When the Pajiba crew first came up with the idea of these guides, I was a big fan. I mean, when you boil it down, these basically just give us an excuse to wax poetic about whatever topic tickles our own heinie. And that’s precisely what I did with my first guide (my love letter to “Freaks and Geeks”). But this time around, I have to admit that I was utterly stymied with a potential topic. Until Dustin posted his mix tape. The use of all the YouTube videos made his column fun as all hell to read. So I decided to take the same approach that most folks involved in television use as their fundamental creative tool — the blatant rip-off. Yup, I’m also using YouTube clips. And once I decided to do that, the direction of this guide was immediately clear — let’s talk about the all-time best opening TV themes/credits.
Now, two initial comments before we delve into it. First, I’m not ranking these. I was originally going to do a list, ‘cause we all love the lists. But I decided that it was just kind of silly in this instance, because many of these themes aren’t necessarily better or worse than others. Instead, it’s more about openings that are simply entertaining and memorable. So I thought it was better to just break them down into some fundamental categories, and look at them within those categories. Of course, at the end of the article I do label some as the Cream of the Crop because there are some that just are better than the rest.
Second, I have to admit that as I started putting this together, I found it hard to really say a lot about these themes. Sure, you could break some of them down and talk about them in depth as they relate to the underlying show, analyzing how they represent thematic elements apparent throughout the show’s run, etc., etc. But for something like “The Facts of Life,” that seem kind of ridiculous, no? So for the most part, my verbiage is short, with just a quick explanation on why something’s being included here. And after all, this is really just about wasting some time by watching some fun videos, and who needs all those words getting in the way from going from one clip to the next, right?
HONORABLE MENTIONS. I had to whittle this list down to something manageable, so there were many deserving entries that I decided, for one reason or another, not to include. But they’re still worth a mention, so here it is: “The Addams Family,” “The Beverly Hillbillies,” “Diff’rent Strokes,” “The Dukes of Hazzard,” “Fraggle Rock,” “Hill Street Blues,” “Mission: Impossible,” “Mr. Ed,” “Peter Gunn,” “Rawhide,” “The Ren & Stimpy Show,” “Saved by the Bell,” “Seinfeld,” “Star Trek,” “Twin Peaks” and “What’s Happening!!”
I’m sure there are others not included below and not included here which should be, and I have no doubt that you’ll tell me what a travesty it is that I skipped your favorite. That’s what the comment section is for, boys and girls.
MEMORABLE VOICE-OVERS. Some show openings have great music, great visuals, great lyrics, etc., but what really makes them strong is a voice-over. These are the ones that particularly come to mind.
“The A-Team.” Sure, the theme song is great in and of itself. But come on — we all know that what really makes this opening rule is the introductory voice-over giving us the one-note setup for the show. And I defy anyone born between about 1971 and 1981 to deny having repeatedly made some joke reference to “If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find them, maybe you can hire … the A-Team.” It’s the kind of reliable comedy gold that just keeps on giving.
“The Twilight Zone.” Again, good theme — very simple, basic, and moody. And good visuals, also very basic (albeit with a touch of the surreal). But like the show itself, this opening wouldn’t be half as good if it weren’t for Rod Serling telling us about the locked dimensions of mind hidden behind the door, reminding us that we’ve crossed over into the Twilight Zone. Not only does it add the proper creep factor, letting you now you’re about to see something a little odd and bizarre, but it meshes nicely with Serling’s in-episode voice-overs and appearances, adding a nice touch of continuity.
“The Real World.” “This is the true story (true story), of seven strangers …” You know it. You love it. This show is, for better or worse, the granddaddy of reality TV. And with a simple little voice-over, we understand the simple premise of the show and get an introduction to the folks who we’ll be watching drink, suck, and fuck like it’s the end of the world.
MEMORABLE LYRICS. OK, two of these five theme songs I actually hate (shouldn’t be hard to guess which two when you scan the list). But with one possible exception that I’m including for personal nostalgia, these are all themes which can get instantly stuck in your head from hearing the opening lyric. And that kinda fits the definition of “memorable lyrics” to a T.
“The Facts of Life.” This one really speaks for itself, from a lyrical standpoint. But there’s one thing on the music side that’s often forgotten about this puppy. Four little words — composed by Alan Thicke. Alan motherfucking Thicke! And he also composed the theme for the honorably mentioned “Diff’rent Strokes.” Diversely talented, that man is. Anyway, I chose a clip from late in the show’s run (Season 7) for two reasons: (a) we get to see credits for Mackenzie Astin and George Clooney and (b) more importantly, there is just a fantastic shot of some awful 80’s Blair hair that’s worth the price of admission all by itself.
“Gummi Bears.” This is the “personal nostalgia” one that I mentioned before. All I remember about the show itself is that it was largely about the liquid crack that is Gummi Berry Juice. But to this day, almost 20 years removed from the last time I actually saw an episode, I still find the opening lyrics inexplicably creeping into my noggin at the most random of times.
“The Fresh Prince of Bel Air.” “Chillin’ out, maxin’, relaxin’ all cool, and all shooting some b-ball outside of the school …” Word.
“Gilligan’s Island.” Can someone explain to me why the show was called “Gilligan’s Island” yet the theme song refers to Gilligan’s Isle?
“The Brady Bunch.” Definitely memorable and well known, but aside from the fact that it had a pretty clever (for its time) use of visuals, I have nothing else good to say about this. And if you have nothing good to say …
MEMORABLE MUSIC. The quality of the actual opening credits of these shows is of varying degrees. But the music for each of them kicks ass.
“The Sopranos.” Just a great song that gets you in the mood for some bloody good killing, right from the starting “You woke up this morning, got yourself a gun.” It’s edited together flawlessly with the visual medley of Tony driving home, cutting from his cigar to various local-flavor images (from Newark airplanes to Satriales). And that vinyl scratch at the end is such a great way to transition from the opening credits into the episode proper. But perhaps most importantly of all, it’s the impetus for one of my favorite parodies ever, the “Harvey Birdman” spoof “The Dabba Don” (which appears unavailable on YouTube, so you gotta settle for this Google Video link instead).
“Magnum, P.I.” How do you open a show set in Hawaii? With a great surf-style guitar riff, of course. Magnum rules, no doubt, and if hearing the intro portion of this song alone doesn’t make you want to grow a big fat mustache and jump into a blazing red Ferrari, well, there’s just something wrong with you.
“Hawaii Five-O.” Of course, if I’m going to talk about Hawaii, how can I not give a shout-out to “Hawaii Five-O?” The opening itself is just silly to watch now, especially with the ending shot of the cop car light from the roof of the car, but that song is still solid.
“The Flintstones.” Sure, everyone knows the lyrics. But what really makes this opening work (aside from the “YABBA-DABBA-DOOOOOO!”) is the music. It’s just cool as hell, largely due to the punctuating brass hits. A gay old time indeed.
“Miami Vice.” This show is the ’80s like no other show, and this theme is the ’80s like no other theme. Everything that used to be cool always becomes retro-cool later on, so when is the synth going to hit its retro-cool phase?
“The X-Files.” Much like “The Twilight Zone” before it, this theme is just bizarre and creepy enough to set the tone of the show itself perfectly, as a good theme should, puctuated perfectly by the synched final percussive hit and flash of the “The Truth Is Out There” tag.
“Law and Order.” Many of my generation know this theme front and back, top to bottom, and inside-out, since the show is on TNT about six times a day. In fact, I actually think that it’s a testament to just how good this tune is that, even though I feel like I’ve heard it nonstop for more than a decade, I still don’t mind listening to it, from the awesome opening percussion hits all the way through to the last bit of guitar twang. And the underlying visuals, from shots of NYC to the still photos of cops and lawyers just works real nice-like. Dick Wolf and company have tried to recreate this opening with each subsequent show in the L&O franchise, but none of them come close.
“Knight Rider.” This one’s got a voice-over but, unlike the voice-over themes mentioned above, I actually think this voice-over detracts from the opening. Sure, it sets up the one-note premise of the show (like its brother-in-arms “The A-Team”), but I just love the underlying theme so much that I’d rather it was un-obscured. When I drove cross-country, I had this in the fold of my driving mix, and when it came on, I was just pleased as punch. The only thing missing was a little “turbo boost” button on my dashboard. … Well, that and The Hoff in the passenger seat. That would’ve been pretty sweet, too.
“The Greatest American Hero.” Now, one of the things I love about this opening is that they give you whole background story through the visuals alone, skipping a narrating voiceover. Better yet are the shots of our friend with the blonde perm flying and running into walls. And that Connie Sellecca ain’t half bad. But best of all, of course, is “Believe It or Not,” which is one of the few TV theme songs to become a charted hit in its own right.
Oh, it’s also responsible for this great “Seinfeld” clip, of course:
“Battlestar Galactica.” Just about everything about the new “BSG” series kicks ass, but its opening may kick the most ass. The first half includes a beautiful melodic piece as a background to man’s decimation, followed by the pounding build-up of the second half, scoring the unique device of showing quick clips from the upcoming episode. Just a fantastic opening.
“Beverly Hills 90210.” If I need to explain why this is on here, you’re just dead to me.
THE BEST OF THE BEST. Some opening themes are simply so great that they do deserve being ranked above the rest of the flock. These four are, in my humble opinion, the absolute cream of the crop. There’s plenty of room for debate, to be sure, but those of you who disagree with me are simply wrong!
“The Muppet Show.” “The Muppet Show,” like all Henson shows, always used great music, and the opening was no exception. A short, simple and catchy song that’s as fun as the show itself. And it’s made even better by the fact that they would change-up little things like the Statler and Waldorf bit and the Gonzo ending, as seen in comparing these two clips. I really miss the hell out of the Muppets.
“Cheers.” A funny opening tease would lead into this beautiful song that slowly builds up behind classy old-time tavern images. “Where Everybody Knows Your Name” manages to perfectly capture that feel of being in a comfortable bar/tavern and just having a good time. Personally, it’s probably my all-time favorite theme song (and not just because I’m a drunk, although I am), and I suspect I’m not alone.
“The Simpsons.” Like “The Muppet Show” before it, this is just a fun opening also featuring rotating bits, the opening chalkboard lines and the closing couch gags. And the Danny Elfman-penned theme is simply fantastic. As the executive producer himself has been noted as saying, it’s “lemmings-marching-to-their-death music.” Well if that’s not the perfect compliment to a great theme, I don’t know what is.
As for those couch gags, here’s a nice medley that happens to include my personal favorite, where things turn into a great big circus.
“Sanford and Son.” This Quincy Jones-composed opening theme is simply fabulous. Hands down, the best TV theme ever. It’s got soul and jazz and funk and everything that’s good in the world. My words are worthless — just watch and listen for yourself.
And I’ll send you off with two fantastically hilarious “Scrubs” clips related to Quincy’s masterpiece.
Seth Freilich is Pajiba’s television columnist. He’s currently trying to catch-up on all the work that didn’t get done while he was surfing on YouTube for clips of TV show themes.
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Guides | October 25, 2006 | Comments ()