“Quick, It’s Starting!”: The Best TV Opening Titles (In My Opinion Anyway)

"Man, this theme song really needed lyrics!" - No one, ever.

I don’t know about you, but one of the things I enjoy most out of TV are the opening credits. They get the mood just right.

Opening credits are their own work of art, sometimes more memorable than than the actual shows. They either tell the show’s synopsis in a stylish or fun way (e.g., The Nanny) or highlight the show’s themes in extreme or provocative images (Dexter). It’s no surprise that many title sequences are actually done by different studios separate from the show’s production. They’re slapped together on the show for consistency, reminding you “Hey, you’re watching this.” Great titles set the tone for the series as a whole, no matter if the episode is filler or the season finale.

I’ve scanned through my DVD collection and my own memory banks to run down some of the best opening titles I’ve seen. What are yours?

Rome

From the creepy skull that greets you to the frantic cinematography, the opening to HBO’s Rome is one of my favorite title sequences of all time. The smooth animation of the street graffiti told their own savage stories, and represented the theme to Rome well: the seething underbelly. Rome was one of the greatest cities that ever existed, but everything beautiful has an ugly side.

Nip/Tuck

The first time I saw this was late at night on a mini-DVD player with headphones on and the volume turned way up high. And I didn’t sleep that night. Nip/Tuck was a great show, but its opening titles is one of the most striking things I still remember from it. The creepy mannequins served as the perfect object to criticize the postfeminist culture of beauty as a pessimistic view of empowerment through elective, cosmetic surgery. You become just like everyone else, and the opening perfectly underlined the copy-and-paste standard of beauty unfortunately set by popular culture. It’s really not hard to see the message it’s trying to say. From the factory, the inauthentic Miami, the white gloves, it highlights everything that’s wrong with our standards of “beauty” and “perfection.” Gender studies students, go nuts.

Babylon 5 (Season 1)

“It’s our last, best hope for peace.” These words would be echoed for the next five years Babylon 5 changed its opening titles every season, evolving with the show as the plot moved forward. But the first season’s opening set the frame and stands as my personal favorite. Michael O’Hare’s morose voice-over gave the titles a depressing yet somehow optimistic feel. I even prefer it over Bruce Boxleitner’s VO. Right when he says “Babylon 5,” when the logo fades into the black of space and the theme goes into its signature tune, I can’t help but stare into the stars. Beautifully, awfully rendered stars that are no better than the Windows 95 screensaver. I feel miniscule, so unimportant in the vastness of space. No action shots, no extreme visuals, nothing. Just you, and space.

Boardwalk Empire

The first thing I noticed was how out of place the hard rock music was. I actually hated this opening the first few times I saw it, but after repeated viewings I began to appreciate it. Nucky Thompson is the one man who will shape Atlantic City, and he brings with him the storm of change. The incredible visuals of whiskey bottles washing ashore underlines just how futile Prohibition was. And through it all, I just love how Nucky stands looking helpless, but just walks it off like it’s no big deal.

Firefly

You knew this one was coming. There was a whole section on the DVD set that talked about the thing. It’s an ear worm you just can’t get out. The deep, old voice singing alongside the beautiful mix of western and Chinese sounds perfectly embodied the show it opened for. I absolutely love the still photograph-like images that accompany the actors and actresses’ titles. It’s like looking at an old western documentary, and it evokes that aspect of the show so strongly. The last image, with the Serenity flying over the roaming horses? How can you not fall in love? Definitely up there as one of my favorites.

Hey Arnold!

Who said only adults have the best television? Hey Arnold! was one of those rare shows that lured you in despite having no hook or gimmick. It’s a show about kids, for kids. And yet, it had so much character, just like its opening titles. The show dealt with surprising themes like urban culture and myth, family, death, and even obsession. The show’s very identity was shown in the opening credits, and the jazz-like street sounds made it that much cooler than any other Nickelodeon show at the time. The show had attitude, and it flaunted it. I wish my mom let me out by myself with my friends in the city like they did.

Also, I highly doubt AKI watched Hey Arnold! but when I saw this I couldn’t help but think: Did those guys watch the show too?

Batman: The Animated Series

Where do you begin with this one? The music? The art style? That it’s a whole mini-episode? Let’s just say it’s Batman and save us the trouble.

Cowboy Bebop

Much like Hey Arnold!, this show’s attitude was paraded in this frantic, upbeat, and ultimately, very cool title sequence. I love Cowboy Bebop, but I think I love the opening titles just a bit more. Word of advice: It might be a good idea to keep it at a low volume if people are sleeping while you watch the DVD. Happened to me on many occasions.

Power Rangers SPD

I don’t care what you say.

Nope, don’t care.

Not one bit.

This is me not caring.

HMPH!

Is it classic like Mighty Morphin? Does it reinvent like Zeo or Samurai? Does it have a cooler break down than Time Force? No, no, and no. So what the hell?

I’m biased, SPD ranks up as one of my favorite seasons — not the favorite, but up there — and it helped that the theme song is just so awesome. While Mighty Morphin gets me excited because of the nostalgia factor, SPD legitimately gets my adrenaline pumping. The accompanying visuals assist the theme well, with fast-paced action and some very nice shots of Koichi Sakamoto’s explosion fetish.1 On top of that, the comic book lines that outfit the show and this sequence validate what I’ve been saying for years: The Power Rangers can have a legitimate place in the comic book market. It’s another topic for another day, but when I saw the comic book fonts and lines in SPD, I truly felt connected to the show. “They understand me, man!” The opening titles’ comic book motif drove home what Power Rangers SPD is: a sci-fi action fantasy for kids to look up to. Is that not what comic books are? Love it.

Fun fact: Ron Wasserman, the composer of the original Mighty Morphin Power Rangers theme, returned to do the theme for SPD. So suck it.

And the best TV opening is…

Mad Men

It’s Hitchcock. It’s 9/11. It’s instability. It’s eerie. It’s provoking. It’s the 1960’s. It’s the 21st century. It’s Mad Men.

The beautiful thing about this opening is despite how clear the message is, it wasn’t always conceived like this. While the story of its creation is not a factor in determining how good it actually is, I find it quite fascinating to see how something so elegant, creepy, and downright perfect can be done when the right minds are at work. While 9/11 is generally dismissed by Weiner et al., as a viewer you cannot unsee it. It’s so ironed in (most) of our cultural psyches you can’t think of anything but. I’ve previously discussed the cultural landscape depicted in Mad Men as something not too unlike our own, but the opening titles really drive it in.

Even if it wasn’t thought of in the brainstorming session, it’s hard not to read it as such. Stunning and enigmatic, the falling man provokes our own cultural anxieties in the 21st century and channeling it through this time warp called television. It’s so emotionally powerful I felt uncomfortable the first time I saw it. Unlike the other openings here, I was not pumped or stoked. I was scared, lost, and diving head first into a world I knew nothing about. The silhouette, both opaque and reflective, was different. This intro is challenging and overwhelming, despite its atmosphere of minimalism. And somehow, everything just works.

Also, it spawned this.

Screw opening titles. That was the best anything!

———

1Yeah, I realized what kind of image that brings up right after I typed it. Can’t think of any other way to word it. Mea culpa.

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4 comments

  1. Nice list! Kinda lame I stubbled upon it after I wrote my own 😦 I read a few peeps fav tv openings and maybe you guys could answer me this…why no Dr.Who? On like any of them??? Im not saying it has to be but like nowhere….at all?

    1. Believe it or not, I did consider Doctor Who! The theme song is damn near iconic and the floating TARDIS through time is always neat. But I couldn’t pick which incarnation I liked best, and each version has things that I do like and don’t like.

      For example, I love the 2008 theme but the visuals of the 2011 opening is my favorite. C’est la vie.

  2. I still can’t see 9/11 in Mad Men, unless you mean the sudden collapse of his office and his fall. If that is what you are referring to, than I don’t see how that must be in reference to 9/11. The guy even says that’s not what he was going for

    1. Less about the collapse of the office and most definitely the fall. I don’t care if Weiner himself denies it: I can’t erase it. It fits too perfectly not to read it as such.

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