Thursday, November 20, 2008

Now that's how you start a show

Following on from my blog yesterday about TV's decline in quality; today I'm on something I've been thinking about for a while. That crucial aspect missing from TV; that most important part of any good 70s,80s or 90s show. I'm talking about the opening credits.

Nowadays, in the interests of saving time, the credits for shows such as Lost and Heroes occur about 10 minutes in, and last for about 10 seconds. But back in the good old days, the opening credits - complete with easy to remember theme or song, could go anywhere up to 90 seconds. It's no surprise they have been cut - I mean did we really need to see every week Quincy explaining to a group of police cadets that they were "about to enter the world of forensic medicine" only to see them faint? (And while we're on the subject, when was the last time a show featured a guy who looked like Quincy, who wasn't playing the crotchy old apartment janitor, but was the guy who got the girl every week? You gotta love the 70s).

But with the cutting of the theme/opening credit sequence, we have lost something. Sure we've lost the ability for a band like The Rembrandts or singers like Vonda Shepard or Thom Pace to crank out one hit before wondering off to obscurity, but more than that we've lost that ability to hear the music starting and know you have to run in from the kitchen to make sure you don't miss the opening lines.

A good opening credit theme, not only gave the watcher a catchy tune, it would oftentimes give an insight into the show - showing clips from the show that established the characters and allowed the co-stars to be seen in freeze frame with the dumbest smiles on their faces.

Here's the opening of Scarecrow and Mrs King - it lets you in on everything you need to know about the show without even using words:

In a similar vein was the great opening to Magnum PI:

It was the same opening every week, and every week it let you know what you were in for - sun, chicks, high-jinks, and the snobby English caretaker (plus who didn't want to drive that Ferrari?). Maybe it's just me, but I suddenly have a hankering for some of that TV magic.

For those shows that needed a bit of explanation, there was the voice over; you know, just in case this was the first time you were tuning in. The two best of this kind was first Hart to Hart:

(C'mon, you were all saying "it's moidah" along with Max - how could you not? And seriously now, if that's not a show that would rate its socks off, then I don't know TV... or am possibly trapped in a early 1980s' time warp...)

The next great example of this type of intro was the superb A Team (for bonus points see if you know the words before hitting play - and if not, you should be able to hum the theme)

For those who needed words and a theme together in a song that also explained the entire premise of the show (plus had a bit of metafictional reference to Farrah Fawcett), they had The Fall Guy:

There just aren't enough shows featuring stunt men doing a bit of bounty hunting on the side...

In Australia, we weren't really that good about being fancy. Take Sons and Daughters, an incredibly boring opening, but the song was easy to sing and was a great hook for reminding you to what you were going to get each week (namely tears and sadness and happiness):

Similarly The Sullivans gave you nothing fancy, but gave you enough time to bring the tea and biscuits in from the kitchen and get everyone settled in front of the TV before Dave uttered his first words to Kitty or Grace (or Norm and Tom were seen in the jungles of New Guinea):

But really, the best openings in the 70s and 80s had a catchy song and a credit for each of the main cast members, plus guest stars. And for catchy songs, and guest stars it doesn't get any better than The Love Boat:

Why does it seem like McLean Stevenson and Robert Vaughn were on every episode of The Love Boat I watched... But be honest - you're smiling now aren't you?

In the 80s and 90s, the themes became quite sophisticated in their way, especially for dramas. And for great opening credits and great drama, you need go no further than Steven Bochco. His series always had great themes. Here are the three best:
Hill Street Blues:

LA Law:

C'mon, when you heard that saxophone blast at the start, you wanted to be able sit down and watch Harry Hamlin and Susan Dey flirt with each other. In one and half minute you are reminded of everything you loved about the show, and what is lacking in shows today - a bit of fun!

The third seris of Bochco's is my favourite of the three, though it didn't have much fun. This opening credit is a brilliant use of scenes and music - I love the firecrackers going off in time with the music. Of course, we're talking NYPD Blue:

I doubt any show's music has conveyed the vibe of a show so well without words - the unrelenting beat has your heart getting up to the speed it'll need to be to keep up with the hand held camera action trying to follow Andy Sipowicz around.

Perhaps the only theme that mirrored a show's dramatic vibe so well was ER (and it had great clips - who didn't want to do a do a Benton style karate move in celebration?):

But I'll end with my three favourites.

The first is from the "unbelievebly cheesy" genre: the great Beverly Hills 90210. It captures the show perfectly, and also rates so massively high on the unintentionally funny scale that is demands re-viewing:

(Did anyone ever believe that Gabriel Cateris was a teenager? - Actually I had a bit of a thing for Andrea. Seems kinda lame looking back. Actually it was lame even then... oh well, moving on...)

Next up is the totally weird, but brilliantly perfect Twin Peaks. At 2 1/2 minutes it's also one of the longest intros.

There's just something about watching the saws being sharpened that is hypnotising and fits the mood of the show exactly.

And to end, the all time greatest opening. It uses words, music, vision, everything to capture the mood of the show perfectly, and importantly made you want to keep watching (and imitate whenever you went through a toll booth). Yep, The Sopranos, with perhaps the only theme song that demanded to be cranked up loud:

And here's my final thought - if I was producing a TV show today, my stock phrase would be - if it was good enough for The Sopranos, it's good enough for my show. TV Themes? Bring 'em back I say!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Ah TV themes, now this is a thought provoking topic.
can't believe Dallas or Dynasty didn't get a mention, other shows that this topic helped me reminisce is Knight Rider, Charlie's Angels & Miami Vice and also the Brady Bunch needs to go in there, I'm guessing if Gabrielle did it for you in 90210, then Jan must have been your favourite Brady. On the Aussie front Neighbors is a no brainer - literally - hey its hard to maintain the standard after 20 years, and a show I never actually watched, Prisoner, who could forget:
On the inside the sun still shines
And the rain falls down
But the sun and rain are prisoners too
When the mornin' comes around.
Theres something in there for all of us.
From the UK, DR Who & the Goodies & the tune to the big Match immediately come to mind.
All time favourite? has to be the theme to the Banana Splits.