Great TV Opening Credit Sequences

Reduced to their base essence opening titles exist to perform one purpose: display the names of those involved in the show that follows. Yet at their best they can be mini movies that are a pleasure to watch in their own right. I don’t suppose a truly great credits sequence can transform a bad show into a good one but it can certainly go some way to making a poor show – Knight Rider for instance – more watchable. Here are eleven that transcend their remit.

Big Love (Elastic)
Has the spirit of a show ever been captured more succinctly than in these 90 seconds? The subtly arresting introduction of Bill’s 1…2…3 wives, the beautiful hand holding, the threat of trouble in paradise then a fade in to the family meal all set to the best song The Beach Boys ever recorded. Perfect.

Rockford Files (Universal Title)
The show that launched a thousand answering machines. I don’t think I will ever tire of this opener that switches from a weekly tongue-in-cheek recorded message to the innovative still frame sequence following Jim Rockford through his LA haunts. It looks like such a simple technique but that’s only because of Universal’s effortless panache…as the producers of Kojak found out when they tried a similar style for that show’s fifth season and just didn’t quite pull it off.

Grange Hill (BBC Broadcast)
The BBC updated this sequence a few times over the years and even tried to jazz up the theme tune but nothing ever came close to the original iconic comic strip with the famous flying sausage. Very similar freeze frame effects as those used for The Rockford Files which I hope had some influence.

Rubicon (Imaginary Forces)
In 40 seconds these credits sum up the obscure and abstruse conspiracies that thread their way through the series. The recurring themes of the four leaf clover and classified ads are also cleverly hinted at while the crescendoing musical motif lends an air of frenzy. Pity the show was cancelled after one season.

Hung (TCG)
While Hung is nominally about a high school gym teacher forced by money problems into prostitution it stands as an allegory of the desperate state the city of Detroit finds itself in post 2007. The credits represents this beautifully as Ray struts past famous city landmarks (Joe Louis’ fist, Burk’s Igloo) and delapidated 8 Mile buildings all the while undressing to an exclusively female audience. The optimistic ending that sees Ray jump into the lake for a relaxing dip tells us that, despite the pain the city can still bounce back.

Lou Grant (MTM)
When the character of Lou Grant left The Mary Tyler Moore Show to run the Los Angeles Tribune he went from being Mary’s comedy foil to the central player in his own drama series. The opening sequence retains some of the winsome fun from the original show with a pithily compressed life of a newspaper front page: from forest; through pulp factory; print run; delivery and finally to the birdcage floor.

Dexter (Digital Kitchen)
Essentially the same sight gag repeated again and again as the serial killer who famously only hunts other killers gets ready for a day at the office. In other hands this may have been pretty stale but Digital Kitchen really handles the multiple layers of Dexter’s persona with elan, keeping us wondering whether what will follow will be the spilling of or the cleaning up of blood.

Miami Vice (Universal Title / Michael Mann)
This screams awesome right from the opening bars of Jan Hammer’s epic theme all the way through to ‘and Edward James Olmos ‘. It features none of the show’s talent instead focussing on the titular city and, let’s face it quite an expanse of female flesh. The flamingoes, the Jai Lai and that amazing head dip from that windsurfer remain the greatest tourist advert Miami could possbly hope for and tempted through I was to swap this out for the similarly febrile Magnum, p.i. opener, Florida easily pips Hawaii.

True Blood (Digital Kitchen)
As with Miami Vice these titles feature none of the show’s stars, choosing rather to focus on locale and atmosphere…and what atmosphere! The theme here is rebirth with humans getting second chances as vampires and vampires getting second chances out in open society thus the credits are awash with feverish pentecostalism, pupating butterflies and maggots devouring their host on the way to new life.

Game of Thrones (Elastic)
So you’re filming a show set in a mythical world peopled with a multitude of characters in ever changing alliances. How do you keep the dazzling range of locations from getting too hard to keep track of? Why, create a living map of course and fly the audience through it every week, adding new locations as needed.

Carnivale (Elastic)
A show centered on depression era travelling circus that may or may not have stumbled upon the messiah moving toward an inexorable collision with a street preacher who may or may not be the devil. The credits weave their way through a tarot card set of images of the 1930s as imagined by Hieronymus Bosch. Weird but mesmerizing.

Honourable Mentions

  • Dallas – exceptional use of split screen
  • The Rifleman – short but sweet
  • The Twilight Zone
  • Mad Men
  • Deadwood
  • Danger Man – succinct intro with a perfect voice over
  • John From Cincinatti
  • Dr Who
  • The Sopranos
  • Jamie and the Magic Torch

Not such great opening credits but fabulous theme tunes nonetheless: