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.
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.