45. Happy Days (1974-1984)
From the spinning record inside a jukebox, we meet the teenagers and parents of Happy Days, a throwback sitcom to American life in the ’50s and ’60s, complete with your typical working-class family, high school guys and girls, and the super suave biker and ladies man, Fonzie. This title sequence doesn’t explain much about the characters or the plot, but we can derive everything we need to know straight from the style and catchy titular theme song by Jim Haas. This was Wisconsin in the ’50s, a simpler time, and thanks to Happy Days, we can look back with nostalgia.
44. The Adventures of Pete and Pete (1991-1996)
The Adventures of Pete and Pete took place in the perfect ’90s suburb that we wished we grew up in. Like the paranormal town of Twin Peaks mixed with the day-to-day absurdities of Seinfeld, the brothers Pete, along with diligent Ellen, dorky Teddy and Artie, the Strongest Man in the World, explore the strange and surreal world of Wellsville. Growing up is tough enough without having to worry about the secret life of the local Mr. Taystee ice cream man (who never takes off his plastic mascot head) or settling a countywide rebellion against the need for high school algebra.
While indie band Polaris performs the theme song, “Hey Sandy,” we get a taste of these adventures, the town and its characters. Thoughtful Big Pete, irascible Little Pete, Dad, Mom, the metal plate in Mom’s head and Petunia, Little Pete’s tattoo of a woman in a red dress. Growing up here, things were never dull.
43. Invader Zim (2001-2002)
At a time when original Nickelodeon cartoons included Rocket Power and The Fairly Oddparents, Invader Zim was the network’s attempt to attract the slightly older Cartoon Network crowd. They wanted something edgy and a little bizarre.
They got it tenfold with Jhonen Vasquez, a comic book writer and cartoonist whose previous projects included the hyper-violent comic series Johnny: The Homicidal Maniac, Squee and I Feel Sick. His concept for Nickelodeon was simple: Invader Zim was the story of naive but psychotic Zim, the smallest member of an alien species in which social hierarchy is determined by height, who is assigned to conquer an insignificant planet on the outskirts of the universe: Earth. Although dispatched simply to collect undercover surveillance and stay out of the way, Zim—along with his malfunctioning erratic robot drone, GIR—decides to conquer our planet himself. However, all his attempts to take over are either thwarted by his own inexperience or by Dib, a young paranormal investigator who realizes Zim is an alien.
This backstory is quickly summed up in the packed intro, which shows Zim traveling to Earth, setting up his house and literally consuming the planet under the might of his machines—if only in his dreams. We also see the strange and fantastical spaceships and technology that creator Jhonen invented for his world, along with a hint at the show’s humor and art style—all of which help demonstrate what made Invader Zim the cult cartoon hit it still is today.
42. Six Feet Under (2001-2005)
Every episode of Six Feet Under begins with a death. Whether by something sinister (say, a murder) or tragic (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome), the end of life signals the start of our story; death is simply the beginning. For the Fisher family, death is also a career. Their funeral home puts the recently deceased to rest, but the issues of religion, relationships, infidelity, business—all those messy problems that still haunt the living—are often left up in the air.
This title sequence prepares us for that. We see a body going through the stages of being dressed and prepared for burial. We pass through the sterile morgue and the pastoral cemetery. But it’s not depressing. Despite the fact that these are the final steps before burying someone in the ground and closing the lid, this sequence bounces along with speed and energy, to music composed by Thomas Newman (whose sounds you’ll recognize from his work on The Shawshank Redemption and American Beauty).
This sequence doesn’t feel like the end. It feels like we’re getting ready for something, backstage to a play that’s about to begin. In many ways, it’s not far from the truth.
41. True Detective (2014-present)
The two seasons of True Detective are separate, self-contained narratives—one about the hunt for a serial killer in Louisiana over a 17-year period, the other about the murder of a corrupt politician in California and related crimes. But both are united under the hallmarks of True Detective: tone, style, voice and the smart use of captivating characters played by brilliant actors.
Whereas Season One’s title sequence depicts an anemic, decrepit Louisiana with washed out yellows, greens and grays, Season Two’s colors are higher-contrast reds, whites and blacks, bright and splashy to embody the more menacing, pulsating California vibe. In both instances, character silhouettes are superimposed over volatile scenes to serve as a framing device and a conduit through which to see this world, as well as a reminder of how landscapes shape the people who live in them. Without revealing anything about the plot, True Detective’s openings are able to evoke an entire world that we’ll get to explore over the course of each season—for better or for worse.
40. Quantum Leap (1989-1993)
Clocking in at close to two minutes, the opening sequence of NBC’s Quantum Leap is long and densely packed, but it’s good. And, after all, there’s a lot to explain.
From a secret lab in New Mexico, physicist Sam Beckett spearheads “Project Quantum Leap,” a time travel experiment. When the government threatens to shut down the project after it fails to yield results, Sam does what all respectable fictional scientists do when their funding stops: He tests the device on himself. Thrown into the past, Sam becomes trapped in the body of a stranger, with a new purpose to change history for the better and “to put right what once went wrong.” With the help of Al (Dean Stockwell), a military liaison to the project from the present who appears as a hologram, Sam spends each episode helping whoever he’s leapt into.
With a premise that crosses Sliders and Being John Malkovich, Quantum Leap is a show about the latter half of the twentieth century. The title sequence showcases the decades and scenarios that Sam encounters on his journey. Whether he’s inspiring Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly in the 1950s, helping launch the civil rights movement in the ’60s, or fighting in the Vietnam War in the ’70s, Sam is the ultimate good guy, improving our world for the better.
39. The Walking Dead (2010-present)
In the devastated post-apocalyptic world of The Walking Dead, flesh-hungry zombies have become the planet’s dominant life form, roaming endlessly in herds for their next meal. Humanity exists in small packets of survivors, scavenging or setting up camp to take a stand against the undead hordes or other roving gangs. Places and objects become a shell of the society they once represented, with no one left to carry the memories of their value or purpose.
These rusted and deteriorating sights comprise The Walking Dead’s evolving opening sequence. In early seasons, these shots included the areas of Atlanta evacuated in the weeks after the initial outbreak. We see empty supermarket aisles, cars abandoned along city streets and photographs in broken picture frames. As we progress to Seasons Three and Four, the imagery is darker. We’ve left the city for the countryside, with its farms, graveyards and prisons. Centipedes slither around bullet shells and a rusty sheriff’s badge. By the last few seasons, our locations are emptier still: country roads, tunnels and towns. But we’ve also become more active and frantic, the camera lens warping and changing colors. We see fire.
Set to composer Bear McCready’s haunting Southern-inspired string score, everything decays—even The Walking Dead’s main logo, which has steadily become more worn and faded with each passing season. Things fall apart, as we see from the various items in the intro. And if the zombies succeed in wiping out the last few humans, these pieces of the past will be all that’s left.
38. The Oblongs (2001-2002)
The Oblongs is an animated show about your average nuclear family… they just happen to be suffering from nuclear fallout. Living in a poor valley community may have caused the entire Oblong family to become disabled or deformed due to radiation exposure and pollution, but it’s no matter, because classic ’50s-era patriarch Bob, his boozy but loving wife, Pickles, conjoined twins Biff and Chip, hyperactive Milo, little Beth, vegetative Grammy, their narcoleptic dog, Scottie, and cigarette-smoking cat, Lucky, couldn’t be happier. Or more well adjusted. Mostly.
Besides the pretty clear social commentary about the haves and the have-nots, this dark comedy maintains a fairly sunny outlook and offers surprisingly warmhearted values. In one episode, Bob teaches the value of hard work over easy money. In another, Pickles becomes the leader of a little Girl Scout troop and shows them how to navigate the big city. Each of The Oblongs’ 13 episodes (you could probably guess a show with a premise like this wasn’t destined to last long) is jam-packed with sight gags, slapstick humor and some of the best pop culture jokes you’ll find anywhere. When the boys decide to see a movie in one episode, Milo requests “anything without Steve Buscemi.” They wind up at catching the latest Adam Sandler flick, Doo-Doo, Poo-Poo, Pee-Pee.
They Might Be Giants, which composed the show’s 30-second theme song, sums it up best: “Down in the valley where a chemical spill came from the people living up on a hill, live a family by the land filled with hazardous foam in their happy glowing home. Oblongs!”
37. Hercules: The Legendary Journeys (1995-1999)
Before Game of Thrones, before Spartacus and Atlantis and Highlander: The Series and Legend of the Seeker, there was Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. Of the fantasy series that debuted in the 1990s and 2000s, this was the granddaddy of them all. The show’s plot centered on a fictionalized version of ancient Greece and the adventures of Hercules, the half-man son of Zeus, and his sidekick, Iolaus. Together, they encountered quasi-mythological Greek and Roman scenarios and characters, as well as elements of Egyptian, medieval and Eastern folklore. For six seasons, the show was known for its action plots, which typically involved Hercules and Iolaus saving towns and villagers from warlords or monsters, plus a medley of celebrities with recurring roles as iconic Greek gods and figures, including Kevin Smith as Ares, Bruce Campbell as Autolycus and Karl Urban as Cupid, among a few dozen others.
The show’s direct descendent, Xena: The Warrior Princess, would surpass Hercules in both popularity and ratings, but Xena’s opening sequence fails to match the grandeur and meaning of this one. With Xena, the emphasis is on action and sexuality. With Hercules, it’s about heart: “Wherever there was evil, wherever an innocent would suffer, there would be Hercules.”
36. Weeds (2005-2012)
In order to maintain her upper middle-class lifestyle after the death of her husband, Nancy Botwin starts selling marijuana to support herself and her two sons. At least, this is the idea. Instead, things quickly get complicated for Nancy, who realizes the complexities of her new industry. She has to start a front for her weed business, develop a client base and edge out the fast-growing (no pun intended) competition. Before long, she’s developing her own special strain of weed and having to relocate her life to avoid the cops and the DEA.
Weeds became the highest rated series for Showtime after its first year, and a large part of the show’s success was due to the relatability of its protagonist. Nancy isn’t a career criminal, she’s just a woman trying to get by. In the first season, she’d return to her old life as a homemaker if she could. But as she makes the best of a bad situation and the years pass, she finds a fulfilling life outside of her comfort zone beyond anything she could’ve imagined.
The show’s opening doesn’t explain Nancy’s journey so much as depict the life she’s leaving behind. Set to “Little Boxes” by Malvina Reynolds, a 1960s folk song satirizing suburbia and conformity, we see joggers in the park, business executives getting coffee and cars pulling out of driveways. But they’re all the same people, the same cars—literal clones running in an assembly line, one after another. The homes on the hill are identical little boxes and they all look just the same. Compared to the monotony of middle-class living, maybe a life caught deep in the weeds isn’t so bad.
35. Clone High (2002-2003)
The genius premise of Clone High is quickly explained in this 30-second intro, in which the U.S. military and shadowy government officials extract the DNA of deceased figures from history and genetically recreate them in the form of angsty high schoolers. Our protagonist is Abe Lincoln, a lanky, awkward clone of our sixteenth president, who struggles with the challenges of adolescence as well as living up to his “clonefather.” As he vies for the affection of popular Cleopatra against the arrogant jock JFK, his best friends include the politically liberal Joan of Arc and party animal Gandhi.
Set to an original song by the Abandoned Pools that will bring you right back to the “golden era” of 2000s music by bands like My Chemical Romance, Good Charlotte and Sum 41, you can tell from the title sequence that the series was destined for both a short lifespan and eventual cult status. It succeeded at both: For 13 glorious episodes, we had Clone High, the perfect parody of network teen dramas.
34. American Horror Story (2011-present)
Some call the opening sequence of American Horror Story the scariest part of the show. For each episode of this acclaimed anthology horror series, created by Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, a roughly minute-long series of freaky, intense images are fit to each season, introducing the viewer to the place and time period.
In Season One, we descend into a residential basement to discover old photographs and a makeshift laboratory replete with preserved fetuses and appendages; in Season Two, we move to an insane asylum, filled with terrifying bandaged patients, gurneys, bed sheets and bloodstains. And so it goes, for each of the series’ six seasons.
If this weren’t spooky enough, consider the show’s theme song and intro acoustics. Back in 1998, César Dávila-Irizarry was a sophomore enrolled in a course on music history at the University of Puerto Rico when he decided to see what would happen by recording various sounds and mixing them with digital noise. Using Cool Edit 96 on a Windows 98 computer, he captured sounds such as metal clothing hangers dropping on a tile floor and rain drops on windows, stretched them out and added white noise and other effects. The result was mundane but unnerving—perfect as a placeholder when video editor Gabriel Diaz, a friend of Dávila-Irizarry, began working on Season One’s opener years later. The AHS team liked it so much they recreated it for the sequence itself, with the help of composer and former Nine Inch Nails member Charlie Clouser, who also worked on the Saw soundtrack. Their work brought this haunting title sequence to life, one that gets under your skin like no other.
33. Family Guy (1999-present)
1971 marked the debut of All in the Family, a sitcom about your typical working-class family in Queens. Each episode begins with bigoted patriarch Archie and his kind-hearted but naive wife, Edith, in their living room, playing the piano and singing “Those Were The Days,” bemoaning the era’s fast-changing mores. Through Archie’s narrow worldview, American audiences in the 1970s could examine their own hang-ups, resentments and suspicions.
In interviews, All In The Family creator Norman Lear explained that the show’s piano intro was a cost-cutting measure. After they filmed the pilot, their budget wouldn’t allow for an elaborate opening sequence. It would take 30 years before your typical American family was able to star in a big song-and-dance number on the small screen—and it would be in the form of All In The Family’s animated spiritual successor, Family Guy.
“Where are those good old-fashioned values, on which we used to rely?” bumbling Peter Griffin and his wife, Lois, sing in unison during the opening sequence of Family Guy—before exploding into an booming stage spectacle. The beginning of Family Guy makes this list instead of All In The Family because, like the show itself, it’s working harder and smarter in order to accomplish the same sort of funny, biting social critique that All In The Family excelled at. Family Guy has to find new humor after 30 years of shows featuring nosy neighbors, doofus husbands and teenager growing pains. It gives us everything—including a British baby and a talking dog—and it does it well.
32. The Muppet Show (1976-1981)
Speaking of spectacles, here’s The Muppet Show, which also begins with an epic song-and-dance number. Nearly two dozen (and more, in later seasons) Muppets jump around on stage with the Muppet orchestra, complete with Animal on drums, Zoot on saxophone and the somewhat scary Janice on lead guitar. They’re all here, from the gigantic, furry Sweetums to the grumpy old men on the balcony, Statler and Waldorf.
The opening production is perfect for The Muppet Show, a show about a show: In each episode, “producer” Kermit the Frog has to keep all the outrageous Muppets in line—and manage the various human guest stars backstage—during the vaudeville-style variety show. This was the Muppets in top form: parodying pop culture, employing slapstick comedy, and interacting with top celebrities of the time, including Roger Moore, Mark Hamill and Elton John. And because of this show, the Muppets were vaulted to top celebrity status, too. This intro reminds us why.
31. The Brady Bunch (1969-1974)
In 1966, television producer Sherwood Schwartz read that roughly 30% of American marriages have a child or children from a previous marriage. From this premise, The Brady Bunch was born: a program about the ultimate blended family, in which a widower, a divorcée, and their six combined kids live together in one house. (All the usual family dramas ensue, except they’re multiplied by six.)
Watching this now-famous opening sequence, created and filmed by Howard A. Anderson, Jr. (the visual effect legend who worked on the titles and effects for Star Trek: The Original Series, I Love Lucy, Happy Days, Cheers and Superman: The Movie), you can almost tell the network executives at ABC were worried that American audiences weren’t going to understand why this crazy family had so many kids. Their solution was to include a memorable theme song by the Peppermint Trolley Company—which explained what was happening—and to break down both families into a Hollywood Squares-type grid that outlined who came from where, like a visual arithmetic problem. Two plus two equals eight. Plus a hardworking housekeeper who has to keep an eye on everybody. Oh, Alice!