Having found yet another excuse to talk about stuff from Japan, it now falls to me to balance things out a little. After all, the UK and the States have produced many, many iconic and/or amazing show openings over the years. Far too many for me to describe here, so this certainly won’t be the definitive encyclopaedia of totally sweet show openings. I’ll just do my little part, and mention a few personal hits.
Of course, having been exposed to much more television of both the British and American sort, I’m aware of a lot more variety between them, and not least in the ways they open. There is no strictly defined length, though as a general rule they’re well under a minute and a half. Some even vary in length depending on time constraints.
One thing I’ve noticed over time, though, is how iconic they can be. If I think of The Simpsons, I know exactly what tune’s going to pop up in my head. When I hear the tune, the reverse applies. These short intros are meant to burrow their way into your mind, and they only need a few seconds to do so. If you’re like me, your mind may on occasion wander and stumble upon a memory of a show you watched long ago and whoops, now you’re humming the theme.
In the vast majority of cases, these intro themes don’t change after fifteen or so episodes. You wouldn’t boot up the next season of Parks and Recreation and expect to be greeted by a new musical piece. The actors credited might differ from season to season, but it’s the Parks and Recreation theme, and it ain’t changing.
(I really wanted an excuse to post this one, even though it’s not on my list)
It’s very hard to pin down a solid rule that applies to Western television as a whole. There’s a lot of variety, even if it’s possible to point to large portions that do the same kind of thing. I’ve done my best to think of five openings that either demonstrate a template that many others follow, or stands out enough on their own to be worthy of comment. Being limited to five means there’s a tonne of absolute classics I’m missing out, but I can’t write this feature forever!
(1963, 2010) Doctor Who
Now this is an opening theme that has stood the test of time. Over 50 years and it’s still being used. Of course, it’s gone through many variants throughout the years but it’s always been that same classic, otherworldly tune. It’s ingrained in British culture, and it’s not going to be uprooted any time soon.
Is there even really much more I can add? It’s Doctor Who. From the very start of its up to when I first started watching (yes, Matt Smith is my Doctor), it’s always been some variation on that trippy miniature journey through spacetime. A couple of features have hopped in and out (the TARDIS zooming by, a brief shot of the current doctor’s face) but as a concept it’s the same. After fifty years. And who doesn’t know the Doctor Who theme?
It’s alien, it’s psychedelic and it’s timeless. Done. I can’t think of anything else to say without going on at length about the show itself. And I still haven’t caught up with the three seasons I missed!
Well, this is what I get for ordering by date. I’m apparently much more familiar with the old British stuff. I can’t even think of that many new ones that I could talk about. Sherlock? That’s… not that good an opening. All the comedy quiz shows I watch? Huh, thinking about it hose are by far the modern british shows I watch the most. None really worth talking about here though.
Blackadder is a very different approach to comedy in terms of the setting – each series, despite mostly drawing from the same pool of actors, takes place in a different period of history. It makes sense for each period, then, to have a different intro. The variation on style in each of them very much reminds of how the show itself mixed things up for each season – the most noticeable one being from season 1 to 2, where the show when from ‘crap’ to ‘not crap at all’. Even here, though, with different instrumentation, it’s the same theme for all of them. Or rather, different parts of the same theme. This is especially noticeable with the first and fourth, but none of them quite use the full thing. They’re all drawing on the same source, but doing something different with what they use. And I’d love to talk about the memorable outros for season two, where comedic lyrics were applied to the same song, but since this is about intros I’ll refrain.
Ooh, a cool little fact for those who didn’t know. The first half of the fourth opening sounds so different because it’s actually the first couple of bars of an old military song, “The British Grenadiers”. I remember hearing it played by a marching band a couple of years ago while I was in Ashford. That same band went on to play the Blackadder theme. It was quite the nostalgia trip.
I can hazard a guess that I wouldn’t remember Blackadder nearly as well without these openings. I love how they establish the period in which they’re set (although I continue to be baffled by the electric guitar in opening 2), and the way the same notes are used in both the silly pieces and the epic ones.
…I’m kind of getting the itch to watch Blackadder again. It’s not like it’s that long at 12 episodes (excluding the first season of course)… Where on earth did that boxset go?
(1990) The Fresh Prince of Bel Air
Now this is a story all about how my life got twist turned upside down so I’d like to take a minute just sit right there, I’ll tell you how I became the prince of a town called Bel-Air. In West Philadelphia, born and raised, in the playground is where I spent most of my days… chilling out max and relaxing all cool and all shooting some b-ball outside of the school when a couple of guys – they were up to no good! – started making trouble in my neighbourhood! I got in one little fight and my mom got scared. and said ‘you’re moving with with your auntie and uncle in Bel-Air!’ I whistled for a cab and when it came near the license plate said ‘fresh’ and it had dice in the mirror… If anything I could say that this cab was rare but I thought ‘man forget it’, ‘YO HOME, TO BEL-AIR!’ I pulled up to the house about seven or eight and I yelled to the cabbie ‘Yo home, smell you later!’ Looked at my kingdom, I was finally there to sit on my throne as the Prince of Bel-Air.
How is it that I can type that full paragraph out of memory? It’s not really anything special, judging by the immediate response of most people I start singing it around. Because everyone seems to know the theme song for The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and everyone seems ready to sing along at a moment’s notice. And this is in the UK. In 2014.
And what’s the theme about? The premise of the show. It was written specifically for the show, to set everything in context for new viewers – and it’s so impossibly catchy that they’ll never forget that context. This is something that tends to happen for often in cartoons (Spongebob Squarepants, Adventure Time) and sometimes for even for Anime localisations. Everyone remembers the first Pokemon theme. Everyone who’s heard the One Piece rap would prefer to forget.
I think a big part of what makes both the show and the opening so memorable is Will Smith’s raw charisma. You see him miming and clowning about in this intro and you can’t help but crack a smile- he pulls it off with such confidence. Combined with some of his displays of acting talent (that episode with his dad breaks my freaking heart) make it almost a no-brainer that his career took off. He’s the centrepiece of The Fresh Prince and, well, what better way to showcase your show’s centrepiece than to get him to write, sing and act out your opening theme?
Whatever the reason, this opening has reached a practically legendary status. In fact, it spawned the practice of starting out a seemingly serious story and seguing midway into the Bel-Air theme song. Personally, I think that’s a bit childish but I thought ‘Man, forget it’, ‘YO HOME, TO BEL-AIR!’ I pulled up to the house about seven or eight and I yelled to the cabbie ‘Yo home, smell you later!’ Looked at my kingdom, I was finally there to sit on my throne as the Prince of Bel-Air.
So is the use of the word ‘Superman’ free game? I can’t help but wonder, especially given the fact that it’s used so prevalently in a hugely popular show that’s not related to Superman at all. Not that I’m complaining. I freaking love this opening. It’s the perfect example of an opening that takes an existing song and makes it it’s own.
I can’t think of a single show that uses a track in its opening that I’d heard beforehand. Granted, my knowledge of music is limited to say the least. But let’s take a look at the talent behind a few different shows. Scrubs: Lazlow Bane. Friends: The Rembrandts. Community: The 88. House: Massive Attack. Chuck: Cake. Wait really, Cake?
The only one I feel any hint of familiarity with is Massive Attack. and that’s probably just because I looked up Teardrop and bought it on iTunes ages ago. Love that song. Rather than go for a popular song, the common practice seems to be to pick something less well known and modify it a bit – in some cases (House, Chuck) the lyrics aren’t even included. And I don’t know how popular the Japanese songs used in their openings are, but either way this kind of western opening is the closest equivalent.
Of course, they’re much shorter, with the focus much more on efficiency than pizazz. That’s not a bad thing, in fact I love the creative way the Scrubs opening shows all its main characters in a five-second span. OK, no janitor and that’s a shame. But still, the rapid-fire action jumpcut is a neat idea. Other shows opt to barely show the cast (House) or not show them at all (Community), and in general this results in western openings being thirty seconds long at most. So even when they’re not that good, you don’t have to sit through much. Japan, on the other hand… Yesterday I watched the first couple of episodes of Death Note. Not a fan of the opening and ending. I don’t have a remote. It’s not a good time!
(2008) Breaking Bad
I wasn’t at all aware until I started writing this part that Breaking Bad has a much longer intro. It’s just never shown on Netflix, apparently because of the use of the AMC logo. Having watched the full thing… it’s a decent opening, but naturally like a lot of people I’m used to the shorter one, and thus prefer it.
And really? It’s nineteen seconds? Even though that’s not that long, the Breaking Bad opening seems even shorter than it actually is. All it does is show the title and creator’s name in a thematically appropriate way. So why is it so good?
Well, one significant factor is how amazing the show itself is. To some extent all openings are more or less enjoyable depending on the quality of the show they’re attached to. With such an extreme example as Breaking Bad, even such a simple opening as this becomes iconic. It doesn’t hurt that Breaking Bad is downright artful with its cold opens. Seriously, I just typed cold open into the Chrome search bar and the second suggestion (below, well, ‘cold open’) was ‘cold open breaking bad’. It could be a character’s death, an obscure flash-forward or just a scene centred entirely around one object, but whatever it is, you can tell when you’re watching a Breaking Bad cold open. Those nineteen seconds act as the sealing touch. They’re the visual equivalent of saying ‘well that sure was strange/messed up, but guess what you’re watching BREAKING BAD so let’s see how it fits in and somehow makes everyone’s situation worse!’
Instrumentally it’s unlike a lot of openings in that it’s very hard to imitate. I was on the phone to a friend the other day and mentioned that I was nearing the end of Breaking Bad. He responded by trying to mimic the theme tune. It didn’t work out! I chose to forego attempting it myself. It’s not like I could do much better, even having watched all 62 episodes now. It’s those bongos, man. You just can’t fake bongos.
The Breaking Bad opening just bleeds the kind of moodiness that characterises the show. Contrast it with the opening to Parks and Recreation that I posted up top. Like the show, Parks and Rec’s theme radiates happiness and farts rainbows. You cheer up just by hearing it. What do you do when you hear the Breaking Bad theme? You think ‘Man, what a great show’. And then you think of all the messed up stuff that happens and get a little sad. If you’re me, that is. Poor Jesse. No, not me, the other Jesse.
The Conclusion! Finally!
The word that seems to pop up most often in my head when I think of western show openings is ‘iconic’. I view them much more as conduits for nostalgia than music that I’d continually listen to. While there are certainly those shows that I’m more than willing to grab the full theme for, I doubt I would ever use them on a morning run. No, I go for the stuff I can’t understand, because I’m unusual like that. But I kind of like being unusual. That’s why I write about it!
Goodness gracious, so tired. Don’t expect a huge feature for the next week, I’ve got an assignment to finish. And before I finish it, I’ve got to actually start it. Oh boy.