The Lost Overture

overture

It’s not completely dead, but it’s getting there.

I’m talking about the lost art of cool opening credits for a TV show.

Like most things in television, it’s a money issue. Commercial television exists to sell advertising. The more advertising they sell, the more profitable a show becomes. So for the last few decades the networks have steadily whittled away at the available time for the actual show. In the beginning, an hour’s worth of TV was actually fifty-two minutes of show and eight minutes of commercial time. When I was growing up the ratio had shifted to forty-eight and twelve, though some shows grimly hung in there with fifty-two minutes of story. Today that ratio is forty-two minutes of story, eighteen minutes of advertising. Sometimes it’s even less– the CBS megahit The Big Bang Theory generally clocks in at eighteen minutes for a “half-hour” episode.

What makes it even more difficult for today’s showrunner is that episodic TV itself has morphed into a more long-form kind of storytelling, where it’s often necessary to put a recap at the beginning of the show to remind everyone where they left off the week before.

So in an effort to try and get some of their storytelling time back, TV producers cut out other things. Like the credits. End credits are something you only ever see on the home video version, any more– they whip by in a lightning stream of text during the initial broadcast. And very often today, the opening credits are just a quick title card frame and then a scroll underneath the opening minutes of the episode.

Gotham

I understand the reasoning behind it. Of course if you are in the business of telling an interesting story you want to put as much of your effort into that as possible, not waste a lot of time on the boilerplate stuff like the credits.

But here’s the thing. For me and a lot of other folks my age, the credits WERE part of the story. It was the overture, the moment where we all took a deep breath and got set for the show. It’s part of the fun. Mission: Impossible simply is not Mission: Impossible without the music and the burning fuse. It sets a tone.

Even the movies know that. Tom Cruise’s production company has changed almost everything else about the idea but they knew to hang on to THAT or audiences would revolt.

Same with Hawaii Five-0. The original opening and theme music were an indelible part of the experience of watching that show.

If they’d left it out of the rebooted version they’d have to call it something else, because virtually nothing else is the same. (I’m pretty sure Jack Lord’s McGarrett would have nothing but contempt for the dudebro version of the team currently airing on CBS.) But I do appreciate that the new sequence pays homage to the old in the way shots are often duplicated, even to getting Alex O’Loughlin to do that same scowling turn at the top of the Ilikai Hotel.

(True story: once when we were on vacation in Hawaii, my brother and I ditched our family to try and get to the top of the Ilikai so we could get a picture of me trying to duplicate that one-eyed squint of Jack Lord’s. Sadly, security stopped us.)

Today we have the internet and smartphones and video on demand and so on, so it’s not difficult at all to figure out what a show is about, these days. But once upon a time, the opening of a TV show had a huge load to carry; since the assumption was that the show was going to be a first-time experience for someone every week, it had to get new viewers up to speed quickly. The opening credits needed to set a tone, create an expectation, explain the premise, and entice viewers not to change the channel, and generally that all had to happen in less than sixty seconds.

Sometimes you got the origin story, like Gilligan’s Island or The Brady Bunch.

Sometimes the origin was animated, like on Bewitched or I Dream of Jeannie.

Sometimes it was more about the mission statement of what the show was going to be each week. Star Trek didn’t tell you anything except that it was going to be about the voyages of the starship Enterprise. But that’s really all you need. Space navy exploring. Got it. Let’s go.

One of my very favorites of these that combines several of these approaches– the origin, the animation, the action montage, and the supercool theme song– was It Takes A Thief. Everything you need to know is right there. And it creates not just a context but a feeling, an attitude.

It really lost something when Malachi Throne didn’t return for the third season and they had to take out his line, “Look, Al, I’m not asking you to spy; I’m just asking you to steal.” Because that makes it.

Universal Studios had kind of a cool thing going on with the rotoscoping and the jazz there for a while. That was Dave Grusin on It Takes A Thief, and here’s Quincy Jones on Ironside.

Again, just enough of an animated origin that you know what’s going on. He’s tough, he’s a lawman, he’s shot, he’s in a wheelchair now but that’s not stopping him. Game on.

One more from Universal. Here’s The Rockford Files. The genius of this one is the little answering machine clip at the beginning.

Without that, it’s generic. Just music over a montage. But the little bit of audio at the beginning– different every episode– is unique. And it immediately sets up James Garner’s Rockford as a sort of weary put-upon everyman.

You may think I’m overstating the case here. I assure you I am not. A cool credits sequence could make or break a show, once upon a time. Take The Six Million Dollar Man. It was originally going to be part of a rotating series of ninety-minute made-for-TV movies, the way NBC ran Columbo and McCloud and McMillan and Wife in rotation on Sunday nights. (I forget what the other shows were going to be alongside The Six Million Dollar Man; it didn’t last in any case.) The premise was kind of a hard sell, back in 1973; test pilot wraps up his plane in a crash, is rebuilt as a cyborg superman and now works for the government as a bionic secret agent. So they opted for a voice-over origin montage that TO THIS DAY you can hear people quoting. “We can rebuild him. We have the technology.”

But that’s not what they started with. Originally it was this.

The elements are all the same. Voice-over with an origin, a montage, music. But the first try at it was so hideous that it only lasted for two episodes. I am certain that if they had kept it the show would have died. The tone is all wrong.

Anyway. I probably think about this sort of thing too much. But I know I’m not the only one. It was a real labor of love for someone to put together this stop-motion animated version of the Jonny Quest credits.

So there’s other people out there that obsess over this stuff. Given our usual audience, I imagine quite a few of them are reading this, so feel free to sound off in the comments about your favorites that I left out.

Back next week with something cool.

36 Comments

  1. frasersherman

    Kung Fu wasn’t in the same league as some of these, but it sure held me spellbound.
    Thundarr the Barbarian’s credits were epic. Who doesn’t want a cartoon that has cosmic destruction and a ravaged Earth in the credits?
    I don’t know if there are any Newhart fans on here but one episode did a great send up of old-style sitcoms when they staged a show “Double Trouble” right down to a catch theme song (“Since their mom drowned in the lake/Dad has taught his girls to bake”)

    1. When Angel did the show where Cordelia Chase had an alternate future, the credits for her supposed hit sitcom were DEAD-ON. I honestly think that you can make the case that TV themes are post industrial folk songs. We all know what they are supposed to look and sound like.

  2. frasersherman

    I spent a lot of time some years ago watching TV with a sick friend, including Hawaii 5-0 reruns. The opening is still awesome but the shows itself didn’t live up to my memories at all. The new one’s probably better off breaking away from it.

    1. In the final analysis, you are probably right; neither show was very good and I’m the heretic that thought the final season of the original was probably the best and most interesting, when most of the original cast had gone and they were trying to get us new regulars who were more layered. But the new one just annoys me. They are often remarkably dumb and they cause more death and property damage than they prevent. That’s mostly my issue.

  3. Greg, Greg, Greg… You include the opening credits for Star Trek and you go with the third season? Haven’t you learned that seeing the credits in blue means that you’re in for a world of hurt with the episode to come? YELLOW credits, man! That’s the only way to go!

  4. M-Wolverine

    I’ve got three takes on this that will keep me from obsessing over this thinking of great TV themes and writing a longer response than this article.

    1. Think of our favorite genre/comic book TV shows without the theme/credits. Superman, Hulk, Greatest American Hero, and so forth.

    2. How many TV themes were such successful compositions they were also hit records with radio play? Mission Impossible and Hawaii 5-0 were some of the forefathers. Everything Mike Post did followed in their footsteps.

    3. Where is the best TV nowadays? Premium cable, Netflix. Free of paid commercials what do almost all of them have? Opening credits. Game of Thtones, Sopranos, Daredevil, on and on. They don’t worry about story time, tell a story as long as it needs to be, and when not beholden to anyone CHOOSE to have opening credits, themes, and visuals. Heck, even commercial cable hasn’t abandoned it. As much money as Walking Dead is pulling in for commercial time they still feel the need for that string music start and imagery.

    1. Roc Kit

      3.Yes! Even shorter shows like Archer or Grace and Frankie make a little time and create a compelling world inside their opening credits. It doesn’t have to be a full sea shanty.

      I really expected from the title that this article would reference Lost as the last word in non-credits, and I do really love Lost for that – it shouldn’t be effective, but somehow it always was for me, no matter what else was going on with the series.

  5. Jeff Nettleton

    I’ve bemoaned this for a while, as I grew up with the same era of tv. Want to know what MASH is all about? Watch the opening , as choppers roar in with wounded soldiers and everyone comes running. We get quick flashes of the doctors and nurses, all set to that theme music. Mary Tyler Moore? How does a single girl pack up her life and move to the big city, all on her own? rest assured, she will make it on her own; but, she will make friends and we see them, too. Bob Newhart takes you from his office and rides the El home to see his wife Emily, giving you the two environs for the show; work and home life. Hogan’s Heroes hits you with the sirens and pounding military music as we see the German guards and their prisoners. Then we see Hogan and his men have pulled one over on the Germans as they listen in, and pop up out of tunnels. Beverly Hillbillies tells us about a simple man from the backwoods who goes out hunting and strikes oil, then finds himself in the wonderland of Beverly Hills.

    The Brits were great at it too, with the openings of The Avengers and The Prisoner, as well as the iconic credits of Monty Python and Doctor Who.

      1. Jeff Nettleton

        Except the tv series never used the lyrics. I didn’t know there even were lyrics until I saw the movie, much later. That’s the thing with a lot of themes, especially from the 50s and 60s. They were played as instrumentals; but, there were actually lyrics written for them. When I worked for B&N, we received a book with some of them and I skimmed through it. I saw lyrics for Leave it to Beaver (Toy Parade) and wondered when those were ever used. Then, I saw an episode of the New Leave It to Beaver, when Wally is softly singing it to his newborn baby (very touching moment). Dick Van Dyke has performed the version of his shows theme, with the lyrics, written by Carl Reiner, which you never heard in the series.

        1. M-Wolverine

          And really, if you think of the lyrics, they do set the mood for the show. Because it’s not literal (other than the actual in movie usage; not the opening credits). It’s really about the horror of war and how being in the middle of it has them all as the walking dead (same w and d) anyway, both physically, because you could die at any time, and emotionally, as you shut off your humanity to the horrors around you.

          To tie it all back in together, the Star Trek theme has lyrics that were never used. Because they were never intended to be used. Roddenberry just wrote them so he could get 50% of the royalties from the theme Courage wrote. Sounds kinda Ferengi to me, but it’s not like Gene was that consistent.

    1. M-Wolverine

      I’m with you. Season 3 is easily the weakest, but there are some great episodes mixed in there. Yes, most of the worst episodes are in there too, but it does seems to alternate between really bad, really great, and really average Trek (which is still pretty good).

        1. I’ve long said that TOS is like sex or pizza: Even when it’s bad, it’s still pretty good.

          Incidentally, Gene Roddenberry wrote lyrics to the TOS theme in the 70s, long after the show ended. He did it exclusively to get half of the songwriting royalties, thus screwing TOS theme writer Alexander Courage out of half of the money he was earning from the reruns.

          And because GR wasn’t any sort of songwriter, the lyrics don’t really scan, either. It’s apparently a notoriously difficult song to sing.

          1. Le Messor

            I have looked up somebody trying to sing it in the past, because you know it’s on YouTube… Mostly just forgettable.

            There’s no official version, which managed to surprise me a little. Even with my Star Trek soundtrack collection.

    1. M-Wolverine

      Weird Al did love his TV shows. Ricky, I Lost on Jeopardy, George of the Jungle, Here’s Johnny, Bedrock Anthem, Homer and Marge.

      And I’m trying to grasp how modern TV would do the Twilight Zone without the opening. The music and imagery set half the mood for the show. Though they have had a problem every other revival with no Sterling to set the other half.

  6. Caanan

    What’s worse, for me anyway – having a 3 year old, is he loves the theme songs to cartoons (which can still be pretty good!) and when he watches them on Netflix, Netflix automatically skips over the theme song if you’re binge watching.

    Anyone know how to stop that?! It’s annoying. We want to hear the Puffin Rock theme darn it!

  7. fit2print

    Speaking of lyrics to TV theme songs (that is the current topic, right?)… the tune that closed — not opened — each episode of the classic “WKRP in Cincinnati” had lyrics that were intentionally nonsensical, probably the only instance of that in TV history…

    And thus concludes today’s installment of “Apropos of Nothing”….

    1. Well, the WKRP closing track was intentionally unintelligible gibberish, but the “Frasier” closing theme lyrics, while quite intelligible, were equally nonsensical:

      Hey baby, I hear the blues a-callin’,
      Tossed salad and scrambled eggs

      Oh My
      Mercy

      And maybe I seem a bit confused,
      Yeah maybe, but I got you pegged!
      Ha, Ha, Ha, Ha!

      But I don’t know what to do with those tossed salads and scrambled eggs.
      They’re callin’ again.

      Good night, Seattle, we love you.

      1. I’ve heard that the “tossed salads and scrambled eggs” were supposed to represent callers to Frasier’s radio show (“They’re callin’ again”). They were all mixed up, like both of those foods.

        And I’d say that “And maybe I seem a bit confused / Yeah maybe, but I got you pegged!” lyric refers to the fact that even though Frasier’s own personal life is often a mess, he’s still an effective psychiatrist. It makes sense to me, anyway.

  8. Pol Rua

    While the music was almost understated enough to be subliminal, I kinda like that ‘Person Of Interest’ kept that opening “Here’s the set-up” intro, and had that neat visual language which made it absorbing.

  9. Dave Ziegler

    Two of my favorite themes that haven’t been mentioned yet were “F-Troop” and “The Patty Duke Show”. Gave you the set-up, catchy tunes, and had the montage of what to expect in the show. They certainly don’t make them like that anymore. Not often, anyway…

  10. Rob Allen

    I never watched the show; it was on before my time – but I can still sing, from memory:

    There’s a holdup in the Bronx
    Brooklyn’s broken out in fights
    There’s a traffic jam in Harlem
    That’s backed up to Jackson Heights
    There’s a Scout troop short a child
    Khrushchev’s due at Idlewild
    Car 54, where are you?

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