Whether for a TV show or feature film, the title sequence sets the tone for what is to come. Like an ear/eyeball appetizer. In the age of streaming video, it’s easy to SKIP them altogether, and thus the test of a great title sequence is one that you never skip, even when binge watching multiple episodes in a row. Another tell is when you still enjoy seeing the title sequence, despite not seeing the show itself in years. Here are a few TV title sequences that pass those tests for me:
COWBOY BEBOP (1998)
Not long ago, Julia & I rewatched this series again, which happens every once in a while, as this show holds up to repeat reviewing. Apart from being a fantastic TV show, it has one of my favourite ever TV title sequences, which I never tire of watching. Yoko Kanno’s catchy score is a perfect marriage with the stylish visuals, which though from the late 1990s, have a timeless 1960s, “Tokyo Drifter” retro vibe. They both get me jazzed up, and in the mood for the show to come, which is what a truly great title sequence should do.
THE AVENGERS (1967)
When I was growing up, long before the current Marvel superhero franchise boom, “THE AVENGERS” always meant this 1960s spy-fi TV series, and especially this iteration, starring Patrick Macnee and the wonderful Diana Rigg. I was a tiny child when their pairing was new, so I know it mostly from reruns seen much later. There were several title sequences for this series (which ran from 1961-1969) and they were all stylish and fun, but this one probably sums up its cheeky tone the best, and that catchy theme tune by Laurie Johnson adds to the timeless cool of these titles.
THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN (1974)
Though as children, my brother Jo & I spent countless hours slomo ‘bionic‘ fighting in our backyard (while doing our own cheesy ‘doot doot doot’ sound effects) I’ve not watched the show itself in years, but its title sequence holds up as a cheesy/cool classic in the backstory-‘splain style. These days, TV series tend to have a continuous narrative developing from episode to episode, but before streaming media, each episode needed to be self contained. Thus, a little exposish was often embedded in the title sequence to teach new viewers the conceit of a series. A classic of this backstory-in-the-titles approach being this genre-defining entry from 1974:
The exact opposite approach is to evoke the mood of a show, rather than explain the backstory. Many contemporary TV shows go for this evocative tone poem angle, such as this distinctive title sequence, combining shots traveling over the wild & rugged landscape of ICELAND juxtaposed with similarly tracking shots over extreme close ups of bodies from crime scenes. The bleak landscape of crime.. After watching this haunting title sequence, with Hildur Guðnadóttir‘s melancholy score, we are well calibrated to watch some dour Scandinavian Crime Noir..
THE MUPPET SHOW (1977)
This anarchic, theatrical and silly show occupies a cosy & nostalgic place in my memories, as all members of my family gathered to watch it while eating our dinner from 1976-1981. I am enjoying watching it again on Disney+, and often use it as a way to cheer myself up after some other TV grimness (see above). The catchy theme song and jaunty shot progression always makes me happy, and gets me in a Muppet frame of mind. This version is from the second season:
HAWAII FIVE-O (1968)
Many classic TV titles are simply montages edited from the series, set to a great theme tune. What sets this sequence apart from that herd are a few great shots, such as the iconic zoom-into a hotel balcony, cross cut with Jack Lord whipping his waveform pompadour to camera. Followed by beauty shots featuring Hawaii itself, which was certainly one of the main ‘characters’ in the show. To remind us that this is not a tourism advertisement, there are a few shots of flashing police lights, and urgently running costars. Set it all to Morton Stevens‘ iconic theme tune and you have a TV classic.
THE THUNDERBIRDS (1965)
“Thunderbirds are GO!” Well, as much go as you can get from a marionette.. Snazzy cutting, rapid zoom camera, music stings, dramatic voiceover, and lush toy-porn cinematography brilliantly hide the fact that nothing much can happen when your entire cast of action heroes dangle limply at the end of a string. This is another show that I remember fondly from childhood, but like many shows I grew up on, it was already old when I saw it as reruns in the next decade.
It’s hard to imagine a title sequence simpler than this one; a swinging bare lightbulb in a dingy room, hit by a bullet. That’s it. Bleak, & grim, it is the perfect title sequence for a series that deglamorized the SPY genre. Where JAMES BOND or THE AVENGERS (and countless other spy-capers of the 1960s and 1970s) made espionage seem fun & glamorous, this series (starring Edward Woodward) deconstructed all that faux glamour bollox, to reveal what espionage truly is – soulless & cold bureaucracy’s grey minions doing dirty deeds in the shadows to protect the state.
DOCTOR WHO (1974)
This show has been running since 1963 and there are many many versions of the title sequence, featuring many different actors, but the distinctively haunting melody by Ron Grainer & otherworldly arrangement by Delia Derbyshire is embedded in them all. It has to be one of the truly great TV themes, capturing the wistful optimism of the titular character. Most variations have some visual depiction of travel through the corridors of time & space and it is hard to pick a fave, but the one featuring Tom Baker (Doctor number #4) is probably the one that sticks in my mind the most:
I’ve only scratched the surface here, and might post some more fave TV title sequences later (and perhaps movies too) but until then, here is a great resource for searching for your faves, and finding out more about them too; THE ART OF THE TITLE.
UPDATE: a second list of fave TV title sequences is HERE.