60. The A-Team (1983-1987)
Pitched as a combination of The Dirty Dozen, The Magnificent Seven, Mad Max and Mission: Impossible, The A-Team wasn’t originally expected to be a big hit for NBC, but the show soon developed into one of the network’s top programs.
This epic opening sequence explains the team: four wrongly convicted soldiers-turned-mercenaries, who take jobs in an effort to clear their names and help the oppressed by facing down the bad guys. “If you have a problem, if no one else can help and if you can find them—maybe you can hire the A-Team,” the opening narration explains.
Luckily, there were always plenty of bad guys, which the A-Team became known for dispatching with over-the-top action and violence (in the course of which no one really ever got hurt). That, plus catchphrases about plans coming together or characters not wanting to get onto planes, the use of epic machinery such as helicopters and machine guns, and formulaic plots and character archetypes all lent The A-Team an air of (almost) silliness.
The bitter response to the Vietnam War had come 180 degrees since the caustic war films of the 1970s, culminating in the uncomplicated heroism of The A-Team. This balls-and-bayonet beginning, set to a brassy theme composed by Mike Post and Pete Carpenter, embodies the fighting spirit wholeheartedly, a montage of gunfights, epic action and explosions.
59. Friends (1994-2004)
There’s nothing remarkable about the Friends opening sequence except for the idea of gathering six people together in a park in New York City and having them dance in a fountain—and, of course, that catchy song by The Rembrandts. Chances are, when you think about “TV title sequences,” that strummy guitar and “so no one told you life was gonna be this way…” pops into your head.
In Season One, the six friends dancing together in the fountain is the only thing the opening consists of. However, in later seasons, it’s intercut with footage from throughout the series and becomes something of a time capsule. By the end of Friends, we realize that a decade in their lives has been a decade in ours, too.
58. Carnivàle (2003-2005)
What a strange time it must’ve been in the days of the Great Depression. The Roaring Twenties gave way to an economic collapse that left devastation in its wake, in big cities and rural areas alike. For millions of starving, destitute Americans, the idea of a better life for themselves and their children could only be a fantasy.
Luckily, fantasy is what traveling circuses provided in spades. Sideshow acts, amusements, funhouses, burlesque and impossible stunts like fire eating or sword swallowing lent carnivals an aura of the mysterious and the otherworldly. This spirit is captured in the ethereal opening of HBO’s Carnivàle, a two-season series about a carnival road show and the good and evil forces that are on its traveling path. By intermixing real, historical video and images from America in the 1930s—everything from baseball games to soup lines to the rallying Ku Klux Klan—with tarot cards and ancient mythological battles between gods, monsters and armies, the sequence suggests that despite the downturn, there’s still something extraordinary at work in America.
57. Everybody Loves Raymond (1996-2005)
Everybody Loves Raymond had a few different opening sequences over the course of its critically acclaimed nine-season run, but nothing compares to this intro, which debuted in Season Three. Living across the street from his parents and brother, Raymond (Ray Romano) spots his family leaving their house to come over for a visit and it’s red alert. He and wife Debra (Patricia Heaton) hustle to put away the kids, shut everything off (especially the stereo, which Ray kills by throwing an object at it from across the room à la Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) and hide. But ultimately, Ray’s plan is embarrassingly foiled—just like every scheme he tries to pull on the show. This is, basically, every episode of Everybody Loves Raymond in a nutshell.
56. Westworld (2016-present)
Landscape and figures merge in the opening montage of HBO’s Westworld. An industrial 3D printer draws bone and muscular sinews—first of a horse, then of its rider. This is the Wild West, after all, a frontier world seen here only in glimpses through the reddish brown rim of an iris, also synthetic. Life and death, sex, bodies, memories, souls—what is real in Westworld? What is fake?
This is the question first posed by Michael Crichton in his 1973 sci-fi thriller Westworld (a proof of concept, if you will, for what would become his follow-up amusement park that also goes off the rails: Jurassic Park), and now by Jonathan Nolan, Lisa Jay and J.J. Abrams in 2016’s breakout television series. Everything is deliberately composed in this opening, from the constructed faces, hands, limbs and spines, to the movements of the needle-sharp mechanical equipment, to the haunting and pulsating musical score. Design agency Elastic draws from many sources here: lighting by Stanley Kubrick, bodies by Chris Cunningham, even the show’s iconic figure-in-a-circle, by Leonardo Da Vinci.
Another crafted symbol: the piano. At the beginning of the intro, this machine is being built as well, with piano wire diligently strung up into the board. Music is created as the piano is played. But soon, the figure playing the instrument is retired—and the piano evolves to play itself. What will become of the humans of Westworld when the artificial life forms evolve as well?
55. Narcos (2015-present)
The “King of Cocaine,” Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar, was believed to be responsible for supplying an estimated 80% of all the cocaine in the United States. His Medellin Cartel brought in more than $70 million dollars a day at the height of its reign in the 1980s, spending a grand a week just on rubber bands to wrap all the cash—making Escobar the wealthiest criminal in history, with a known net worth of close to $54 billion in today’s dollars. This was a man who made Al Capone look like an amateur. For Escobar, too much was not enough.
His rise to power is the focus of the Netflix original series Narcos, which debuted to mostly positive reviews in 2015. Through design agency Digital Kitchen’s powerful, sprawling opening sequence, we get a taste of Escobar’s world—drugs, sex, money, Escobar’s beloved Medellin—as well as the death and devastation his empire wrought and the DEA task force that was always on his heels, assigned to bring him down.
Set to the alluring “Tuyo,” a bolero specially composed for the show by Brazilian singer-songwriter Rodrigo Amarante, the opening acts as a historical document, too. Newspaper headlines float over violent scenes. Actual images taken by Escobar’s real-life family photographer “El Chino” are given a home-movie feel via 3D projection mapping and filters. Aerial tracking shots of the city are overlaid with a wireframe topographical map. To Escobar, Medellin and the urban areas of Colombia must’ve looked like this, a grid of territory to be earned or lost.
For a show that digs past the façade of Pablo Escobar and the Medellin Cartel, this opening strikes the perfect balance between man and myth, history and legend, crescendo and, ultimately, coda.
54. Freaks and Geeks (1999-2000)
It’s picture day at William McKinley High and the awkward teens of Freaks and Geeks line up for their turn. Set to Joan Jett’s “Bad Reputation,” each of them approach, plop down on the stool, get photographed and move on. Lindsay Weir tries to smile and make the best of it. Meanwhile, her younger brother, Sam, looks shocked and disoriented. Delinquent Daniel Desario fixes his hair and sarcastic Ken Miller won’t stop frowning. Photo day tells us everything we need to know about each of these characters.
Few events in high school are a bigger reminder that you’ll one day look back on all of it than getting your official class photo taken. And the single-season Freaks and Geeks, which aired in 2000 but was set in 1980, is all about remembering the embarrassing experience of having to attend high school. In many ways, the show serves as a spiritual successor to The Wonder Years (which aired in the late ’80s but was set in the late ’60s), without the forced nostalgia. While The Wonder Years reveled in the golden memories of growing up, Freaks and Geeks took a more realistic approach to adolescence, complete with all the anxiety, betrayals and disappointments that come with being a teen.
53. Adventure Time (2010-present)
There’s a lot happening very quickly in the 25-second opening of Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time. To be fair, there’s also a lot happening in the magical Land of Ooo, where the show takes place. Here, Jake the Dog and Finn the Human spend their days rescuing princesses from the lascivious attention of the Ice King, battling epic monsters and, of course, embarking on many other adventures. There’s a ubiquitous cuteness to their world, from the gummy citizens of the Candy Kingdom to the lazy penguins in the snow-capped mountains, but there’s a darkness, too. Adventure Time takes place a thousand years after the “Great Mushroom War,” a global nuclear holocaust that (presumably) changed Earth as we know it into the magical place it is on the show. It’s adorable, but it’s also, you know, the post-apocalypse.
During the flyover above the continent of Ooo that makes up Adventure Time’s opening sequence, we’re treated to visions of both: colorful landscapes, flying wizards, dancing donuts, hissing vampires, unexploded ordnance and even a quacking, two-headed duck—perhaps the Adventure Time version of The Simpsons’ three-eyed fish? Finn the Human stands on the mountain, Jake the Dog relaxes on the ground and series creator Pendleton Ward sings the theme song and plays the ukulele in the background. Grab your friends, it’s adventure time!
52. The Odd Couple (1970-1975)
It’s hard to top the comedy duo of Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon, but Tony Randall and Jack Klugman come close as the ultimate incompatible roommates, Felix Unger and Oscar Madison. Adapted from the 1965 play by Neil Simon (and inspired by the 1968 film starring Matthau and Lemmon), this show was a hit, with a few installments that rank among some of the greatest TV episodes ever produced.
This opening sequence explains why the two men are living together in one apartment, while offering examples of what sets them apart—which, of course, creates the comedy of this mismatched pair. Oscar is laid-back and messy, constantly dropping trash around New York City, which bothers the fastidiously neat and composed Felix, who insists that Oscar clean up his mess.
51. Arthur (1996-present)
Adapted from the hugely successful children’s book series about an anthropomorphic aardvark, Arthur premiered in 1996 on local public television and went on to earn a regular spot on PBS, with more than 225 half-hour episodes produced to date. The woodland creatures that represent characters of varying races and social classes in Elwood City may be fictional, but for decades they’ve taught kids of all ages about issues such as asthma, bed-wetting, diabetes and dyslexia.
Recently, a series of Internet memes starring the dorky, kindhearted Arthur reminded older fans of the series, now in their twenties and thirties, of this childhood mainstay. And with its surprisingly sophisticated jokes and in-show pop culture references to everything from James Bond to Beavis and Butt-head, Arthur still holds up even after all these years.
The intro sequence does, too, a spirited scene that shows Arthur’s friends and family hanging out and having fun, set to “Believe in Yourself,” performed by Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers. The most important idea here is the fact that it’s based on Arthur being a book series that became a TV show. When author and illustrator Marc Brown was originally approached in 1994 about adapting his Arthur books for TV, he was apprehensive—until he realized that he could use the show to encourage children to read more books.
We see this in the opening, with Arthur’s sassy younger sister, D.W., witnessing his adventures in the form of a book. Here, the characters leap off the page. It’s great to see the intro paying homage to these roots.
50. Community (2009-2015)
Everyone has his or her own reasons for being at fictional Greendale Community College. For former attorney Jeff Winger, it’s to attain an actual Bachelor’s degree after his law firm discovered he his credentials had been mail-ordered from Colombia the country, not earned from Columbia the university. For overachiever Annie Edison, this is the only option available to her after getting kicked out of high school because of an addiction to Adderall. For moist towelette tycoon Pierce Hawthorne, it’s out of boredom and desperation to fit in with the younger generation. For the dean, Craig Pelton, it’s to make the city college more like a real university.
The fact that it isn’t is what makes Community so good. For six seasons (and hopefully, one day, a movie), the Spanish study group survived through classes, romances, epic fights and unbelievable encounters, all on the college campus. And as the audience, we’ve witnessed it all as if we were students at this strange, terrible place ourselves.
If we were, we’d likely be the ones passing around the paper fortune teller from Community’s intro, a CGI-animated piece of origami that closes and opens to reveal each of the cast members, plus cute little drawings that reflect their characters (for example, a big cake for Shirley, who wants to open a bakery, and, naturally, big lips and breasts for Pierce). Set to an original song by The 88, this opening is exactly the kind of quick bang that Community needs to get started, either as a kick-off or as the punchline to a pre-credits joke. Our favorite is when the show mixes up the sequence, with a fantasy-inspired fortune teller for a Dungeons & Dragons-themed episode, or with monsters for Halloween.
49. Stranger Things (2016-present)
Stranger Things exploded on the scene when it debuted on Netflix last July. The story of three boys in junior high looking for their lost friend with the help of a mysterious girl with special abilities, it’s a package of ’80s nostalgia, in everything from music to style to cinematography—an homage to the works of Stephen King, Steven Spielberg, John Carpenter and John Hughes.
But rather than pack the show’s intro with pop culture references or some kind of retro montage, Stranger Things went simple. Series creators and brothers Matt and Ross Duffer turned to Imaginary Forces, the design team behind the elegant openings of Mad Men and Jessica Jones, to help create something from a pulpy horror novel. Imaginary Forces selected ITC Benguiat as the show’s font, the same one used on countless Stephen King covers, and plotted out a visual sequence that would bring the titles to life in an analog style that was synonymous with the early ’80s. They built Kodalith transparencies of the main titles and backlit them (not unlike the actual process used to create titles for John Carpenter’s The Thing, which was managed with a fish tank filled with smoke, backlighting and melting plastic bags), taking all the lens flares, light leaks, fuzziness and grain and incorporating those into a final digital animation. These effects would’ve appeared sloppy in 1983, but in 2016, it’s the perfect shade of retro.
“We looked at title sequences from the past. We were looking for the inconsistencies,” Imaginary Forces creative director for the project Michelle Dougherty told Wired in an August interview. “That’s what makes it feel tangible and warm.” The end result is exactly that—hypnotic and effective. Stephen King would be proud.
48. Fringe (2008-2013)
Molecules warp and shift. Strands of hair fill to become a forest. Shards of stone arrange themselves to spell monolithic titles. On the surface, these scenes feel like a cross between the random, eerie images from the intro of The X-Files and the insides of Edward Norton’s brain from the opening sequence of Fight Club. As Season One became Season Two and beyond, Fringe’s titles would even become self-referential, changing to reflect the happenings on the show. The original, blue-tinted intro represented the series’ original universe. A red-tinted intro represented the alternate universe discovered at the end of Season Two. And an amber-tinted version meant a whole new timeline entirely.
Even if only one or two episodes existed in a different realm than the rest of the series, it was enough to merit its own opening, such as the bleak monochrome intro that signaled a dying alternate universe or the barbed-wire prison intro that represented a dystopian future. Our favorite: the gloriously cheesy 1985 take on the opening sequence, in which sci-fi concepts such as “precognition” and “transmogrification” are swapped out for scientific marvels of the ’80s like “personal computing” and “laser surgery.”
This dedication and detail in the opening scene speaks volumes about showrunner and sci-fi nerd J.J. Abrams and his team’s commitment to their show. Keep an eye on the title sequence the next time you watch a rerun of Fringe and pay attention to these differences—as well as the various bald, otherworldly Observers they committed to sticking in every episode of the series.
47. Batman: The Animated Series (1992-1995)
Out of the many Batman TV shows, animated and live action, nothing tops this intro to the Animated Series, which has the Caped Crusader chasing down two bank robbers in an especially Art Deco Gotham City. The stark contrast of light and darkness, combined with a clean look and feel, pays respect to a few of Batman’s greatest comic illustrators, from Frank Miller’s film noir-style to the simple, elegant lines of Mike Parobeck, by which Batman: The Animated Series is heavily inspired.
The Batmobile, the fistfight in the shadows, even the police… zeppelins? Everything looks glorious in this opening, and you can imagine the onomatopoeia from the campy ’60s Batman live-action series—POW! BAM!—playing out in every punch and batarang thrown. The sequence carries that spirit, with the quintessential Batman conclusion: police arriving just in time to find the bad guys incapacitated. What happened? Was it the Batman?
46. The Big Bang Theory (2007-present)
Why The Barenaked Ladies aren’t a rap group, we’ll never know. When it comes to creating songs with lightning-quick lyrics, no one kills it like they do—consider their ’90s hit “One Week” and this theme song to The Big Bang Theory.
This title is a reference to the fact that the show’s four protagonists aren’t your average sitcom protagonists, but genius-level physicists and engineers. Like the Crane brothers of Frasier, much of The Big Bang Theory’s humor draws from this comedy of manners: The characters are funny not because we know people just like them, but because they’re so far removed and out of touch. (The title also probably relates to the fact that one of the scientists wants to have sex with the attractive neighbor who moves in across the hall.)
The Big Bang Theory
debuted in 2007, a year after Twitter launched and a year before the first Iron Man film. What some would call “geek” culture wasn’t as mainstream as it is today, and this series was one of the first signs of the changes to come. Which is what makes The Big Bang Theory’s intro so good. Nearly 14 billion years of the universe, 3.8 billion years of life on Earth, 5,000 years of recorded human history, religion, astronomy, Descartes, Deuteronomy, all leading to the present day: Four dorky scientists and their cute neighbor enjoying Chinese takeout on the couch. Things could be worse.