Television, in whatever format it is consumed, may be the dominate medium of entertainment on the earth. Having existed for roughly eighty years, it is a format that has continued to evolve with the times (to varying degrees of success, depending on who you ask). But one of the hallmarks of television shows, what they all universally share (60 Minutes notwithstanding) is the opening sequence.
All TV shows have an opening segment, complete with musical theme as well as overall introduction to the premise and characters of the show. TV show openings – much like their brethren, the movie trailer – are an art unto themselves, striking a balance between catching the viewer’s attention, educating the viewer on the story and characters in it, as well as simple brevity.
Assembled here are the ten best television openings of all time.
Airing in 1992 and inspired by (though not based on) Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman and 1992’s Batman Returns, Batman the Animated Series would become the standard setter for animation in the west for over a decade. Critically and popularly acclaimed, the series would be nominated for thirteen Emmys and win four of them (including a Primetime Emmy, a rare feat for an animated series). It would also become the foundation upon which DC Comic’s long-running Animated Universe would be built.
The opening of this show encapsulates everything about the show in a singular glance. Dark noir palettes, a timeless era that is as futuristic as it is antiquated, shady criminals using excessive force, a largely helpless police force, and a dark defender who appears out of the shadows. In one minute-long glimpse, we learn just about everything there is to know about the character of Batman and the world he inhabits, all set to a stirring and haunting theme.
Running from 1970 to present, Monday Night Football has become one of the longest running sports shows in history and also a cornerstone of life for the American sports fan. Begun as a novelty back in the 1970s, the airing of a weekday game was thought to be a novelty that wouldn’t last a season. Sitting at 684 episodes spanning 44 seasons, that was clearly a glaring underestimation.
MNF has had multiple entrances and intro themes throughout its running, most famously a reworked ‘All My Rowdy Friends’ by Hank Williams Jr, but supporting all of it has been the actual Monday Night Football Theme, ‘Heavy Action’ written by Johnny Pearson. Originally used as a backtrack for Howard Cosell’s breakdown of the game, Heavy Action has become the official theme of MNF thanks to its iconic use of brass instruments and its Olympian sound which would only intensify Cosell’s and others’ breakdown of the weekly matchup.
8 – X-Files
Airing in 1993 to immediate fanfare, the X-Files would become one of the then-fledgling Fox Network’s biggest hits. Starring David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson, the show followed two FBI agents as they investigated assorted paranormal cases across the country. Mostly monster-of-the-week types stories were featured, but the series did have a wide and sweeping continuity that involved alien abductions and government conspiracies.
The X-Files opening remains a classic due in part to its haunting theme and its use of video and photos of genuine unsolved mysteries. So highly regarded was the opening that it won the series its first Emmy (out of three, the result of 21 nominations). The opening would finalize with Moulder and Skully (Duchovny and Anderson respectively) bursting through a door, seemingly confronting some unknown, and closed with a haunting catch phrase (mostly ‘The Truth Is Out There’, but occasionally deviated with ‘Trust No One’, ‘They’re Watching’ and similar).
7 – WWE Main Event
Professional wrestling thrives on the entrance theme. Every wrestler has a theme that plays when they enter the arena, and the narrative often relies on such dynamic entrances. As such, it should be no surprise that wrestling shows likewise employ vivid and memorably openings. Yet none has been topped by the WWE’s newest show, Main Event.
Formerly on broadcast television (and since moved to streaming), Main Event was an hour-long program that typically featured more action and less narrative than its peers, Raw and Smackdown. Airing on a fledgling network (Ion), the show’s opening had to be a crash course for new viewers in what to expect. As such, the opening is a montage of most of the characters in the show, capturing their personality in a single glimpse. CM Punk’s smug face, Ryback’s intensity, AJ Lee’s detached delight, Rey Mysterio’s high-flying. The opening becomes a who’s who, all in one go, set to stirring rock music.
Few sit-coms will ever be as highly regarded and as revered as the Fresh Prince. Spoken of in the same breath as the Cosby Show, All In The Family, and the Mary Tyler Moore Show, Fresh Prince would prove to be a wholesome and idyllic show that nonetheless dealt with heavy topics from time to time. A comedy vehicle for then up-and-coming rapper Will ‘Fresh Prince’ Smith, its opening theme breaks down the entire backstory in one go, clearly laying out why this urbanite is living in a wealthy and prestigious home with the privileged elite.
What’s especially noteworthy is how simple and approachable the lyrics and music are. Rap at this time was still seen as a novelty by much of America (especially white America), and it was often misunderstood. While the gangsta rap sub-genre was still a few years off, rap itself was still an upstart art form that much of the country didn’t understand (sometimes literally) or have any approachable access to. As a result, the Fresh Prince – by way of its opening theme – would become the face of approachable and enjoyable rap.
Few shows have had such a cultural impact as Mission Impossible. The tale of a small team of highly-skilled spies that work as part of the Impossible Mission Force, the show featured complex plots, timely political issues, and advanced gadgets that bordered on science fiction. While Mission: Impossible was part of a rash of spy series (Man from UNCLE, I Spy, etc), what set it apart was its dynamic and larger cast as well as its stirring theme (composed by the legendary Lalo Schifrin.
While the legacy of the show has endured for television buffs (and movie buffs, with the dubious continuation found in the movies), the theme itself lives on. Often parodied for comedic effect, it has never the less become the go-to theme for high-tension situations.
4 – Star Trek
One of the most iconic openings in science fiction, and television as a whole, the opening theme of Star Trek – composed by short-changed Alexander Courage – was set to a starry backdrop and the narration of Captain Kirk. Certainly other TV shows had made use of an opening narration, but this one resonated with viewers like no other.
The iconic trumpet that would become the hallmark of the series, the haunting and eerie yet majestic underscore of the endless unknown beyond the heavens, and the optimistic and commanding words (and appropriately over-dramatic) words of William Shatner all worked together to produce one of the most memorable and enduring openings in history.
3 – Simpsons
One of the longest running television shows of all time, the Simpsons’ introduction needs no, well, introduction. The intro has been on the air for longer than a huge segment of the population has been watching TV and it has parodied pretty much all of pop culture, including itself. The show is both a cornerstone of modern culture, and a fool outside the societal structure, proudly proclaiming the emperor has no clothes.
The opening is a veritable dissertation on the nature of the show itself, a mission statement if you will. It parodies of Middle America by showing us all the hallmarks of the Rockwellian Ideal, marginalized and eroded by a cartoon version of reality. Sprinkled throughout, of course, are dozens of little gags that can easily be missed, the king of which is Bart writing on the classroom blackboard.
2 – Knight Rider
While most of the shows on this list are classic icons of the medium, Knight Rider was more of a flash-in-the-pan success. More than the television equivalent of a one-hit-wonder, it lasted only three years, during a rare time in American culture when silly action TV shows were all the rage. While the show itself was not without some merit (and only some), it thrived principally on having one of the single best and most compelling openings ever. Knowing nothing about the show, a viewer could not watching that enigmatic and dramatic opening and not watch further to figure out just what this could possibly be about.
1 – Lone Ranger
Newsman Dan Rather once defined an intellectual snob as ‘someone who can hear the William Tell Overture and NOT think of the Lone Ranger’. For a TV show, a kids’ show at that, to so overwhelmingly appropriate an iconic piece of music not even written for it should speak volumes to the influential effect of the show. The fact that, to this day, over sixty years after the iconic television show went off the air, people who have never even seen or heard of the show know the Rossini music as ‘the lone ranger’s theme’ tells you all you need to know.