As I drove to work today, I couldn’t get the theme song and the imagery from one of my favorite shows out of my head. (Patience, grasshopper. I’ll include videos of my two favorite intros below.)
It’s a great time to be alive in terms of TV series intros. Now that we have computer generated imagery, drone footage, and have made such great strides in animation, some TV intros are as entertaining as the shows themselves. In days of yore, I always wanted to skip over the intros. Nowadays I tend to get irritated if Dear Husband skips one without asking me first. The modern intro really puts you in the proper mood for the show itself. And I’m ever-so-grateful that we have an HDTV, because some of these intros are works of art.
Young people today probably take cool intros for granted. By contrast, I am in awe of modern intros because I can remember how they’ve changed over time. We’ve come a long way, baby.
I’ll run you through a some memorable intros, more or less by decade. Some straddle decades and they definitely overlap each other, but this will give you a basic idea of the evolution of this art form. I’ll include links to the intros if you’re intrigued, but in the interest of bandwidth, I’m only going to embed the videos of my two favorite ones here.
Let’s start with the 1950’s. One of the oldest and most wildly successful TV shows of that era has to have been I Love Lucy. Everyone on earth who has experienced TV without cable or streaming options has seen at least one I Love Lucy rerun. This show seems to be embedded in our global DNA. We can all instantly pick out the show’s big band theme song, and the heart-shaped intro is iconic as well.
By today’s standards, the I Love Lucy heart is rather dull. First of all, the entire show was in black and white, so the intro was as well. It was a still image of a heart. The “cutting edge” innovation back then was having the words look like they are being written out before your very eyes. Wow! That must have been exciting to see at the time.
The original Twilight Zone was also in black and white, but they made a great innovative leap with their intro. There was motion. There were odd objects floating through space. They even threw in a hypnotic optical illusion that made it seem like the show was coming out of your TV screen, just to add to the creep factor. It seems simplistic nowadays, but when I was a kid, this intro used to make the hair on the back of my neck stand up.
By now we’ve entered the 1960’s. and, according to this article, while there were actually some shows filmed in color in the 50’s, the vast majority of households didn’t have color TVs to watch them on. We only started purchasing color TVs in earnest in the 1960’s, and it wasn’t until the 70’s that more color TVs were purchased than black and white ones. And the first color TVs were horrible. You were constantly having to adjust the color via three knobs on the front, and it wasn’t unusual to have to watch an entire show where everyone’s skin appeared a sickly green or an Oompa Loompa orange.
Nevertheless, since people were becoming more obsessed with color, TV producers in the 1960’s all seemed to be jumping on the cartoon intro bandwagon. I was fascinated by these cartoons. The simplistic cartoon of My Favorite Martian had me dreaming of space travel. I loved watching Bewitched, if only to see the witch flying across the moon in the opener. I also loved I Dream of Jeannie, where the cartoon Jeannie emerges from her bottle in a colorful puff of smoke.
When the original Star Trek came out in the late 60’s, its intro was reminiscent of the Twilight Zone. You could see the ship flying through space and could almost imagine the fishing line suspending the prop from the ceiling. But that music. That music! To this day the Star Trek theme gives me goosebumps.
The Brady Bunch in the late 60’s, early 70’s eschewed cartoons or objects floating through space. Instead, they went with a series of boxes, one per child and parent and maid, as if they were taking a cue from Hollywood Squares. I remember being fascinated because I knew each person had been filmed individually, and yet they all still seemed to be looking at their other family members one at a time. What a concept.
The 70’s seemed to create a demand for realistic intros. Who can forget Archie and Edith sitting at the piano, singing “Those Were the Days” at the beginning of All in the Family? In retrospect, this was a finely crafted intro, because you got a sense of the couple’s dynamic without having to be told. Edith is singing horribly, and Archie is clearly tolerating it, but just barely. Archie, on the other hand, sings well, but comes off as pompous and full of himself, and yet you can tell Edith adores him. This intro is a subtle primer of the complex relationship you’re about to watch.
Mash also throws you right into reality with its intro. You see the grubby medical unit from the air, and those helicopter shots were a big deal back then. You see the stress and dirt and hopelessness of operating on the very sidelines of an exhausting, long-running war. All of that is included in the show, but if you only got to watch the intro and nothing else, you wouldn’t realize there was a great deal of humor mixed in with the drama every week.
Let’s gloss over the 80’s, because they were the 80’s. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Hill Street Blues. The intro, like the show, was very, very realistic. You were shown the grime of the city via street scenes, and the music played a huge part in the intro, because it was by turns wistful, sad, and hopeful. That’s a hard combination to pull off, but this show managed to do it. I think that, as a society, we were all becoming cynical, and yet we still wanted to believe there were heroes in this world, and that things would get better. Hill Street Blues fit neatly into that pocket.
I think that by the 90’s we were a bit sick of reality, and yet couldn’t quite get away from it. Northern Exposure was a groundbreaking, quirky show full of odd but lovable characters, and it’s theme song is odd but loveable, too. Seeing the tiny town of Cicely Alaska and a moose walking down the street like he owns the place really sets the tone of feeling slightly out of control, but not in danger. I loved every character in this show. The exteriors were all filmed in Roslyn, Washington, and to this day when I walk down their main street, I long to see one of them pop out of the Brick or the radio station to say hello. (I blogged about that here.)
The X Files is also a product of the 90’s. As distrust of government was on the rise, we longed for heroes to reassure us. The intro to this show is very dark, and doesn’t show you any space aliens as you might expect. All we see are two long-suffering FBI agents who have gone a little rogue, and are determined to find us answers. The intro assures us that the Truth is Out There. We came back every week, hoping that Scully and Mulder would find it. We also enjoyed being mesmerized by the creepy theme song.
But it was the aughts that brought us true innovation in intros. Six Feet Under’s opening takes you on a creepy but fascinating journey that makes you feel as though you are the dead body on the gurney, heading toward your own autopsy. I remember picking apart every second of that intro and being enthralled by the elements that they focused on, and the ones they didn’t let you see. This was about the time when intros started becoming interesting enough to where they could practically stand on their own.
And then along came Lost. Its intro was like nothing we’d seen before or since. It’s just the word, with a dark background, and a short piece of very ominous, disturbing music. I think that intro, lasting 15 seconds, is one of the shortest ones in the history of television, but man, it put you right into the show’s atmosphere. It left you feeling uncertain and anxious and completely at a loss to predict what would happen next.
I remember that the Lost intro caused quite a stir. You weren’t supposed to be able to do that. Should you do that? It was so elemental. It was hard core. Like the show itself. It told you that you were about to see something different, and the show did not disappoint.
From here on out, many of the shows started creating new versions of their openers for each season. That’s a relatively new concept. I’m just including one link for each show, but if you enjoy any in particular, I recommend that you hop over to Youtube and see the other versions as well.
It was in the twenty teens that intros really took off and became the outstanding creations that we see today. The CGI and the otherworldly elements of each of these shows were stunning and new to us all. They took you to other places, where you couldn’t be sure that the air would be breathable, but you longed to find out. They sparked your imagination. They made you excited to dive into the show. You knew that, for that hour at least, you’d be in another reality. And this pandemic has definitely made us long for another reality, hasn’t it?
It’s as if these shows were saying, “Come with me. Let’s get out of here.” What an exciting prospect! Just hop on these artistic magic carpets and away you’ll go. Don’t believe me? Check out these epic intros: Man in the High Castle, Westworld, Star Trek Discovery, Counterpart and The Servant. After these little appetizers, it’s nearly impossible not to want the main course. And what feasts they are.
So here we are, in the 20’s. Just when you think the Star Trek franchise had outdone itself in terms of openers, two of its newest shows decided to say, “Hold my beer.” Picard has some spellbinding special effects in the intro, and Star Trek Prodigy does, too, only they’ve done it with gravity-defying feats of animation. If I truly believed space travel was like these intros, I’d say sign me up.
But I have two intros that I love more than any I’ve yet to see in all my decades of watching entirely too much television. The first one is Severance, a show in which the characters have a memory split between their working selves and their outside selves. And then the producers ratchet up the creep factor by revealing that no one really knows what work they are doing, or for what purpose. This show is the epitome of unsettling. This is also the show whose theme song and intro I can’t get out of my head, so I’ll share the video with you here:
The other intro that is tied for first place in my heart, mind, and artistic spirit is the one for the show Foundation. It makes you feel as though you are lost in some zero gravity desert that is filled with enormous, intimidating, ancient sculptures that dissolve into glittery, powdery color at random intervals. The show itself is absolutely fantastic, but if I only got to see the intro, I’d still be satisfied. Check it out.
I’m loving this trend. Intros started off as the television equivalent of a bookmark. It was as if their purpose was to say, “Here’s where you want to be. Now let’s get to the good stuff.”
Now, intros have evolved into creative endeavors that require as much effort to make as the shows themselves. It’s like being front row center for the most amazing cinematography in the world. No wonder I haven’t been reading as many books.
I can’t imagine what intros will be like in 10 years. I look forward to finding out. In the meantime, tell me about your favorite TV intros in the comments below.
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