Monty Python-inspired opening that's weird and kind of unsettling even to this day. That theme is actually the William Penn Overture, done up in a Dixieland style. The idea of children's television being a sausage factory - one that this show escapes from - remains subversive still, 30 years later.
Monty Python's Flying Circus
So if I go with You Can't Do That On Television, I have to include the opening sequence on which they riffed, Terry Gilliam's classic Monty Python's Flying Circus animation. This changed over the years, always being something completely different. The foot squash at the end - could you ever hear the theme song, John Sousa's The Liberty Bell, without hearing that plop? It's forever associated in my mind.
The Muppet Show
Over the years the opening to The Muppet Show would change, and it's actually hard for me to pinpoint a favorite one. I'm more partial to the arrangement in later years, and the inclusion of the big dancing monsters, while I love that in the first season every opening contained a different Fozzie the Bear joke. I've gone with season one here, but I think season five is just as worthy. Whichever version you prefer, the sheer energy of this Vaudeville-style opening was enough to get every kid watching at home dancing.
Fireworks explode. The moon rises over New York City - and it has Jackie Gleason's face in it. To this day I see Gleason as the Man in the Moon. This is a simple, elegant opening but nothing else was needed.
It's Garry Shandling's Show
It's Garry Shandling's Show was a brilliant deconstruction of the sitcom, so of course it had brilliantly deconstructive credits. The theme song is utterly meta and self-aware, and the opening each week was just Garry hanging out doing stuff while the credits played over him. Garry Shandling's next show, The Larry Sanders Show, also has a wonderful opening, with "Hey Now" Hank Kingsley warming up the audience over simple, black background credits. Shandling understands TV perfectly.
The opening credits for the classic mystery show The Prisoner are almost a short film. Opening with a menacing crack of thunder - Number Six has awakened primal forces against him! - this driving, propulsive intro gives us the story of a spy who resigns and finds himself imprisoned in a mysterious village. The cinematic opening is dramatic and thematically rich, setting up the show's obsessions with surveillance and freedom.
This intro is so cool Quentin Tarantino used the theme in Kill Bill. Blown out images of a city, cutting down into a police station. A silhouette of a man walking, red crosshairs on him. He lights a cigarette and we see it's Raymond Burr - then a shot! And now we have Burr, in rich, saturated red and black, in a wheelchair. He's still awesome and he's pointing a gun right at the camera. Ironside has one of the coolest TV intros of all time, period, end of story. It simply kicks ass.
I won't lie, I'm on the fence about this one. The music, by John Williams, is amazing. And the concept - we begin with a primitive man telling a story around a campfire and end with a family around a TV, watching the primitive man tell a story - is killer. It's just that Amazing Stories happened to be made right when everybody got super excited about absolutely shitty CGI. As a result, what could have been an eternal opening if it had gone with analog art is made into a hyper-dated bit of weirdness. The imagery is great, it just looks sort of like a child created it on his iPad. But I don't want to hold the technological elements against it - the Amazing Stories intro is pretty damn cool.
Stars. A ship cruising to an alien world. A classic speech, one that has been played on the space shuttle. And then Alexander Courage's awesome theme song, and images of the ship flying past us at incredible speed. The opening to Star Trek is so perfect, so simple, so beautiful and so evocative that we might even forget it's good. That's because it has completely burrowed into our pop culture, with Captain Kirk's intonation about the USS Enterprise and her five year mission echoing in the minds of generations of nerds and norms. To boldy go... where no man has gone before!
Thanks to Fark for that image!