Television show title sequences are often overlooked, and even more often skipped these days, but there's real power in those few opening moments. The right amalgamation of sight and sound and music can help prepare your mind for the world you are about to enter, whether it's the tranquil fields of "Little House on the Prairie" or the bleak urban decay of "True Detective."
And yet, neither of those shows will be found on this list. Neither will you find "Monty Python's Flying Circus," "True Blood," "The Sopranos" or "Stranger Things." The problem is there are just too many good intros. This list could have easily been 100 or more series, with more worthy entrants seeming to emerge every day.
With the growth of streaming networks where time constraints aren't an issue, we're entering a second renaissance of the title sequence on television, with some truly amazing work being done in this area. There are shows on the air today where the best thing about them is their intro sequence.
And yet, some guidelines had to be drawn. Intros that are little more than clips from the show, or driven more by the power of a great theme song generally didn't make the cut -- like "Friends," "The Golden Girls" or "The Facts of Life" -- despite their staying power in our subconscious minds.
We looked at the title sequence as a piece of art and we looked at how it complemented the show you were about to watch. And we probably missed a whole lot of your favorite shows, and this list is going to make you angry, but that's okay. That's what the comments are for. We can fight it out there.
In the early days of reality television, this monumental intro did everything we asked of it. It told us we were going to watch cops chasing bad guys, and the "Bad Boys" theme told us it was going to be exciting. A simple premise called for a simple intro and a simple name. There's a reason this show dominated the airwaves for decades, and this intro had a lot to do with it.
Batman: The Animated Series
One of the first afternoon cartoon series to stand up and demand to be taken seriously as something more than just for kids, "Batman: The Animated Series" nailed their film noir ethos with this exciting intro and popping score. It was more sophisticated and mature than most cartoon intros, and the show delivered on that promise.
There's something primal about the theme song for "Survivor," but more than that the intro sequence -- when used -- strands the viewers in these tropical locales with the contestants. Even better, it helps to remind us who is on the show. In some seasons, the intro evolved as the season progressed. Even better, some early seasons had Easter eggs and clues in the intro regarding winners and other big moments, making them almost interactive with the show's loyal fanbase.
Inspired by "The X-Files" -- both the show and the intro -- "Fringe" took things to the next level as it introduced parallel worlds and other realms by modifying their title sequence to fit the different worlds and times we might find ourselves in that week. The floating words and colors might change, but the aesthetic remained consistent, making fans tune in as hard to the intro as they were the rest of the show.
Before "The Naked Gun," Leslie Nielsen gave us essentially the same schtick on television, only he was a few years ahead of his time. The opening is a spot-on parody of classic 1950s and 1960s cop shows, with some added ridiculousness so you knew what you were getting into like big guest stars that died during the intro!
Bill Cosby and company didn't find the right groove for their intro until Season 2, but from then on it was just a dance-off each year with Cosby and the cast. It perfectly set up the personalities of each member of the family, as well as how they played off of Cosby, meaning it was very cleverly giving you all the cues you needed to know to drop in on the Huxtables at any time. Check out all of the different season's intros here.
The Muppet Show
Madcap and zany and ridiculous, "The Muppet Show" was live theater on television ... kind of. It was a variety show, and a behind-the-scenes exploration a la "30 Rock" ... kind of. Really, there's been nothing before or after quite like it. But with Kermit the Frog at the helm each week explaining to us what we were watching and who'd be joining us, all we could do was sit back and wait for the looniness to infect us, too.
The Outer Limits
This groundbreaking intro literally appeared to take control of viewers' television sets, as the narrator explained that "we control the vertical. We control the horizontal." Almost as if it was some kind of subversive pirate broadcast hijacking the signal, the intro perfectly set up the weird anthology series episodes by preparing viewers to expect the unexpected.
The Drew Carey Show
While it had some fairly standard intros throughout its long run, Drew Carey also slipped in some ambitious musical numbers, with none hitting better than the raucous "Cleveland Rocks!" intro that seemed to feature the cast and everyone who lives in Cleveland. It was a full-length dance number in the streets that brought the cast personalities to life and reminded us not to take any of this too seriously. The cast had another classic musical intro you can see here.
Are You Afraid of the Dark?
For a kids show, this blue-tinged little intro was pretty damned terrifying. From tittering laughter to creepy dolls to empty swings, "Are You Afraid of the Dark?" knew the answer to that question, and quietly showed us why. These mundane things of childhood are all a hell of a lot creepier with poor lighting and weird sounds emerging from behind you.
With the high concept of a world were the Axis powers won WWII, this intro does its job by presenting a map of the broken United States, divided and conquered by Germany and Japan. But it's the haunting imagery of WWII-era destruction under its ethereal theme song that really captures the underlying tension that lurks beneath this tenuous alliance. The only video embed we could find is actually the entire pilot episode, so keep watching if you're intrigued.
Daredevil bleeds for his city, and the city bleeds for him. The Netflix Marvel series have a lot of great intros, but this first one remains the best with blood-red liquid slowly pouring down invisible structures to reveal statues, buildings, bridges, the New York skyline and finally Daredevil himself. Coupled with a beautiful score, it pulls you in with its moody simplicity.
This intro so perfectly encapsulated the story of the show's lead character by simply showing a silhouette of him falling past classic milieus from the world of advertisement in the 1960s. Everything viewers needed to know was there in those few moments. This was a world of flash and lies and manipulation, and here is our hero flailing hopelessly through it. Come watch him fall.
Pay cable networks have held themselves to a higher standard on television intros, bringing us some of the best we've seen. This series didn't turn into a blockbuster for HBO, but the intro sequence, which combined images of Grecian architecture as it stands today with Greek art come to life. The living art offered hints and clues as to the intrigue that awaited in the show, while the imagery set the stage and prepared to take us back to a time both alien and familiar.
Six Feet Under
The journey our bodies take after death is a weird one, and yet that became the central theme of this intro sequence, which was utterly compelling. Just as the show was about the people who lived with one foot in this world and too much thoughts of the next, this intro showed us the sober reality of how it's all going to end anyway.
Most sci-fi shows have sweeping orchestral scores, but Joss Whedon knew this sci-fi/western hybrid was something special and so we got an intro that married the best of both worlds with a more modern song ... with lyrics! The sepia tones and imagery painted a picture of something both special and unique, which is exactly what viewers were in for, and clearly weren't ready for yet at the same time.
The Wonder Years
Joe Cocker's take on "With a Little Help From My Friends" coupled with vintage video camera footage (in small frame) of the family was really all we needed. The footage used gave us the character personalities, and the quality of the film and wardrobe choices told us we were stepping back into a simpler time, while the song spoke of the strengths and bonds of family and friendship that were at the heart of the show.
At three-minutes long, this intro is practically a short film, but it can be forgiven because this was a weird and ambitious show with a ridiculously overwrought premise. It was surreal and bizarre and so visionary in thought and execution, viewers were as confused as to what was going on as our hero was. This was another case of a show that was perhaps a little before its time.
The Walking Dead
Still evolving as the show progresses, the zombie drama does a great job of showcasing haunting imagery of a world gone to decay set to the perfect score. The intro has echoed the progression of the show, with new images being added to replace old ones as the plot progresses, making this a living reminder of this bleak and terrible world we find ourselves comlelled to return to each week.
Freaks and Geeks
High school photo day. The very phrase reeks of the painful awkwardness of adolescence, and in one frame after another, this perfect little video introduces us one by one to each of the cast members and gives us a glimpse into their personalities based on how they behave sitting on that stool. The overall aesthetic and style transports us to the right era, and the final picture results capture exactly what was so awful about that day being the official snapshot of our childhood each year.
Long forgotten by most now, this ambitious HBO series -- cut too short! -- was the literal struggle of good and evil during the dust bowl era in a traveling carnival. That's a lot of heady stuff to try and fit into an intro sequence, and yet they managed to do just that. The carnival imagery mixed with the bleak reality of the desert-like conditions in the Midwest drew us into the Depression, and then we saw that while here we might be battling for the very soul of America.
Easily one of the most painstakingly and beautifully conceived intro sequences, this is little more than a very, very close look at the daily morning routine of one man. But because the conceit of the show is that this man is a serial killer, each droplet of blood, each blade, each potential weapon we encounter as he begins his day carries so much weight.
This is an example of the perfect combination of a classic theme song and perfect imagery. "Cheers" could have followed the lead of most sitcoms of the era and just showed clips from the show, but they didn't even show the faces of their stars ... even after it was a huge hit. The idea of the show is the timelessness of a bar, where you can throw off your worries and get lost with friends and a few drinks, and the images of people doing that in a bygone era helped sell that message. Camaraderie is timeless, just like Cheers.
After more than two decades, there is little more that can be done to improve this animated bit of perfection. What looks like haphazard chaos is actually a complete exploration of Springfield and the Simpson family, complete with personalities intact and weekly Easter eggs in the chalkboard message and the couch gag to make the intro even more popular than the show these days.
American Horror Story
While each season of the show has had its strength and weaknesses, the best part of all of them has been the intro sequence. From the haunting theme song that can be heard through each theme, modified to fit the season's story, to the even more disturbing imagery that flashes in and out of frame and focus, no intro can quite set the mood for horror each week than "AHS."
Rod Serling's silky voice and that amazing theme are just the beginning of why this classic intro is still so revered. He was introducing viewers to something completely new and unexpected, but he did it with beautifully simplistic imagery like a door to show us that we were stepping out of our world and into his. We might not be completely comfortable with what we find there, and we will be challenged, but we might be better for the experience.
Weird imagery and even weirder words flashing across the screen with one of television's best theme songs created an intro sequence that was over-analyzed in the early days of the Internet. FBI badges established who our characters were and what they were about, and then alien imagery and a sense of paranoia established the underbelly of the world we'd be peeking into each week.
Game of Thrones
Ever-expanding and easily one of the most ambitious intros of all time, the "Game of Thrones" title sequence has some work to do. These books are huge and this world is even bigger, and with a sprawling cast on vastly different continents, the living map concept is absolute genius. Zooming in on the various locales that will be visited each week, the map has been expanded and changed over the seasons -- even spotlighting the burning of a key location at one point. You can check out a fan-created extended version of the intro that includes every location spotlighted so far in the series here.
The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air
If the job of a television intro sequence is to prepare you for the show to come, no one did it better than Will Smith with his television debut. Thanks to the tone of his rap career to that point, many viewers were already familiar with his lighthearted tone, so they really just needed to show it and tell us the story of how this kid from Philly wound up in this posh residence in Los Angeles. The fun lyrics, bright imagery and charm of Smith did the rest, as proven by an entire generation of fans who know this entire song by heart.