The title sequence of a television show sets the tone for the entire series. Whether a few iconic seconds or a complicated two-minute scene, a show’s intro tells audiences what they’re in for.
Get ready to laugh at that crazy Urkel on Family Matters, or to marvel at the mysteries of outer space on Star Trek, or to fear for the survivors of the zombie apocalypse on The Walking Dead. Whatever the focus of the show, the opening sequence braces the audience for the type of story ahead.
Sadly, over nearly a century of television, most opening scenes have been unmemorable. Some are truly awful. But a few have been excellent. We’ve assembled the 75 best right here, ranked on a weighted scale according to production value, innovation, creativity, cultural impact, use of song (original or existing) and, most importantly, how well the intro represents or serves the series.
We’re talking about recurring intro sequences, specifically—the show can’t just offer floating titles over an opening scene that changes, as in Mr. Robot or Seinfeld. We ruled out talk shows and soap operas, as well as TV movies and miniseries. Finally, this list doesn’t take into account the quality of the show, just its title sequence. For example, Breaking Bad is extraordinary. Its slow, smoky intro is not.
Be warned: there will be spoilers ahead. And perhaps upset, if you don’t find your favorites below. But we invite you to take a read, hear us out and let us know what you think.
75. House (2004-2012)
House wasn’t the first medical show to deal with dysfunctional doctors on-screen, nor was it the first to feature intricate medical disasters (every patient starts off with an illness that brings them in, but upon closer examination or attempted treatment, it’s always revealed that what they’ve got is way worse). But House was the first to focus on the idea of pain under the surface. Everybody lies, everybody dies and we struggle with the inner demons that plague us—most especially the misanthropic, drug-addicted Gregory House, MD.
This opening sequence doesn’t tell us any of this, although it definitely gives us the feeling that all is not as it seems. Textbook illustrations paired with placid landscapes, set to Massive Attack’s haunting, down-tempo “Teardrop”? Yeah, something’s not right here.
74. Firefly (2002)
For a television show that helped revitalize the science fiction, Western and space opera genres, there’s something refreshingly old school about the opening montage of Firefly. Series creator Joss Whedon wrote the show’s theme song, performed by blues singer Sonny Rhodes as we cycle through the nine-person cast. Fans of this hugely popular cult classic will immediately recognize the personalities we see on screen, from the resolute Captain Mal and sunny engineer Kaylee to loose cannon mercenary Jayne. Their personalities clash sometimes, but they’re united—as they are in this opening—on the ship Serenity, hopeful for a better future.
73. Land of the Lost (1974-1976, 1991-1992)
There’s much to love about the large-scale adventure and unabashed cheesiness of this Land of the Lost opening. When a mysterious, dimensional portal brings the Marshalls to an alternate universe populated by dinosaurs, primates and other creatures, the family must find a way to survive and make their way back home. Luckily, the monsters are about as scary as the tyrannosaurus Gorn from Star Trek: The Original Series. Land of the Lost’s special effects team brought all non-human creatures to life with actors in rubber suits and heavy makeup, stop motion animation miniatures, hand puppets, rear projection film effects and video blue-screen matting. Many of these effects can be seen in the series’ lovably corny, action-packed opener. Our favorite: the river-rafting scene, with the poor little bobbing blue-screen raft. Hang in there, Marshalls!
72. Man Seeking Woman (2015-present)
A guy and girl go into an adult store to buy a sex toy. The girl is looking for something to satisfy her in ways the guy cannot. So they leave with The Kyle, a life-sized, hyper-buff man-in-a-box with labels promising “deep penetration” and “4 powerful speeds.” She’s stoked. Her boyfriend is not.
This is the humor of Man Seeking Woman, an FXX comedy about Josh (Jay Baruchel), a man trying to find love, that’s peppered with absurdist jokes and bits: In the pilot episode, for instance, his girlfriend dumps him—and then goes on to date Adolf Hitler. The series’ intro depicts a grid of animated black-and-white tiles, with scenes inspired by surreal moments from within the show itself. Described by Art of the Title’s Blake Goble as the “twitchy love-child of Keith Haring and Tex Avery,” the pieces shuffle around, but don’t really go anywhere. What better metaphor is there for dating random strangers while trying to find true love?
71. China, IL (2011-2015)
“Well, there’s something I’ve been meaning to tell you about the college at the edge of the town: no one should ever go there; you know it’s bad, bad, bad… It gets worse every school year, but man, the freakin’ teachers are rad!”
Some words of wisdom from the intro of China, IL, in case you couldn’t understand slurry manchild Baby Cakes as he describes the fictional University of China, Illinois, dubbed the “worst college in America.” This is celebrated by the college’s delinquent faculty and staff, who spend most of their time drinking, or drinking while teaching, or drinking while getting into trouble. The show’s dark humor is demented, but it doesn’t go off the rails like other off-color animated programs. It’s anchored by illustrator and lyricist Brad Neely, who conceptualized the show—and the intro—with surprising complexity and visual comedy. Not to mention some sick beats.
70. BoJack Horseman (2014-present)
In this animated show where humans and anthropomorphic animals exist side by side, all eyes are literally on BoJack Horseman, the washed-up star of the fictional 1990s sitcom Horsin’ Around, as he goes through his day: Running errands, shying away from paparazzi, attending parties. He eventually drinks too much and makes a scene by falling over a railing and into the pool, but it’s OK. This is just a day in the life of your average half-horse, half-man actor struggling to reclaim his fame and find his place in the universe.
Like other TV shows about show business, such as Entourage, Episodes and Extras (what’s with all these shows and the letter E?), BoJack Horseman is not about our hero’s success on screen, but his unusual challenges off of it. Most of what we see in this intro is BoJack himself; everything and everyone else has to fit in the periphery around his head. One point of reference here is Nick Bottom, of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer’s Night Dream, who has his head transformed into that of an ass. Aren’t we all BoJack, in a way, living our lives in our own little worlds?
69. Chuck (2007-2012)
The poor little Buy More mascot gets way more than he bargained for in the intro to NBC’s Chuck, as he dodges bullets, rappels down ropes and escapes armies, helicopters and ninjas alike. Likewise, he’s the show’s title character, who accidentally absorbs a massive supercomputer and becomes a target of both the U.S. government and international terrorists. Chuck is the mascot here, as important as he is useless against the forces around him. The faces of his fellow cast members loom large in the background, a mix of the friendly (Chuck’s family), and the not-so-much (the NSA and CIA agents sent to protect, and possibly neutralize, him). It’s a complicated situation.
This sequence is a great blend of opening scenes from espionage shows like Mission: Impossible and The Man from U.N.C.L.E., combined with the graphic design style and signage of tech superstores like Best Buy or CompUSA. Chuck premiered at the perfect moment to explore the thin line between insecurity and national security. Interested in an entire merged database of information from all of the U.S. intelligence agencies? There’s an app for that.
68. Deadwood (2004-2006)
In 1870s South Dakota, the town of Deadwood grows from a small settlement to a bustling community, leaving its residents to confront the challenges of a growing municipality. This is the story of life during this time in American history, in a part of the country that was essentially lawless, with real historical characters such as Seth Bullock, Calamity Jane and Wyatt Earp present or passing through.
Their struggles and changes in lifestyle are reflected in this opening montage. Like the evolving townspeople, we see a wild mare galloping across the countryside and splashing through a riverbed. It passes a community hard at work, with its farmhands, butchers, ladies of leisure, gold miners and drunkards. The mare continues on its way, before finally slowing to a trot and coming home to an established town, a symbol of the American expansion into this new stretch of country. We see the horse approach calmly, finally somewhat tamed, through the reflection of water, now also at rest. All is settled; Deadwood is their story.
67. Tales from the Crypt (1989-1996)
When producers Richard Donner, David Giler, Walter Hill, Joel Silver and Robert Zemeckis began conceptualizing the opening sequence of the anthology Tales from the Crypt, inspired by the 1950s comic of the same name, they knew they had to establish a spooky tone immediately and bring the viewer into the series’ world.
So they decided to do exactly that, creating a tabletop Victorian mansion with a first-person perspective of what it might be like to walk through a haunted house. Built by Boss Film—the effects studio of Richard Edlund, who had worked as a cameraman on Star Wars and in special effects on Die Hard—the set was divided into three parts. First was the tiny house, whose interiors were filmed with a 65mm snorkel camera with motion control. Next was the computer-generated descent down the hidden stairwell. Then, finally, came the crypt itself, which was actually a full-sized set that the producers could manipulate and film normally.
This is where we meet the “star” of the show: the Crypt Keeper, a decaying undead puppet brought to life by animatronics expert and puppetmaster Kevin Yagher, creator of Chucky, the infamous doll from Child’s Play. “The Crypt Keeper is likable but he’s also sly and treacherous—if you turned your back on him, he’d just plunge a knife into you,” as Yagher says in an interview in Tales of the Crypt: The Official Archives Including the Complete History of DC Comics and the Hit Television Series
Add a quirky and macabre theme song by—who else?—Danny Elfman, and all these elements together combine to form one of the most memorable openings ever. Who’s down for a visit to the crypt?
66. Superjail! (2007-2014)
Most episodes of Superjail! begin the same way: Low-level criminal Jackknife commits a crime and gets apprehended and cuffed by Jailbot, a levitating, tombstone-shaped robot that looks like something designed by Apple. Their subsequent trip to the titular prison comprises the show’s opening sequence, with Jailbot flying across deserts and oceans, dangling a cuffed Jackknife in tow. Below them, a medley of bizarre and terrifying sights unfold, such as armies rallying in the night, nightmarish creatures killing each other and non-sequitur sight gags.
This is the psychedelic world of Superjail!, where the laws of physics—along with time and space—are fluid and all bend to the whim of the Willy Wonka-like warden. These visuals, coupled with the theme song (a hard rock ballad about “coming home” to prison), warn you of what’s to come: a hallucinogenic, superviolent circus for the senses. Eleven minutes of hard time.
65. Jessica Jones (2015-present)
Superhero-turned-private-investigator Jessica Jones casts her eyes upon the streets of Hell’s Kitchen in the opening of Netflix’s TV show, based on the Marvel comic series Alias by Brian Michael Bendis. Here, we watch the neighborhood as Jessica does: glancing through windows, peering out of cars and staring down alleys. In the gray area where surveillance meets voyeurism, we see neighbors fighting and deals being made, scenes inspired by Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window and the urban paintings of Edward Hopper. Illustrator David Mack, who created the covers for the Alias comics, gives the backgrounds their feel here—blurry brushstrokes of bright purple, orange and blue laid over the video images, as a nod to the look of the source material. And all of this comes alongside an original score by Sean Callery (known for having composed the score for 24), which begins jazzy but quickly turns to dark places, laden with innuendo.
We’ve seen this style of opening sequence before, in shows like Luther and Human Target, but Jessica Jones outshines them all. We’re not just looking at painted frames here, but an actual story developing. The panels of Alias jump off the page at us, represented in live action form, and Jessica Jones lures us with an invitation to join her.
64. Halt and Catch Fire (2014-present)
Life begins from a single spark, whether we’re talking about the start of the universe, a human life, or activity in a microchip. Halt and Catch Fire begins with this struggle, this attempt at creation. Digital sperm race toward a CPU processor. From here, all digital life as we know it will begin, if it’s a successful bonding.
All around it, the blackness of nothing. No life. No existence. For the first developers of the personal computer, teetering on the line between renown and obscurity, success and failure——we can imagine a young Bill Gates and Steve Jobs toiling away in their garages—the challenge is to find a way to make their machines work, to breathe life into them. When they do, the square egg glows brightly. Not only is the microchip alive, it also acts as a light in the darkness. The light bulb has gone on: Eureka!
Ideas and inventions are not unlike life forms. There must be a spark, an incubation period, growth and exponential expansion. Halt and Catch Fire’s title sequence represents this process, moving from one scene, one moment, to the next. We travel sequentially, with the data, from shot to shot. To understand this modern era, it seems, we have to return to the past. To the 1980s, where digital life as we know it began.
63. Daredevil (2015-present)
Evil has descended upon Hell’s Kitchen in midtown Manhattan, seeping from the highest points across towers, buildings and bridges down to the dark streets below. Taking the form of some kind of ooze, thicker than blood but thinner than steaming tar, it’s a terrifying, unstoppable menace that envelops the city in its grasp.
But a figure rises from the depths. Emerging from this skin of evil, the city has sent something back—something more than a figurehead or statuesque Lady Justice, uselessly frozen in stone. Not an angel. A devil.
At first glance, a goop-covered city doesn’t sound like it’d make for much of an opening sequence. But in the capable hands of Elastic, the team behind the intros to Halt and Catch Fire and True Detective, it’s perfect. There are so many parallels to the story of blind attorney Matt Murdock and his vigilante alter ego, Daredevil. When the city bleeds, there’s a hero to answer the call.
What better indicator of a city consumed by corruption than literally being covered in liquid? The fluid covers everything up, but it also serves another purpose, revealing what would otherwise be invisible. This goop is a physical callback to the toxic waste that blinded Daredevil to begin with and set him on his path. And it’s no coincidence that the sequence features Catholic imagery and places of judgment, including both blind Lady Justice (whose trademark she shares with our hero) and the statue in the graveyard. Like the blood red Chianti flowing to form faces in the intro to Hannibal, the liquid in the Daredevil opening has meaning. Sinister perhaps, but effective.
62. True Blood (2008-2014)
The epic intro to True Blood tells the story of life, death and rebirth through a montage of contradictory scenes representing all manner of religion, sex and violence. And, like the vampires and other supernatural predators of the True Blood universe, it’s all the more compelling as we voyeuristically watch from the shadows.
Created by independent film company Digital Kitchen, which travelled to locations in Louisiana, Chicago and Seattle for footage, the sequence includes drops of real blood splattered onto various frames for effect and the use of a Polaroid transfer technique to construct transitions. The result is a kind of Southern-inspired surrealist cinema, with a classic georgic and eight different typefaces inspired by actual Southern typefaces and street signs.
61. Ren & Stimpy (1991-1995)
A series depicting the unusual journey of a dog and a cat. But no, it’s not The Adventures of Milo and Otis. It’s something far, far darker. Ren & Stimpy, for all its gross jokes, abject violence and sexual innuendo, helped to revolutionize animation as we know it. Its crude example helped to pave the way for other absurdist and toilet humor-inspired series, from Rocko’s Modern Life and South Park to Rick and Morty.
With a look reminiscent of the Golden Age of cartoons and a soundtrack that ranged across genres (rockabilly, folk, classical music, opera, jazz), Ren & Stimpy was—and still is—a high-powered mutant that exists somewhere out of time. An homage to ‘50s kitsch, episodes ranged from thought-provoking to absolutely senseless. And this opening captures both, a medley of scenes from the titular duo’s trials and tribulations, paired with a high-powered brass tune likely inspired by the ‘90s swing revival underway when the show was on the air. Just hearing the first few bars of the intro will no doubt bring back memories.
60. The A-Team (1983-1987)
Pitched as a combination of The Dirty Dozen, The Magnificent Seven, Mad Max and Mission: Impossible, The A-Team wasn’t originally expected to be a big hit for NBC, but the show soon developed into one of the network’s top programs.
This epic opening sequence explains the team: four wrongly convicted soldiers-turned-mercenaries, who take jobs in an effort to clear their names and help the oppressed by facing down the bad guys. “If you have a problem, if no one else can help and if you can find them—maybe you can hire the A-Team,” the opening narration explains.
Luckily, there were always plenty of bad guys, which the A-Team became known for dispatching with over-the-top action and violence (in the course of which no one really ever got hurt). That, plus catchphrases about plans coming together or characters not wanting to get onto planes, the use of epic machinery such as helicopters and machine guns, and formulaic plots and character archetypes all lent The A-Team an air of (almost) silliness.
The bitter response to the Vietnam War had come 180 degrees since the caustic war films of the 1970s, culminating in the uncomplicated heroism of The A-Team. This balls-and-bayonet beginning, set to a brassy theme composed by Mike Post and Pete Carpenter, embodies the fighting spirit wholeheartedly, a montage of gunfights, epic action and explosions.
59. Friends (1994-2004)
There’s nothing remarkable about the Friends opening sequence except for the idea of gathering six people together in a park in New York City and having them dance in a fountain—and, of course, that catchy song by The Rembrandts. Chances are, when you think about “TV title sequences,” that strummy guitar and “so no one told you life was gonna be this way…” pops into your head.
In Season One, the six friends dancing together in the fountain is the only thing the opening consists of. However, in later seasons, it’s intercut with footage from throughout the series and becomes something of a time capsule. By the end of Friends, we realize that a decade in their lives has been a decade in ours, too.
58. Carnivàle (2003-2005)
What a strange time it must’ve been in the days of the Great Depression. The Roaring Twenties gave way to an economic collapse that left devastation in its wake, in big cities and rural areas alike. For millions of starving, destitute Americans, the idea of a better life for themselves and their children could only be a fantasy.
Luckily, fantasy is what traveling circuses provided in spades. Sideshow acts, amusements, funhouses, burlesque and impossible stunts like fire eating or sword swallowing lent carnivals an aura of the mysterious and the otherworldly. This spirit is captured in the ethereal opening of HBO’s Carnivàle, a two-season series about a carnival road show and the good and evil forces that are on its traveling path. By intermixing real, historical video and images from America in the 1930s—everything from baseball games to soup lines to the rallying Ku Klux Klan—with tarot cards and ancient mythological battles between gods, monsters and armies, the sequence suggests that despite the downturn, there’s still something extraordinary at work in America.
57. Everybody Loves Raymond (1996-2005)
Everybody Loves Raymond had a few different opening sequences over the course of its critically acclaimed nine-season run, but nothing compares to this intro, which debuted in Season Three. Living across the street from his parents and brother, Raymond (Ray Romano) spots his family leaving their house to come over for a visit and it’s red alert. He and wife Debra (Patricia Heaton) hustle to put away the kids, shut everything off (especially the stereo, which Ray kills by throwing an object at it from across the room à la Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) and hide. But ultimately, Ray’s plan is embarrassingly foiled—just like every scheme he tries to pull on the show. This is, basically, every episode of Everybody Loves Raymond in a nutshell.
56. Westworld (2016-present)
Landscape and figures merge in the opening montage of HBO’s Westworld. An industrial 3D printer draws bone and muscular sinews—first of a horse, then of its rider. This is the Wild West, after all, a frontier world seen here only in glimpses through the reddish brown rim of an iris, also synthetic. Life and death, sex, bodies, memories, souls—what is real in Westworld? What is fake?
This is the question first posed by Michael Crichton in his 1973 sci-fi thriller Westworld (a proof of concept, if you will, for what would become his follow-up amusement park that also goes off the rails: Jurassic Park), and now by Jonathan Nolan, Lisa Jay and J.J. Abrams in 2016’s breakout television series. Everything is deliberately composed in this opening, from the constructed faces, hands, limbs and spines, to the movements of the needle-sharp mechanical equipment, to the haunting and pulsating musical score. Design agency Elastic draws from many sources here: lighting by Stanley Kubrick, bodies by Chris Cunningham, even the show’s iconic figure-in-a-circle, by Leonardo Da Vinci.
Another crafted symbol: the piano. At the beginning of the intro, this machine is being built as well, with piano wire diligently strung up into the board. Music is created as the piano is played. But soon, the figure playing the instrument is retired—and the piano evolves to play itself. What will become of the humans of Westworld when the artificial life forms evolve as well?
55. Narcos (2015-present)
The “King of Cocaine,” Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar, was believed to be responsible for supplying an estimated 80% of all the cocaine in the United States. His Medellin Cartel brought in more than $70 million dollars a day at the height of its reign in the 1980s, spending a grand a week just on rubber bands to wrap all the cash—making Escobar the wealthiest criminal in history, with a known net worth of close to $54 billion in today’s dollars. This was a man who made Al Capone look like an amateur. For Escobar, too much was not enough.
His rise to power is the focus of the Netflix original series Narcos, which debuted to mostly positive reviews in 2015. Through design agency Digital Kitchen’s powerful, sprawling opening sequence, we get a taste of Escobar’s world—drugs, sex, money, Escobar’s beloved Medellin—as well as the death and devastation his empire wrought and the DEA task force that was always on his heels, assigned to bring him down.
Set to the alluring “Tuyo,” a bolero specially composed for the show by Brazilian singer-songwriter Rodrigo Amarante, the opening acts as a historical document, too. Newspaper headlines float over violent scenes. Actual images taken by Escobar’s real-life family photographer “El Chino” are given a home-movie feel via 3D projection mapping and filters. Aerial tracking shots of the city are overlaid with a wireframe topographical map. To Escobar, Medellin and the urban areas of Colombia must’ve looked like this, a grid of territory to be earned or lost.
For a show that digs past the façade of Pablo Escobar and the Medellin Cartel, this opening strikes the perfect balance between man and myth, history and legend, crescendo and, ultimately, coda.
54. Freaks and Geeks (1999-2000)
It’s picture day at William McKinley High and the awkward teens of Freaks and Geeks line up for their turn. Set to Joan Jett’s “Bad Reputation,” each of them approach, plop down on the stool, get photographed and move on. Lindsay Weir tries to smile and make the best of it. Meanwhile, her younger brother, Sam, looks shocked and disoriented. Delinquent Daniel Desario fixes his hair and sarcastic Ken Miller won’t stop frowning. Photo day tells us everything we need to know about each of these characters.
Few events in high school are a bigger reminder that you’ll one day look back on all of it than getting your official class photo taken. And the single-season Freaks and Geeks, which aired in 2000 but was set in 1980, is all about remembering the embarrassing experience of having to attend high school. In many ways, the show serves as a spiritual successor to The Wonder Years (which aired in the late ’80s but was set in the late ’60s), without the forced nostalgia. While The Wonder Years reveled in the golden memories of growing up, Freaks and Geeks took a more realistic approach to adolescence, complete with all the anxiety, betrayals and disappointments that come with being a teen.
53. Adventure Time (2010-present)
There’s a lot happening very quickly in the 25-second opening of Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time. To be fair, there’s also a lot happening in the magical Land of Ooo, where the show takes place. Here, Jake the Dog and Finn the Human spend their days rescuing princesses from the lascivious attention of the Ice King, battling epic monsters and, of course, embarking on many other adventures. There’s a ubiquitous cuteness to their world, from the gummy citizens of the Candy Kingdom to the lazy penguins in the snow-capped mountains, but there’s a darkness, too. Adventure Time takes place a thousand years after the “Great Mushroom War,” a global nuclear holocaust that (presumably) changed Earth as we know it into the magical place it is on the show. It’s adorable, but it’s also, you know, the post-apocalypse.
During the flyover above the continent of Ooo that makes up Adventure Time’s opening sequence, we’re treated to visions of both: colorful landscapes, flying wizards, dancing donuts, hissing vampires, unexploded ordnance and even a quacking, two-headed duck—perhaps the Adventure Time version of The Simpsons’ three-eyed fish? Finn the Human stands on the mountain, Jake the Dog relaxes on the ground and series creator Pendleton Ward sings the theme song and plays the ukulele in the background. Grab your friends, it’s adventure time!
52. The Odd Couple (1970-1975)
It’s hard to top the comedy duo of Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon, but Tony Randall and Jack Klugman come close as the ultimate incompatible roommates, Felix Unger and Oscar Madison. Adapted from the 1965 play by Neil Simon (and inspired by the 1968 film starring Matthau and Lemmon), this show was a hit, with a few installments that rank among some of the greatest TV episodes ever produced.
This opening sequence explains why the two men are living together in one apartment, while offering examples of what sets them apart—which, of course, creates the comedy of this mismatched pair. Oscar is laid-back and messy, constantly dropping trash around New York City, which bothers the fastidiously neat and composed Felix, who insists that Oscar clean up his mess.
51. Arthur (1996-present)
Adapted from the hugely successful children’s book series about an anthropomorphic aardvark, Arthur premiered in 1996 on local public television and went on to earn a regular spot on PBS, with more than 225 half-hour episodes produced to date. The woodland creatures that represent characters of varying races and social classes in Elwood City may be fictional, but for decades they’ve taught kids of all ages about issues such as asthma, bed-wetting, diabetes and dyslexia.
Recently, a series of Internet memes starring the dorky, kindhearted Arthur reminded older fans of the series, now in their twenties and thirties, of this childhood mainstay. And with its surprisingly sophisticated jokes and in-show pop culture references to everything from James Bond to Beavis and Butt-head, Arthur still holds up even after all these years.
The intro sequence does, too, a spirited scene that shows Arthur’s friends and family hanging out and having fun, set to “Believe in Yourself,” performed by Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers. The most important idea here is the fact that it’s based on Arthur being a book series that became a TV show. When author and illustrator Marc Brown was originally approached in 1994 about adapting his Arthur books for TV, he was apprehensive—until he realized that he could use the show to encourage children to read more books.
We see this in the opening, with Arthur’s sassy younger sister, D.W., witnessing his adventures in the form of a book. Here, the characters leap off the page. It’s great to see the intro paying homage to these roots.
50. Community (2009-2015)
Everyone has his or her own reasons for being at fictional Greendale Community College. For former attorney Jeff Winger, it’s to attain an actual Bachelor’s degree after his law firm discovered he his credentials had been mail-ordered from Colombia the country, not earned from Columbia the university. For overachiever Annie Edison, this is the only option available to her after getting kicked out of high school because of an addiction to Adderall. For moist towelette tycoon Pierce Hawthorne, it’s out of boredom and desperation to fit in with the younger generation. For the dean, Craig Pelton, it’s to make the city college more like a real university.
The fact that it isn’t is what makes Community so good. For six seasons (and hopefully, one day, a movie), the Spanish study group survived through classes, romances, epic fights and unbelievable encounters, all on the college campus. And as the audience, we’ve witnessed it all as if we were students at this strange, terrible place ourselves.
If we were, we’d likely be the ones passing around the paper fortune teller from Community’s intro, a CGI-animated piece of origami that closes and opens to reveal each of the cast members, plus cute little drawings that reflect their characters (for example, a big cake for Shirley, who wants to open a bakery, and, naturally, big lips and breasts for Pierce). Set to an original song by The 88, this opening is exactly the kind of quick bang that Community needs to get started, either as a kick-off or as the punchline to a pre-credits joke. Our favorite is when the show mixes up the sequence, with a fantasy-inspired fortune teller for a Dungeons & Dragons-themed episode, or with monsters for Halloween.
49. Stranger Things (2016-present)
Stranger Things exploded on the scene when it debuted on Netflix last July. The story of three boys in junior high looking for their lost friend with the help of a mysterious girl with special abilities, it’s a package of ’80s nostalgia, in everything from music to style to cinematography—an homage to the works of Stephen King, Steven Spielberg, John Carpenter and John Hughes.
But rather than pack the show’s intro with pop culture references or some kind of retro montage, Stranger Things went simple. Series creators and brothers Matt and Ross Duffer turned to Imaginary Forces, the design team behind the elegant openings of Mad Men and Jessica Jones, to help create something from a pulpy horror novel. Imaginary Forces selected ITC Benguiat as the show’s font, the same one used on countless Stephen King covers, and plotted out a visual sequence that would bring the titles to life in an analog style that was synonymous with the early ’80s. They built Kodalith transparencies of the main titles and backlit them (not unlike the actual process used to create titles for John Carpenter’s The Thing, which was managed with a fish tank filled with smoke, backlighting and melting plastic bags), taking all the lens flares, light leaks, fuzziness and grain and incorporating those into a final digital animation. These effects would’ve appeared sloppy in 1983, but in 2016, it’s the perfect shade of retro.
“We looked at title sequences from the past. We were looking for the inconsistencies,” Imaginary Forces creative director for the project Michelle Dougherty told Wired in an August interview. “That’s what makes it feel tangible and warm.” The end result is exactly that—hypnotic and effective. Stephen King would be proud.
48. Fringe (2008-2013)
Molecules warp and shift. Strands of hair fill to become a forest. Shards of stone arrange themselves to spell monolithic titles. On the surface, these scenes feel like a cross between the random, eerie images from the intro of The X-Files and the insides of Edward Norton’s brain from the opening sequence of Fight Club. As Season One became Season Two and beyond, Fringe’s titles would even become self-referential, changing to reflect the happenings on the show. The original, blue-tinted intro represented the series’ original universe. A red-tinted intro represented the alternate universe discovered at the end of Season Two. And an amber-tinted version meant a whole new timeline entirely.
Even if only one or two episodes existed in a different realm than the rest of the series, it was enough to merit its own opening, such as the bleak monochrome intro that signaled a dying alternate universe or the barbed-wire prison intro that represented a dystopian future. Our favorite: the gloriously cheesy 1985 take on the opening sequence, in which sci-fi concepts such as “precognition” and “transmogrification” are swapped out for scientific marvels of the ’80s like “personal computing” and “laser surgery.”
This dedication and detail in the opening scene speaks volumes about showrunner and sci-fi nerd J.J. Abrams and his team’s commitment to their show. Keep an eye on the title sequence the next time you watch a rerun of Fringe and pay attention to these differences—as well as the various bald, otherworldly Observers they committed to sticking in every episode of the series.
47. Batman: The Animated Series (1992-1995)
Out of the many Batman TV shows, animated and live action, nothing tops this intro to the Animated Series, which has the Caped Crusader chasing down two bank robbers in an especially Art Deco Gotham City. The stark contrast of light and darkness, combined with a clean look and feel, pays respect to a few of Batman’s greatest comic illustrators, from Frank Miller’s film noir-style to the simple, elegant lines of Mike Parobeck, by which Batman: The Animated Series is heavily inspired.
The Batmobile, the fistfight in the shadows, even the police… zeppelins? Everything looks glorious in this opening, and you can imagine the onomatopoeia from the campy ’60s Batman live-action series—POW! BAM!—playing out in every punch and batarang thrown. The sequence carries that spirit, with the quintessential Batman conclusion: police arriving just in time to find the bad guys incapacitated. What happened? Was it the Batman?
46. The Big Bang Theory (2007-present)
Why The Barenaked Ladies aren’t a rap group, we’ll never know. When it comes to creating songs with lightning-quick lyrics, no one kills it like they do—consider their ’90s hit “One Week” and this theme song to The Big Bang Theory.
This title is a reference to the fact that the show’s four protagonists aren’t your average sitcom protagonists, but genius-level physicists and engineers. Like the Crane brothers of Frasier, much of The Big Bang Theory’s humor draws from this comedy of manners: The characters are funny not because we know people just like them, but because they’re so far removed and out of touch. (The title also probably relates to the fact that one of the scientists wants to have sex with the attractive neighbor who moves in across the hall.)
The Big Bang Theory debuted in 2007, a year after Twitter launched and a year before the first Iron Man film. What some would call “geek” culture wasn’t as mainstream as it is today, and this series was one of the first signs of the changes to come. Which is what makes The Big Bang Theory’s intro so good. Nearly 14 billion years of the universe, 3.8 billion years of life on Earth, 5,000 years of recorded human history, religion, astronomy, Descartes, Deuteronomy, all leading to the present day: Four dorky scientists and their cute neighbor enjoying Chinese takeout on the couch. Things could be worse.
45. Happy Days (1974-1984)
From the spinning record inside a jukebox, we meet the teenagers and parents of Happy Days, a throwback sitcom to American life in the ’50s and ’60s, complete with your typical working-class family, high school guys and girls, and the super suave biker and ladies man, Fonzie. This title sequence doesn’t explain much about the characters or the plot, but we can derive everything we need to know straight from the style and catchy titular theme song by Jim Haas. This was Wisconsin in the ’50s, a simpler time, and thanks to Happy Days, we can look back with nostalgia.
44. The Adventures of Pete and Pete (1991-1996)
The Adventures of Pete and Pete took place in the perfect ’90s suburb that we wished we grew up in. Like the paranormal town of Twin Peaks mixed with the day-to-day absurdities of Seinfeld, the brothers Pete, along with diligent Ellen, dorky Teddy and Artie, the Strongest Man in the World, explore the strange and surreal world of Wellsville. Growing up is tough enough without having to worry about the secret life of the local Mr. Taystee ice cream man (who never takes off his plastic mascot head) or settling a countywide rebellion against the need for high school algebra.
While indie band Polaris performs the theme song, “Hey Sandy,” we get a taste of these adventures, the town and its characters. Thoughtful Big Pete, irascible Little Pete, Dad, Mom, the metal plate in Mom’s head and Petunia, Little Pete’s tattoo of a woman in a red dress. Growing up here, things were never dull.
43. Invader Zim (2001-2002)
At a time when original Nickelodeon cartoons included Rocket Power and The Fairly Oddparents, Invader Zim was the network’s attempt to attract the slightly older Cartoon Network crowd. They wanted something edgy and a little bizarre.
They got it tenfold with Jhonen Vasquez, a comic book writer and cartoonist whose previous projects included the hyper-violent comic series Johnny: The Homicidal Maniac, Squee and I Feel Sick. His concept for Nickelodeon was simple: Invader Zim was the story of naive but psychotic Zim, the smallest member of an alien species in which social hierarchy is determined by height, who is assigned to conquer an insignificant planet on the outskirts of the universe: Earth. Although dispatched simply to collect undercover surveillance and stay out of the way, Zim—along with his malfunctioning erratic robot drone, GIR—decides to conquer our planet himself. However, all his attempts to take over are either thwarted by his own inexperience or by Dib, a young paranormal investigator who realizes Zim is an alien.
This backstory is quickly summed up in the packed intro, which shows Zim traveling to Earth, setting up his house and literally consuming the planet under the might of his machines—if only in his dreams. We also see the strange and fantastical spaceships and technology that creator Jhonen invented for his world, along with a hint at the show’s humor and art style—all of which help demonstrate what made Invader Zim the cult cartoon hit it still is today.
42. Six Feet Under (2001-2005)
Every episode of Six Feet Under begins with a death. Whether by something sinister (say, a murder) or tragic (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome), the end of life signals the start of our story; death is simply the beginning. For the Fisher family, death is also a career. Their funeral home puts the recently deceased to rest, but the issues of religion, relationships, infidelity, business—all those messy problems that still haunt the living—are often left up in the air.
This title sequence prepares us for that. We see a body going through the stages of being dressed and prepared for burial. We pass through the sterile morgue and the pastoral cemetery. But it’s not depressing. Despite the fact that these are the final steps before burying someone in the ground and closing the lid, this sequence bounces along with speed and energy, to music composed by Thomas Newman (whose sounds you’ll recognize from his work on The Shawshank Redemption and American Beauty).
This sequence doesn’t feel like the end. It feels like we’re getting ready for something, backstage to a play that’s about to begin. In many ways, it’s not far from the truth.
41. True Detective (2014-present)
The two seasons of True Detective are separate, self-contained narratives—one about the hunt for a serial killer in Louisiana over a 17-year period, the other about the murder of a corrupt politician in California and related crimes. But both are united under the hallmarks of True Detective: tone, style, voice and the smart use of captivating characters played by brilliant actors.
Whereas Season One’s title sequence depicts an anemic, decrepit Louisiana with washed out yellows, greens and grays, Season Two’s colors are higher-contrast reds, whites and blacks, bright and splashy to embody the more menacing, pulsating California vibe. In both instances, character silhouettes are superimposed over volatile scenes to serve as a framing device and a conduit through which to see this world, as well as a reminder of how landscapes shape the people who live in them. Without revealing anything about the plot, True Detective’s openings are able to evoke an entire world that we’ll get to explore over the course of each season—for better or for worse.
40. Quantum Leap (1989-1993)
Clocking in at close to two minutes, the opening sequence of NBC’s Quantum Leap is long and densely packed, but it’s good. And, after all, there’s a lot to explain.
From a secret lab in New Mexico, physicist Sam Beckett spearheads “Project Quantum Leap,” a time travel experiment. When the government threatens to shut down the project after it fails to yield results, Sam does what all respectable fictional scientists do when their funding stops: He tests the device on himself. Thrown into the past, Sam becomes trapped in the body of a stranger, with a new purpose to change history for the better and “to put right what once went wrong.” With the help of Al (Dean Stockwell), a military liaison to the project from the present who appears as a hologram, Sam spends each episode helping whoever he’s leapt into.
With a premise that crosses Sliders and Being John Malkovich, Quantum Leap is a show about the latter half of the twentieth century. The title sequence showcases the decades and scenarios that Sam encounters on his journey. Whether he’s inspiring Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly in the 1950s, helping launch the civil rights movement in the ’60s, or fighting in the Vietnam War in the ’70s, Sam is the ultimate good guy, improving our world for the better.
39. The Walking Dead (2010-present)
In the devastated post-apocalyptic world of The Walking Dead, flesh-hungry zombies have become the planet’s dominant life form, roaming endlessly in herds for their next meal. Humanity exists in small packets of survivors, scavenging or setting up camp to take a stand against the undead hordes or other roving gangs. Places and objects become a shell of the society they once represented, with no one left to carry the memories of their value or purpose.
These rusted and deteriorating sights comprise The Walking Dead’s evolving opening sequence. In early seasons, these shots included the areas of Atlanta evacuated in the weeks after the initial outbreak. We see empty supermarket aisles, cars abandoned along city streets and photographs in broken picture frames. As we progress to Seasons Three and Four, the imagery is darker. We’ve left the city for the countryside, with its farms, graveyards and prisons. Centipedes slither around bullet shells and a rusty sheriff’s badge. By the last few seasons, our locations are emptier still: country roads, tunnels and towns. But we’ve also become more active and frantic, the camera lens warping and changing colors. We see fire.
Set to composer Bear McCready’s haunting Southern-inspired string score, everything decays—even The Walking Dead’s main logo, which has steadily become more worn and faded with each passing season. Things fall apart, as we see from the various items in the intro. And if the zombies succeed in wiping out the last few humans, these pieces of the past will be all that’s left.
38. The Oblongs (2001-2002)
The Oblongs is an animated show about your average nuclear family… they just happen to be suffering from nuclear fallout. Living in a poor valley community may have caused the entire Oblong family to become disabled or deformed due to radiation exposure and pollution, but it’s no matter, because classic ’50s-era patriarch Bob, his boozy but loving wife, Pickles, conjoined twins Biff and Chip, hyperactive Milo, little Beth, vegetative Grammy, their narcoleptic dog, Scottie, and cigarette-smoking cat, Lucky, couldn’t be happier. Or more well adjusted. Mostly.
Besides the pretty clear social commentary about the haves and the have-nots, this dark comedy maintains a fairly sunny outlook and offers surprisingly warmhearted values. In one episode, Bob teaches the value of hard work over easy money. In another, Pickles becomes the leader of a little Girl Scout troop and shows them how to navigate the big city. Each of The Oblongs’ 13 episodes (you could probably guess a show with a premise like this wasn’t destined to last long) is jam-packed with sight gags, slapstick humor and some of the best pop culture jokes you’ll find anywhere. When the boys decide to see a movie in one episode, Milo requests “anything without Steve Buscemi.” They wind up at catching the latest Adam Sandler flick, Doo-Doo, Poo-Poo, Pee-Pee.
They Might Be Giants, which composed the show’s 30-second theme song, sums it up best: “Down in the valley where a chemical spill came from the people living up on a hill, live a family by the land filled with hazardous foam in their happy glowing home. Oblongs!”
37. Hercules: The Legendary Journeys (1995-1999)
Before Game of Thrones, before Spartacus and Atlantis and Highlander: The Series and Legend of the Seeker, there was Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. Of the fantasy series that debuted in the 1990s and 2000s, this was the granddaddy of them all. The show’s plot centered on a fictionalized version of ancient Greece and the adventures of Hercules, the half-man son of Zeus, and his sidekick, Iolaus. Together, they encountered quasi-mythological Greek and Roman scenarios and characters, as well as elements of Egyptian, medieval and Eastern folklore. For six seasons, the show was known for its action plots, which typically involved Hercules and Iolaus saving towns and villagers from warlords or monsters, plus a medley of celebrities with recurring roles as iconic Greek gods and figures, including Kevin Smith as Ares, Bruce Campbell as Autolycus and Karl Urban as Cupid, among a few dozen others.
The show’s direct descendent, Xena: The Warrior Princess, would surpass Hercules in both popularity and ratings, but Xena’s opening sequence fails to match the grandeur and meaning of this one. With Xena, the emphasis is on action and sexuality. With Hercules, it’s about heart: “Wherever there was evil, wherever an innocent would suffer, there would be Hercules.”
36. Weeds (2005-2012)
In order to maintain her upper middle-class lifestyle after the death of her husband, Nancy Botwin starts selling marijuana to support herself and her two sons. At least, this is the idea. Instead, things quickly get complicated for Nancy, who realizes the complexities of her new industry. She has to start a front for her weed business, develop a client base and edge out the fast-growing (no pun intended) competition. Before long, she’s developing her own special strain of weed and having to relocate her life to avoid the cops and the DEA.
Weeds became the highest rated series for Showtime after its first year, and a large part of the show’s success was due to the relatability of its protagonist. Nancy isn’t a career criminal, she’s just a woman trying to get by. In the first season, she’d return to her old life as a homemaker if she could. But as she makes the best of a bad situation and the years pass, she finds a fulfilling life outside of her comfort zone beyond anything she could’ve imagined.
The show’s opening doesn’t explain Nancy’s journey so much as depict the life she’s leaving behind. Set to “Little Boxes” by Malvina Reynolds, a 1960s folk song satirizing suburbia and conformity, we see joggers in the park, business executives getting coffee and cars pulling out of driveways. But they’re all the same people, the same cars—literal clones running in an assembly line, one after another. The homes on the hill are identical little boxes and they all look just the same. Compared to the monotony of middle-class living, maybe a life caught deep in the weeds isn’t so bad.
35. Clone High (2002-2003)
The genius premise of Clone High is quickly explained in this 30-second intro, in which the U.S. military and shadowy government officials extract the DNA of deceased figures from history and genetically recreate them in the form of angsty high schoolers. Our protagonist is Abe Lincoln, a lanky, awkward clone of our sixteenth president, who struggles with the challenges of adolescence as well as living up to his “clonefather.” As he vies for the affection of popular Cleopatra against the arrogant jock JFK, his best friends include the politically liberal Joan of Arc and party animal Gandhi.
Set to an original song by the Abandoned Pools that will bring you right back to the “golden era” of 2000s music by bands like My Chemical Romance, Good Charlotte and Sum 41, you can tell from the title sequence that the series was destined for both a short lifespan and eventual cult status. It succeeded at both: For 13 glorious episodes, we had Clone High, the perfect parody of network teen dramas.
34. American Horror Story (2011-present)
Some call the opening sequence of American Horror Story the scariest part of the show. For each episode of this acclaimed anthology horror series, created by Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, a roughly minute-long series of freaky, intense images are fit to each season, introducing the viewer to the place and time period.
In Season One, we descend into a residential basement to discover old photographs and a makeshift laboratory replete with preserved fetuses and appendages; in Season Two, we move to an insane asylum, filled with terrifying bandaged patients, gurneys, bed sheets and bloodstains. And so it goes, for each of the series’ six seasons.
If this weren’t spooky enough, consider the show’s theme song and intro acoustics. Back in 1998, César Dávila-Irizarry was a sophomore enrolled in a course on music history at the University of Puerto Rico when he decided to see what would happen by recording various sounds and mixing them with digital noise. Using Cool Edit 96 on a Windows 98 computer, he captured sounds such as metal clothing hangers dropping on a tile floor and rain drops on windows, stretched them out and added white noise and other effects. The result was mundane but unnerving—perfect as a placeholder when video editor Gabriel Diaz, a friend of Dávila-Irizarry, began working on Season One’s opener years later. The AHS team liked it so much they recreated it for the sequence itself, with the help of composer and former Nine Inch Nails member Charlie Clouser, who also worked on the Saw soundtrack. Their work brought this haunting title sequence to life, one that gets under your skin like no other.
33. Family Guy (1999-present)
1971 marked the debut of All in the Family, a sitcom about your typical working-class family in Queens. Each episode begins with bigoted patriarch Archie and his kind-hearted but naive wife, Edith, in their living room, playing the piano and singing “Those Were The Days,” bemoaning the era’s fast-changing mores. Through Archie’s narrow worldview, American audiences in the 1970s could examine their own hang-ups, resentments and suspicions.
In interviews, All In The Family creator Norman Lear explained that the show’s piano intro was a cost-cutting measure. After they filmed the pilot, their budget wouldn’t allow for an elaborate opening sequence. It would take 30 years before your typical American family was able to star in a big song-and-dance number on the small screen—and it would be in the form of All In The Family’s animated spiritual successor, Family Guy.
“Where are those good old-fashioned values, on which we used to rely?” bumbling Peter Griffin and his wife, Lois, sing in unison during the opening sequence of Family Guy—before exploding into an booming stage spectacle. The beginning of Family Guy makes this list instead of All In The Family because, like the show itself, it’s working harder and smarter in order to accomplish the same sort of funny, biting social critique that All In The Family excelled at. Family Guy has to find new humor after 30 years of shows featuring nosy neighbors, doofus husbands and teenager growing pains. It gives us everything—including a British baby and a talking dog—and it does it well.
32. The Muppet Show (1976-1981)
Speaking of spectacles, here’s The Muppet Show, which also begins with an epic song-and-dance number. Nearly two dozen (and more, in later seasons) Muppets jump around on stage with the Muppet orchestra, complete with Animal on drums, Zoot on saxophone and the somewhat scary Janice on lead guitar. They’re all here, from the gigantic, furry Sweetums to the grumpy old men on the balcony, Statler and Waldorf.
The opening production is perfect for The Muppet Show, a show about a show: In each episode, “producer” Kermit the Frog has to keep all the outrageous Muppets in line—and manage the various human guest stars backstage—during the vaudeville-style variety show. This was the Muppets in top form: parodying pop culture, employing slapstick comedy, and interacting with top celebrities of the time, including Roger Moore, Mark Hamill and Elton John. And because of this show, the Muppets were vaulted to top celebrity status, too. This intro reminds us why.
31. The Brady Bunch (1969-1974)
In 1966, television producer Sherwood Schwartz read that roughly 30% of American marriages have a child or children from a previous marriage. From this premise, The Brady Bunch was born: a program about the ultimate blended family, in which a widower, a divorcée, and their six combined kids live together in one house. (All the usual family dramas ensue, except they’re multiplied by six.)
Watching this now-famous opening sequence, created and filmed by Howard A. Anderson, Jr. (the visual effect legend who worked on the titles and effects for Star Trek: The Original Series, I Love Lucy, Happy Days, Cheers and Superman: The Movie), you can almost tell the network executives at ABC were worried that American audiences weren’t going to understand why this crazy family had so many kids. Their solution was to include a memorable theme song by the Peppermint Trolley Company—which explained what was happening—and to break down both families into a Hollywood Squares-type grid that outlined who came from where, like a visual arithmetic problem. Two plus two equals eight. Plus a hardworking housekeeper who has to keep an eye on everybody. Oh, Alice!
30. Monty Python’s Flying Circus (1969-1974)
Like the eclectic humor of the troupe itself, the opening of Monty Python’s Flying Circus is strange and completely original. Beginning with the bearded castaway “It’s” man, the flowers start to bloom, the Rube Goldberg machine activates and the heads roll. As with other fanciful animations from the show, Monty Python member Terry Gilliam created the intro, using scissors, an airbrush and a camera. And because the sequence wasn’t live action, the group was free to create violent and disturbing scenes without censorship.
29. Desperate Housewives (2004-2012)
Using familiar historical imagery and iconic works of art, the opening sequence of Desperate Housewives challenges women’s traditional roles in the same quirky spirit as the series itself. Rather than waste time introducing the main characters—four women living with the secrets and lies hidden behind the perfect façades of Wisteria Lane—this intro, created by Hollywood design firm yU+co, paints a picture of women through the ages, all the way back to Eve in the Garden of Eden. They’re cleaning up after men, they’re taking care of all the kids, they’re managing the household—and they’ve had enough. Desperate Housewives was lauded during its eight-season run for its smart, rapid-fire dialogue, its overlapping plots, and a narrator who weaved together her fellow housewives’ stories from beyond the grave, and this title sequence captures that energy and vivacity.
28. The Sopranos (1999-2007)
The moment we see mob boss Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) pulling out of the Lincoln Tunnel and into New Jersey, we recognize a man in control. Holding a lit cigar between ringed fingers, he tears the ticket from the Jersey Turnpike toll and speeds along I-95, staring out at the road and blowing smoke.
He is literally and figuratively a man in transit in the opening sequence of The Sopranos, driving between cities while balancing the struggles of family life and business. He also wrestles with the contrast between his tough-guy persona—he’s a powerful player in the fictional DiMeo crime family—and his clinical depression, which he attempts to treat with regular visits to psychiatrist Jennifer Melfi. Tony Soprano represents the heart of The Sopranos, a series that captures the complexities of life in the mob.
But unlike its sweeping cinematic predecessors, such as The Godfather and Goodfellas, The Sopranos isn’t concerned with the history of crime families across the decades or focusing on better days in the past. It’s about surviving in the perpetual now, as Tony, his associates and his family make it through this week, this month, this year. Always on the clock, always moving forward.
27. The Rockford Files (1974-1980)
Ex-con turned private eye Jim Rockford has a few rules. He investigates cold cases, small-time insurance scams, missing persons and murders, but not open police cases. He rarely carries a gun and isn’t looking for trouble, but he gets into fistfights now and again. He lives in Malibu, but in a run-down mobile home in a parking lot by the beach. His rate is $200 a day, plus expenses.
In the time before loose-cannon cops like Lethal Weapon’s Martin Riggs and Beverly Hills Cop’s Axel Foley, there was Jim Rockford in The Rockford Files. A cowboy detective and an anti-hero, Jim was courageous when he had to be, conniving when he had to be—and he never gave up on a case, in spite of himself. Even before seeing him on camera, we come to understand the man through the people in his life; all 122 episodes of The Rockford Files begin with a static shot of Jim’s answering machine and someone—an angry creditor, an annoying client, or just a random stranger—calling to complain or demand something from him. The rest of the show’s opening is a montage of images cut together sequentially, like a slideshow documenting the detective’s various cases and mishaps. Add a wink and a nod here and there, and we’re in the know with Rockford: He may not always have the best hand of cards, but he definitely plays the game the best.
26. South Park (1997-present)
“ALL CHARACTERS AND EVENTS IN THIS SHOW—EVEN THOSE BASED ON REAL PEOPLE—ARE ENTIRELY FICTIONAL. ALL CELEBRITY VOICES ARE IMPERSONATED… POORLY. THE FOLLOWING PROGRAM CONTAINS COARSE LANGUAGE AND DUE TO ITS CONTENT IT SHOULD NOT BE VIEWED BY ANYONE”
Well, at least they warned us. This FBI-style alert proceeds each episode of South Park, an animated TV series about four boys and their bizarre adventures in fictional South Park, Colorado. Like Stand By Me meets Beavis and Butt-head (and with almost enough characters to put The Simpsons to shame), South Park polarized audiences when it debuted in 1997: Critics praised its smart writing and fresh comic style, while parents’ groups, television councils and other organizations condemned the show’s crude humor, language and taboo subject matter.
You can’t really tell what South Park is about by watching the show’s opening sequence, with the boys riding the bus to get to school and singing about their excitement to see the town—unless you count Kenny’s muffled, inaudible lines, which we’ll let you Google on your own. But what the intro does deliver is an idea of the breadth of South Park’s world. And, for such a ruthless satire, it’s somehow fitting that the opening is remarkably saccharine. If you think South Park seems harmless after watching its title sequence, you’re in for a gloriously rude awakening.
25. Dexter (2006-2013)
The intro to Dexter is simply a man waking up and getting ready for his day—or does it mean something more? It’s the perfect opening for a show about duplicity: Dexter is a blood spatter analyst working for the Miami Police Department, but he doesn’t solely investigate crimes. He also commits them. He’s a serial killer of criminals who’d otherwise slip through the justice system, a bad guy who takes out the bad guys. Think Hannibal Lecter meets Robin Hood.
The characters on the show don’t know who Dexter really is, but we do. So these violent morning rituals of his are a wink to the audience, a not-so-subtle reference to the fact that there’s more lurking beneath what we can see. On the surface, Dexter wakes up and shaves, prepares a breakfast of ham and eggs and freshly squeezed juice, gets dressed and leaves for the day. But with the quick cutting and the zoomed-in shots, we get a different picture, just for a moment. Are we staring at strangulation wires—or just dental floss pulled tight against fingers? Bloodied guts, or a blood orange pressed into a juicer? Dexter carves into pink flesh, which we realize is just pork. Red drops appear on his eggs, which we realize is just hot sauce. He puts on a T-shirt and, for a moment, appears to be suffocating beneath a pulled sheet.
But it’s fine. Nothing bad to see here, folks. We can trust Dexter to take care of everything.
24. The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (2015-present)
“We knew from the very beginning, when Tina [Fey] and Robert [Carlock] pitched the pilot, that their story was going to be told very quickly by a local guy who witnessed the whole thing. We were going to see it through a viral video, much like the Charles Ramsey stuff,” Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt producer and composer Jeff Richmond told The Los Angeles Times in a 2015 interview.
Although the series is about a 30-year old woman who escapes a doomsday cult and starts a new life in New York City—a somewhat, uh, grim premise—it’s also supposed to be fun and cute and upbeat. In order to vault the audience quickly into that mindset, the UKS team developed this catchy intro, a news broadcast that gets remixed by the Internet.
Fey and Carlock wrote the monologue for the neighbor who saw it all, creating an in-show, live-on-the-scene TV news segment, which they then Auto-Tuned and edited together, punching up key phrases like “unbreakable” and “alive, dammit!” They then brought on the Gregory brothers, pioneers of the original “Songify the News” videos, which turned recordings of newscasters, politicians and political pundits into catchy songs through digital manipulation, to tweak the video. Also to thank for the success of this incredible opening: The memorable Mike Britt, who plays neighbor Walter Bankston, and whose delivery already carries enough musical inflections to merit comparison, per Andrew Gregory, to Joe Cocker and James Brown.
These combined efforts result in a title sequence that people can’t seem to shake, its elements working in tandem to convey the show’s singular, irrefutable theme: Females are strong as hell.
23. The Golden Girls (1985-1992)
Thank you for being a friend. It’s the moral of one of TV’s most beloved sitcoms, The Golden Girls. But can you imagine the original pitch for this series to NBC executives? At a time when the top programs included the likes of Miami Vice, The A-Team and Remington Steele, here was a show about four elderly, single women sharing a home in Miami. (Nothing was sexier than Florida in the 1980s, admittedly.) Somehow, The Golden Girls fit right in and made themselves at home.
The Golden Girls succeeded because the series captures what so many failed TV shows miss: real rapport and chemistry among fascinating characters. It doesn’t matter that the show’s about women over 50, or that in many episodes they don’t even leave their faded, floral-patterned bungalow—because these ladies are sharp, trading verbal barbs and wisecracks as if they were in the midst of a ping pong match.
When it comes to the quartet of characters—Southern belle Blanche; the pretty but dingbatty Rose; weary New Yorker Dorothy; and her mother, the politically incorrect Estelle—the opening sequence features the best of their scenes together: mouthing off to one another, involved in questionable activities, strutting their stuff. We don’t have to know what they’re saying, or hear a voiceover narration explaining the plot. We get it. And it all makes growing old look like a hell of a lot of fun.
22. Mad Men (2007-2015)
“I imagine a guy walking into a building, taking the elevator up to his office, putting his briefcase down and jumping out the window… but not that.”
Series creator Matthew Weiner had a fairly clear vision of what he wanted Mad Men’s opening sequence to look like when he first described it on the phone to Steve Fuller, of design agency Imaginary Forces. Fuller, along with fellow creative director Mark Gardner, designed the Emmy Award-winning title sequence for the show about ad men in 1960s New York based on this brief. Their work was an homage to graphic designer Saul Bass and director Alfred Hitchcock, with skyscrapers straight out of the opening titles of North by Northwest and the silhouette of a man falling from posters of the film Vertigo, set to DJ RJD2’s now-famous theme, “A Beautiful Mine.” This intro represents everything Mad Men is about: advertising, New York City, cigarettes, suits, sex and the fall of Don Draper.
In a period piece where everything has meaning (every prop on screen is painstakingly accurate to the time), Mad Men fans had long speculated that the opening sequence would foreshadow the series finale. Would Don Draper commit suicide by jumping from his Madison Avenue office? Would he end up like the man from the intro?
He does end up like him, in a way—falling, but not literally—and, by series’ end, he appears settled and content. Don would come to embody a particular time and place in American culture, and Mad Men, like its title sequence, offers us a window into the past. In this way, it’s not a television show. It’s a time machine.
21. Cowboy Bebop (1998-1999)
Aboard the spaceship Bebop, a crime syndicate hit man, a con artist, an ex-cop, a hacker and a Welsh Corgi have carved out a living working together as bounty hunters in the year 2071, wrestling with wanted criminals across the solar system, as well as demons from their own pasts. Described by The Atlantic writer Alex Suskind “like something John Wayne, Elmore Leonard and Philip K. Kick came up with during a wild, all-night whiskey bender,” Cowboy Bebop is equal parts action-adventure, science fiction, kung fu, film noir, Western, crime, pulp and comedy. It’s a seminal, critically acclaimed anime series about existentialism and existential ennui, about loneliness and the haunting effects of the past.
The show is shaped by music almost as much as it is by character and story. Dozens of instrumental and vocal melodies fill the scenes of Cowboy Bebop, ranging from acoustic ballads to big band, hard bop, blues, country, funk, electronic, hip hop and rock, all originally created for the series by composer Yoko Kanno and the Seatbelts—an impressive body of work for a TV show that spans just 26 episodes.
Each of which is kicked off by this explosive opening sequence, inspired by Japanese New Wave cinema of the 1960s and the pop art movement. A bright palette of colors illuminate silhouetted characters, spaceships and free-form floating text, in the shape of various rectangles and squares sliding in and out of frame and timed to “Tank!”, an energetic piece of bebop jazz. We see flashes of color and movement, gunfire, sprinting, cigarette smoke and martial arts. We hear drums, bass, saxophones, trumpets and trombones. This action-packed minute-and-a-half music video sets the stage for what is widely considered one of, if not the, greatest anime series of all time.
20. Reading Rainbow (1983-2006)
For more than 20 years, Reading Rainbow helped encourage children of all ages to broaden their horizons and learn about their world by reading books. In the process, it became the third longest-running children’s television show on PBS, behind Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and Sesame Street. Under the guidance of host LeVar Burton (Roots, Star Trek: The Next Generation), each episode featured a celebrity reading a children’s book aloud, then exploring a theme from that book through different educational segments or stories.
The series’ dreamlike opening sequence, of an illustrated butterfly transforming reality into fantasy worlds and outer space-like environments for children reading books, became instantly recognizable for its vivid look and style. Plus, its catchy theme song—performed by Tina Fabrique in early seasons and R&B artist Chaka Khan later on—beautifully conveys Reading Rainbow’s message: Books can take you anywhere.
19. The Jetsons (1962-1963)
Meet George Jetson! Zipping through the clouds of Orbit City in his flying saucer, he’s off to work in the morning with his family. He drops off his son, Elroy, at elementary school, his teenage daughter, Judy, at high school, and his wife, Jane, at the mall. He arrives on a moving sidewalk for his job at a sprocket company, where he simply has to press buttons.
This is the future of The Jetsons, the Space Age equivalent of The Flintstones, where everyone lives in elevated Space Needle-type platforms high above the Earth and technology isn’t just commonplace, it’s a way of life. As with The Flintstones, the setting is less the subject of social commentary than a backdrop for the show’s sitcom format and an excuse for period-themed jokes and gags. Set to a catchy theme by Hoyt Curtin, the same composer for many of the Hanna-Barbera cartoons—including Huckleberry Hound, Quick Draw McGraw and, of course, The Flintstones—both the Flintstones and the Jetsons are the same type of family, with scheming patriarchs, forgiving wives and doting kids.
Much of the technology we use regularly today didn’t exist when The Jetsons was produced, including cell phones, personal computers and the Internet. But in today’s world, where everyone’s got their nose in a laptop or iPhone, it’s nice not to see everyone in The Jetsons’ version of the future doing the same. For all the perks of 2016, we might still have some growing up to do.
18. The Flintstones (1960-1966)
As the counterpart to The Jetsons, it’s only fair that The Flintstones original come first. And, honestly, this classic opening sequence is one of the best. While The Jetsons begins at the start of the day, The Flintstones begins at the end, with Fred getting off and going home to meet his family.
As the first American animated series to air in primetime, The Flintstones had a lot to live up to. Drawing inspiration from The Honeymooners, starring Jackie Gleason as blue-collar everyman Ralph Kramden and Art Carney as his best friend / fellow schemer Ed Norton, The Flintstones was a popular hit when it debuted, and has gone on to become on of the most famous cartoons ever made.
“They’re a page right out of history,” or so goes the show’s now-iconic theme song: The opening sequence of The Flinstones has become the stuff of legends, marked by its classic use of anachronisms mixing the 20th century with the prehistoric era. Here, we see Fred finishing his job as a bronto-crane operator, jumping into his human-powered “automobile,” and taking the family for a drive-in movie. The closing credits go on to show Flintstone ordering a dinosaur-sized rack of ribs: Life was easy in the good ol’ days.
17. Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood (1968-2001)
Following a pan over a colorful miniature model of the neighborhood, a red trolley car scoots by, and we zoom in on a house at the top of the street. Here, Mister Rogers enters and greets us, coming in through the door and carrying something of interest. He’s a happy man with warm eyes, singing “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” as he hangs up his coat, swaps it for a cardigan sweater (knit by his real-life mother) and changes his going-out shoes to blue indoor sneakers.
For more than thirty years, this was the opening of children’s television series Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. We’re breaking our own rules by including this entry, because it wasn’t pre-recorded, but consider that: For nearly 900 episodes, host Fred Rogers sang the theme song live and made this entrance, with studio musicians Joe Negri on guitar, Carl McVicker Jr on double bass, Bobby Rawsthorne on drums & percussion, led by musical director Johnny Costa on piano, synthesizer (and trolley whistle). They performed this opening live in every. single. episode.
It wasn’t a gimmick. Mister Rogers was the real deal, and his diligence was proof of his commitment to children’s education. Whoever you were in America, in whatever part of the country you grew up, you could call Mister Rogers a friend and teacher. His groundbreaking work both on and off screen for the advancement of public broadcasting and children’s television is unmatched. His show wasn’t about selling breakfast cereal or plastic toys to kids, it was about fostering the development of young minds. He believed in originality, not reproduction. And we see this in every episode—every time Rogers opens the front door, says hello and greets us in song.
16. Samurai Jack (2001-2004)
In feudal Japan, a young samurai warrior wielding a magic katana challenges Aku, a dangerous, shape-shifting demon, in a final battle of good versus evil. The samurai gains the upper hand and the demon, on the brink of defeat, opens a portal in time and casts the samurai far into the future. Here, in a dystopian world populated by robots and aliens, where Aku’s rule is infinite, the samurai must find a way to return to the past — “and undo the future that is Aku!”
Drawing on Akira Kurosawa, Frank Miller and David Carradine in the ’70s TV series Kung Fu, Samurai Jack was creator Genndy Tartakovsky’s follow up to his critically successful Dexter’s Laboratory and a response to what he felt was lacking in existing action cartoons. With Jack, Tartakovsky created a colorful world of imaginative villains, futuristic technology and a narrative that wove together original stories with classic mythologies, such as the Grecian Battle of Thermopylae or the Norse afterlife of Valhalla.
Cinematic in scope and artistry, this opening tells the tale of the intrepid young samurai, with a powerful voiceover by legendary Japanese actor Mako Iwamatsu, sweeping visuals—inspired by Zen inkbrush paintings—and a catchy, trip hop theme song composed by James Venable. It’s perfect for Jack, stuck in the advanced-yet-alien future. Samurai Jack is slated to return to the airwaves in 2017. We only hope this intro comes with it.
15. The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1977)
As Mary Richards, Emmy-award winning actress Mary Tyler Moore represented the aspirations of an entire generation of American women. The “it” girl of the 1970s, she was intelligent, perky and ambitious, a leader without being bossy, attractive without being vapid. Still, while the country was in the midst of the women’s rights movement, the workplace remained dominated by men. The Mary Tyler Moore Show challenged that paradigm—and won.
The plot was simple: 30-year-old Mary moves to Minneapolis after her boyfriend of two years dumps her, and she finds work as an associate producer on WJM’s “Six O’Clock News.” In the Twin Cities, she befriends her gruff but kind-hearted boss, the station’s news writer, the bumbling anchorman, her landlady and her upstairs neighbor. Along the way, the series touched on a wide array of topics rarely seen on TV at the time, such as homosexuality, sex before marriage, marital infidelity, addiction and more—all while still remaining in top form as a comedy. The Mary Tyler Moore Show never missed a beat.
The lasting impact of The Mary Tyler Moore Show can be seen in everything from Murphy Brown and Sex and the City to 30 Rock, Girls and beyond. Its celebrated opening sequence—its clips of Mary living a carefree life in the city capped by the famous image of our heroine tossing her hat into the air—is often mimicked as well, perhaps because it captures the character’s infectious exuberance and sunny disposition so perfectly. Mary took her life in stride, and became an inspiration for people everywhere.
14. The Wonder Years (1988-1993)
We may not have literally grown up with the Arnold family, but through their trials and tribulations, we’re able to experience adolescence as if we, too, were living through the tumultuous and volatile 1960s on The Wonder Years. In this nostalgic opening sequence, we see 12-year old Kevin Arnold, his friends and his family through the lens of Super 8 home movies.
And as the years go by on The Wonder Years, the intro grows up with them. In early seasons, the clips were taken from the series’ pilot episode, with new footage of the characters added in each of the first five seasons. With Season Six, the opening changed again, with historical footage from major events of the ’60s and ’70s, such as the moon landing, the Vietnam War and the Kent State shootings, replacing the characters altogether. Set to a Joe Cocker cover of Ringo Starr’s “With A Little Help From My Friends,” The Wonder Years serves as a tribute and gateway to a past for those of us too young to remember it firsthand, proving that no matter what decade we grew up in, nostalgia is one thing we all share. Nothing captures the spirit of growing up better than this.
13. Dilbert: The Animated Series (1999-2000)
Believe it or not, Dilbert was briefly on TV as an animated series. Yes, that Dilbert, the one from the newspaper comics, the white collar engineer with the flipped up tie and pointy-haired boss. And, believe it or not, it had one of the greatest opening sequences ever.
We begin with the Big Bang, which takes us through space to Earth. Deep in the ocean, a single cell splits into two, four, eight. It becomes a simple life form that evolves into a fish, a creature, a caveman, who comes onto land and straight into a cubicle, charting a path from mankind’s struggle into existence to the menial day-to-day struggles of office life. Indeed, the title sequence ends with Dilbert in a sea of countless cubicles—and another big bang, as a superior life form (the cynical Dogbert) pulls the plug.
In this Emmy-winning intro, the evolving organisms all wear Dilbert’s round, black glasses. After all, when it comes to workplace politics, temperamental bosses and the frustrations of everyday life, we all have a little Dilbert inside us.
12. Bill Nye the Science Guy (1993-1998)
It might be considered strange for a show dedicated to educating younger viewers about science, and making the subject matter relatable to general audiences, to begin with this insane, off-the-wall intro.
But that’s the point: You don’t turn away. If you’re watching the opening of Bill Nye the Science Guy for the first time, it takes a bit to figure out what’s happening on screen and what the narrator is actually saying. You see Bill’s disembodied head spinning, plastic toy dinosaurs flying by, radio frequencies and volcanoes bursting with energy—all set to a pounding theme song by music writer (and math teacher) Mike Greene. When he got the call to create the opening in 1992, his instructions were to make it sound different from other theme songs. And with the help of a rock melody, bass lines and dance beats, it’s hard to imagine a more memorable track.
The idea was that Bill Nye shouldn’t have a traditional theme song, because this wasn’t going to be your traditional TV show. He was here to educate, yes, but he was also a lot of fun. The series’ fake music videos, science puns and skits with celebrities turned Nye into a household name that ’90s kids would learn to equate with science itself: Bill! Bill! Bill!
11. Rugrats (1991-2004)
Every ’90s kid will know this sequence by heart. But for a show about babies—and an intro about babies playing on the floor—this minute-long opener is nothing short of genius, with stoic comedy reminiscent of Buster Keaton and cinematography that would’ve made Orson Welles proud.
A dozen little bits unfold perfectly in this expertly assembled sequence: The opening image of a hovering, upside-down diaper; the forced perspective of the living room from a child’s point-of-view; the careful choreography of the babies.
Tommy somersaults into frame, trying to reach a bottle of milk. Redhead Chuckie scoots by, “driving” a vacuum cleaner, as twins Lil and Phil race to a desk and chair. Phil’s there first, climbing the chair, then the table, before knocking the phone onto the floor. As he steps off the chair, Lil comes crashing through, knocking the chair away. All of this is in the background as a terrifying, wind-up, toy cat approaches, which Tommy manages to shoot down with the milk, having finally reached the bottle.
Then we zoom out, like the impossible shot from the movie Contact in which the camera pulls back through the mirror, to reveal bossy Angelica, who’s hijacked the poor family dog for a game of dress-up. Suddenly, Chuckie barrels through on the vacuum cleaner, which catches on the closet door and bursts open, spraying them all with soot.
The parents suddenly arrive and they pick up Tommy, happy. We see the kids gather, and they’re happy; Angelica brushes some dust off her dress. And then we pull back to see the full scene, the parents holding Tommy. Everybody’s happy. And then Tommy shoots us in the face with the milk.
10. Game of Thrones (2011-present)
From the high towers of King’s Landing to the godwood of Winterfell to the castles of The Wall, Westeros comes to life in the opening sequence of Game of Thrones, based on the fantasy book series by author George R.R. Martin.
Nearly 25 designers at effects company Elastic worked to create this digital 3D map, which changes over time to reflect the changing focal points of the series’ narrative. Every town, tower, cityscape, and mountain range is an intricate model rising up from the Earth, moving like the gears of a clock. Even the globe itself is a machine, its cogs barely visible under its metal surface, constantly spinning and whirring. Meanwhile, high in the sky, the rings of a spherical astrolabe rotate around a burning sun, illuminating the planet’s surface. Woven into the rings are stories from the series, the fates of mortals permanently inscribed onto the metal surfaces.
This sweeping opening is meant to be slightly disorienting, requiring viewers to study the surroundings in order to figure out where on the map they are. But it’s exactly what the designers had in mind, fitting for a TV series in which anything can happen. Time is ticking, winter is coming and the great wheel never stops turning.
9. Gilligan’s Island (1964-1967)
On what was supposed to be a three-hour charter boat tour, the unlucky passengers of The Minnow get caught in a storm that strands them on a tropical island. Here, the ship’s skipper, his first mate, a movie star, a millionaire couple, a high school professor and a country girl have to survive with one another and make do. Not an easy task when said first mate, Gilligan, constantly foils their plans through sheer stupidity and accidental mishaps.
The show’s epic opening sequence is set to “The Ballad of Gilligan’s Isle,” which explains the characters’ plight and was recorded by several artists—most notably folk group The Wellingtons. Although the show was a modest success when it originally aired in the 1960s, it ultimately found a larger audience during later decades of syndication. Who knew marooned castaways on a tropical island could make for such good television?
8. The X-Files (1993-2002)
The biggest spoiler alert on this list is likely for this entry about The X-Files. Not for revealing anything about FBI agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully or the series’ plot, but for pulling back the curtain on one of the spookiest television show intros ever, which turns out to have been surprisingly simple and embarrassingly well-improvised.
When design agency Castle/Bryant/Johnsen was brought in to handle the opening sequence of new drama about FBI agents exploring the paranormal in 1993, all they were given were The X-Files logo, composer Mark Snow’s theme song and a deadline of a couple of months. The team had recently completed the title sequence for Frasier, which had required nearly 20 variations of the famous skyline before producers were happy. But it was a walk in the park compared to The X-Files.
To create the various supernatural and mysterious footage, Castle/Bryant/Johnsen put much of themselves into the sequence, literally. See the guy in the photo pointing to the UFO in the shadowy night sky? That’s designer Bruce Bryant. He’s also the stand-in for the wispy translucent ghost, shot using a negative effect in the hallway of their offices. The white figure floating over the silhouette of a blue handprint is designer Carol Johnsen in a paper painter’s outfit, writhing around on the floor. Johnsen also lent her eye to serve as the background image behind the title card that bears series creator Chris Carter’s name.
Despite the almost-humorous simplicity of this intro, it still gets under your skin. And out of the many Emmys that The X-Files won over the course of its nine-year run, the first would come from this iconic sequence.
7. The Drew Carey Show (1995-2004)
Over nine seasons of The Drew Carey Show, there have been an assortment of opening sequences, ranging from an animated Drew Carey (face, hair and tie only) singing the jazzy “Moon Over Parma” in Season One to a rotating medley of scenes from the series by Seasons Eight and Nine.
But The Drew Carey Show is best known for two openings in particular. In the first, Drew wakes up, gets dressed, goes to work, struggles with his nemesis coworker, Mimi (Kathy Kinney) and celebrates when it’s the end of the day—all of it set to “Five O’clock World” by The Vogues. The second, set to “Cleveland Rocks” by Ian Hunter and performed by The Presidents of the United States of America, has Drew Carey’s entire office (as well as the entire city) bolting out of work at 5 p.m. for the weekend. It’s a valentine to the city of Cleveland, with Carey and the team attending an Indians game, enjoying a tailgate party, crashing the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (so Drew can replace his broken glasses with a pair of Buddy Holly’s) and singing with real Cleveland residents.
They’re both essentially music videos, and they’re both damn good. There’s incredible production value here, with a cast of hundreds performing elaborately choreographed dance sequences while lip-syncing the songs. And, most importantly, they’re fun. These intros captured the energy and craziness of The Drew Carey Show at its best.
6. The Twilight Zone (1959-1964)
The Outer Limits, Tales from the Crypt, Are You Afraid of the Dark?, American Horror Story, Black Mirror—all of these shows, and every other anthology, science fiction or horror show on TV since, owe their existence to the success of The Twilight Zone. Rod Serling’s sci-fi masterpiece paved the way for unusual stories told serially on mainstream television, and its heyday proved to be a turning point for the medium itself: from a form of low-budget, lowbrow entertainment to the a form of serious and seriously thought-provoking popular art.
Just look at this opening sequence. Consider how bizarre and revolutionary it must’ve seemed to audiences, who would’ve found The Twilight Zone while flipping past programs like Father Knows Best and The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin. Listen to the theme song by the legendary Bernard Herrmann, who also created the scores for Vertigo and Psycho. See the floating door in space. A shattering window. A floating eyeball. This ain’t The Honeymooners.
Younger viewers may find this opening sequence a little hokey and old fashioned. A warning that “you are entering a dimension of sight and sound, of ideas,” really?
Yes, really. This was 1959. Concepts like alien invasions and invisible monsters and the fact that maybe humanity is actually the villain weren’t the clichéd concepts that they might seem to jaded audiences of today. The fact that we’ve already seen it is because The Twilight Zone showed it to us. The warning before every episode was necessary. This was mind-blowing stuff.
5. Cheers (1982-1993)
The beginning of Cheers is the stuff of legends—literally, with its slideshow of assorted faces and figures from bar scenes from the past. A place where everybody knows your name. What’s not to like?
NBC apparently hated it. “They wanted to see the cast. Not something that represented the cast,” said designer Bruce Bryant in a 1991 interview with the Chicago Tribune. Castle/Bryant/Johnsen, the design agency team behind the opening titles of Frasier, The X-Files and dozens of other TV shows through the 1980s and ‘90s, was brought on to create the intro. Their first concept was to create a pictorial timeline of drinking through the ages, from cavemen to the Egyptians to the present day. “It was a nice tribute to alcoholism,” designer James Castle told the Tribune. The concept was rejected.
Instead, the designers tried to depict the fictional history of the bar itself. From private collections and historical societies across the country, the team carefully selected 17 images from the turn of the century—a mix of archival engravings, vintage photographs and illustrations—which were then superimposed atop one another, hand-tinted and colored. They paid $3,000 per image and the intro took four months to create. The network didn’t like it.
But the show’s creators did. They fought to keep the intro, and their perseverance paid off. Cheers went on to become one of the most popular TV series of all time, and its title sequence became what it depicted: a piece of history.
4. Star Trek: The Original Series (1966-1969)
Space: The Final Frontier.
What began as a pitch by writer and producer Gene Roddenberry about a small spaceship exploring the galaxy has since grown into a worldwide cultural phenomenon inspiring millions of viewers (as well as astronauts, scientists and inventors) for more than half a century. A multi-billion dollar franchise spanning six television series, 13 films, countless books, comics, magazines and videogames—that all starts here.
Four pinging notes ring out in the silence of space. The voice of Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner) suddenly echoes out among the stars, explaining his crew’s five-year mission via voiceover narration. Their vessel is the Starship Enterprise, which appears in all its glory, orbiting planets and traveling at high warp, faster than anything that 1960s audiences had ever seen, as fast as progress itself. An alien operatic soprano suddenly wails out, then the theme song by composer Alexander Courage, then the titles: STAR TREK.
Everything about this new science fiction TV show would break the mold, from its diverse cast and thought-provoking plots to its art direction. At the end of Season Two, when word had spread that Star Trek was at risk of cancellation, NBC received hundreds of thousands of letter in protest from fans, including doctors, professors and even New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller.
The Original Series would be canceled in 1969, the last episode airing fewer than two months before Apollo 11’s successful manned mission to the Moon. But its effect was permanent and immeasurable. Roddenberry had built a series that dared to face the unknown, overcome impossible challenges and stretch social conventions for the better. His dream of the future set the stage for a show that would boldly go where no other TV series had gone before.
3. The Addams Family (1964-1966)
Despite airing for only two seasons in the mid-1960s (and scoring lower in Nielsen ratings than rival show The Munsters, which aired around the same time), The Addams Family made a huge impact on television—not the least of which was its iconic theme song, from Green Acres composer Vic Mizzy.
You know the one: Dun dun dun dun. Snap snap.
But whereas The Munsters was an amalgam of horror monster movie tropes, The Addams Family was directly inspired by an original source, Charles Addams’ darkly humorous New Yorker cartoons, about the strange gothic family-next-door with unexplained supernatural abilities and a macabre sense of fashion and interior decorating. We get that immediately from this well-known intro, which pairs Mizzy’s tune with the unusual look of the Addams.
The Addams Family held up a mirror to 1950s contemporary father-knows-best family dramas like The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet and presented a truth that we’re still coming to terms with: that families come in all shapes and sizes and can be unusual, unorthodox or queer and still be loving and functional. You pick up on this fact quickly from the intro, with the family gathered in unison and staring at you on screen. They’re not speaking or smiling, they’re not even blinking. Just staring and snapping their fingers. Chances are, you are too.
2. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (1990-1996)
You knew this one had to make it to the top three. This is the intro to the story all about how my life got flipped, turned upside-down… and you know the rest.
When The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air debuted, it could’ve easily gotten away with featuring the usual montage during its opening sequence. This was the early nineties, the era of Family Matters, Full House, The Cosby Show, A Different World, Hanging with Mr. Cooper and the like. Instead, The Fresh Prince turned to its star for an original video and theme song. Man, did he deliver.
NBC executives had first approached Will Smith about starring in a new sitcom in December 1989. At the time, he was 21 years old and had zero acting experience. Instead, he was known as The Fresh Prince, a moniker that inspired the show’s title and concept. His style, along with musical partner DJ Jazzy Jeff, shaped the opening, an explanation of the events that led his fictionalized self to move from West Philadelphia to Bel-Air.
With the success of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, everything would change for Will Smith. He would go on to become one of the world’s biggest Hollywood stars and a two-time Academy Award nominee whose films have collectively grossed more than $6 billion dollars worldwide. When we look back on this title sequence, we’re witnessing Smith’s career change. Independence Day, Bad Boys, Ali, Men In Black, I Am Legend—and to think, it all started in Bel-Air.
1. The Simpsons (1989-present)
Number One. The Simpsons, it had to be you.
On a technical level alone, this sequence meets all our criteria for a great opening. It’s innovative, creative, has high production value, features an iconic original theme song by Danny Elfman (one he considers to be the most popular of his career) and introduces us to the characters, humor and scope of The Simpsons’ entire world.
It’s the end of the day and the various members of the Simpson family race home to—what else? Watch television. But what elevates The Simpsons’ title sequence to the top of this list is its attention to detail, not least the elements that change with the times. In every episode, Bart writes different lines on the classroom chalkboard as punishment, ranging from political humor and pop culture allusions to meta-references and moving tributes. Meanwhile, Lisa plays a different musical solo when she escapes band practice at school. When the series made the jump to HD in 2009, the new format allowed for even more sight gags, of which The Simpsons took full advantage. (Not to mention the strange and epic ordeal happening daily on their living room couch.)
Over the years, Simpsons creator Matt Groening and his team have also collaborated with a variety of celebrated artists to create numerous variations on this opening sequence: director Guillermo del Toro, illustrator Bill Plympton, Ren & Stimpy creator John Kricfalusi, surrealist animator Don Hertzfeldt and even street artist Banksy.
Needless to say, the legacy of The Simpsons extends well beyond its intro. Over 25 years on TV, the show has collected 31 Emmys, 30 Annie Awards for animation and a Peabody Award for broadcasting. Somehow, this cartoon about a dysfunctional-but-loving working-class American family (intentionally off-colored) has come to represent all of us, in the best—and strangest—of ways. With more than 600 episodes spanning 28 seasons, The Simpsons has long been the world’s longest-running sitcom, and it begins with no less than the greatest TV title sequence of all time.