The term "golden age of television" is thrown around a lot in reference to the shows of the 1950s (many of them done live), but in my humble opinion, we're really in the golden age right now. Shows like Mad Men, The Wire and The Sopranos (which kind of started it all, intro-wise as well as show-wise) are proof that television is allowing itself to be smarter; shows like Lost that TV is allowing itself to tell more complicated, ambitious (even baffling) stories; shows like Arrested Development that TV can tell jokes not everyone in the audience will get. The best shows aren't talking down to audiences anymore; they've stopped caring about catering to the lowest common denominator, and in doing so they've elevated the whole art form.
Maybe that sounds a little highfalootin', but heck, even looking at the intros to these shows will tell you that we're dealing with a new kind of animal. Sopranos fans with TIVOs: how many seasons did you find yourself watching the intro every week, even though you could skip through it? Here are some of our recent faves, and a few classics thrown in for good measure.
Let's start with the one that started it all: The Sopranos. The intro feels so loose and improvised, and slowly it dawns on you that's it's more than a travelogue, it's a story: Tony's going home. The song makes all the difference, and in keeping with the improvised nature of the intro's visuals, it's appropriate that creator David Chase simply heard the song on an LA indie radio station one day (KCRW), called the station to find out what the song was called, and licensed it.
I've never seen an episode of Weeds (I'm told it's great), but I think the intro speaks for itself: it sets the delicate, ironic tone of a show about a woman selling pot to raise her kids in a "perfect" suburban community -- without showing any of the characters, without hitting us over the head. "Little Boxes" is a 1962 song by Malvina Reynolds, who was inspired to write it while driving through suburban Southern California. Cleverly, the show asked a number of other musicians to cover the song, and has used versions of "Little Boxes" by Elvis Costello, Death Cab for Cutie, Regina Spektor and others.
Six Feet Under
Another modern classic. Six Feet Under is a show with a really tricky tone: it's a drama about a funeral home but it's not unrelentingly morbid, and the song here reflects that. It's quirky and hypnotic without being creepy. That every image in the intro is about death is actually pretty subtle (save the tagged toe): the hands coming apart cutting to the blue sky; any more heavy-handed and this would've felt like overkill; any lighter and it would've blown away in the breeze.
This intro doesn't tell a story, like some do, but some of the themes of the show are here: the "protagonist" of the intro (Don Draper?) is literally inscrutable -- he reflects no light -- as befits a character harboring a dark secret; he lives in a world made of mix-n-match clipart; he's in freefall, which can only end in disaster. (If you watched all of season one, you know what I'm talking about.) And I'm ready to put the music on endless repeat in my iPod.
How often does Edward Gorey animate an TV show intro -- or anything, for that matter? So charming, so classic -- perfect.
I didn't love the show, but this intro blows me away. Do they give out Emmys for intros? They should.
Heatvision and Jack
This hilarious show starring Jack Black as an astronaut made "smartest man on Earth" by exposure to "inappropriate levels of sunlight" and his talking motorcycle/former roommate (voiced by Owen Wilson) is one of the funniest TV show concepts I've seen. Too bad it never got picked up -- but the first episode, and its hilarious intro, will live on forever. It owes a clear debt to The Six Million Dollar Man and its ilk. (But let's face it, I just like saying "ilk.")
You've all seen it so many times, posting it here would be redundant. At the same time, not mentioning it would be a sin.
The Twilight Zone
Nothing set the mood like the intro to the Twilight Zone. Even if the episode to follow was cheezy (as many were), the intro always gave me goosebumps.You may now argue with me in the comments.