THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

They get credit as best show openers

By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / October 19, 2008
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Practically speaking, the title sequence of a TV series is like the maitre d' at a restaurant. It should welcome you, establish the tone of what is to come, maybe offer some relevant information to newcomers. In a matter of seconds, a show opener needs to be able to provide essential back story ("Green Acres") and give the viewer a sense of location more realistic than a stage set.

But show openers also have the potential to be little gems of atmosphere ("The Wire"), iconography ("The Mary Tyler Moore Show"), and, particularly in the age of music videos, artistic merit ("Six Feet Under"). They can embody the soul of a show and, eventually, define an era. Here is a countdown of TV's best title sequences, based not just on the songs, but on the total package - sound, imagery, and tone.

SIMPLE FEAR

"Lost"

This opener tells you absolutely nothing, of course. That's why it's perfect. As the word "Lost" comes at you from the dark emptiness, and overwhelms you, the theme music - is that spaceship noise, a computer run amok? - gets louder. The post-"Twilight Zone" effect is as simple as the series is complicated.

IN THE SPIRIT

"The Drew Carey Show"

The long-running sitcom itself was, ultimately, forgettable. But, after the first season, the show's title sequence was breezily entertaining and set a genuinely happy tone. The cast members, led by Drew Carey, sang and danced through the show's sets to "Five O'Clock World," "Cleveland Rocks," and, once, "What Is Hip?" You could tell the performers were having fun, and that joy was infectious.

THE DOORS

"Get Smart"

Agent Maxwell Smart got all James Bond on us, pulling up to an official building in his sports car and walking through door after door, each of which closed on a credit. Finally, Smart entered a phone booth, dialed, and dropped underground. But, of course, like Smart's name, the credits on this Buck Henry-Mel Brooks series were tongue-in- cheek, and the hard-core espionage theme song - by Irving Szathmary - was camp. Agent 86 was as chaotic as the tight opening credits were controlled.

EERIE TIMES

"Nip/Tuck"

A montage of mannequins getting marked for plastic surgery. It's hard to imagine a better way to open this creepy, darkly comic show about body image - and then, one of the mannequins opens her eyes. The object become human. This sequence, set to the muted, ethereal song "A Perfect Lie" by the Engine Room, is an evocative anxiety dream.

WHAT A TRIP

"The Dick Van Dyke Show"

No matter how many times Dick Van Dyke tripped over that ottoman, I never tired of watching him roll. And then sometimes he'd walk around it safely. And then again, on rare occasions he'd walk around the ottoman but trip on the carpet. The opener was the classic dad's-home-from-work vignette, but it quickly let us know that the Petries were not perfect like the Cleavers, and that Van Dyke was an ace physical comedian. Also, Rob's co-workers were waiting for him at home, signifying the coming popularity of workplace sitcoms.

TRUE GRIT

"Homicide: Life on the Street "

This jerky montage set the tone for the show: urban, unromanticized, blurry black-and-white images resolving to distinct shades of red, white, and blue. The camera skimmed along Baltimore neighborhoods, and guns, and badges, and dead victims. The theme song, a dissonant, loose mesh of percussion, horns, strings, and radio fuzz, was coldly true to the troubling stories that followed.

BACK STORY

"The Beverly Hillbillies"

The sight of Jed Clampett and his family driving the palm-tree lined streets of California in their jalopy is unforgettable. But the virtue of this opener is the way it delivers the show's premise so concisely, in conjunction with the theme song sung by Jerry Scoggins and performed by Flatt and Scruggs. We saw the same back story every week, but it never got old.

SPLIT SCREEN

"The Brady Bunch"

Did this opener presage the computer-screen era? OK, not really. But decades before "24," "The Brady Bunch" introduced its story with a moving tic-tac-toe board of a screen image that spoke to an era of increasingly broken-up and reconfigured families. And the way the actors looked at one another from their little boxes? Meta-cool. How convenient that there was a ninth slot for Alice the housekeeper.

FAMILY HARMONY

"All in the Family"

Norman Lear's trademark openers, set to soul songs, usually included footage roaming along city and suburban streets. But the "All in the Family" opener was the best of them all. It established everything you needed to know about Archie and Edith Bunker of Queens - their marriage, his smugness, her comic shrillness, and the show's times-they-are-a-changing theme. Their duet of "Those Were the Days" ("Didn't need no welfare state/ Everybody pulled his weight") was classic.

DEATHLY ELEGANCE

"Six Feet Under"

The music, by Thomas Newman, perfectly captured the show's mordant whimsy. And it worked perfectly with the cold imagery - a body being embalmed and wheeled on a gurney into the light, a hearse, a black crow, gravestones. HBO dramas in general have evocative opening credits, most notably "Deadwood," "Rome," "Oz," and "The Wire." But "Six Feet Under" was one of the best - an unsentimental and elegant gem.

HAT'S OFF

"The Mary Tyler Moore Show"

Mary jubilantly throws her knitted beret into the air, and we have the classic 1970s emblem of a woman happy to be alive and embarking on a solo adventure. We also have, possibly, the most memorable single image from any series opening ever. It was as if Mary - and the country - had left New Rochelle behind, for something new and unknown. With its wistfully optimistic song by Sonny Curtis, the "MTM" opener also established a vivid sense of place as Mary strode through the heart of Minneapolis.

JOURNEY

"The Sopranos"

We all know New York, but David Chase's "The Sopranos" opening took us on a trip over the bridge into New Jersey, the less glamorous home of our rough-hewn thugs. The rolling white lines, A3's "Woke Up This Morning," the Lincoln Tunnel, the Turnpike, the toll booth, Tony's cigar smoke, the industrial landscape, the corner stores, and, finally, the Sopranos's suburban home - each of these segments was like a chapter in the American journey.

UNIVERSAL CHILLS

"The Twilight Zone"

In mere seconds, these credits put viewers in a state of modern anxiety and paranoia. Rod Serling urged us into "a land of both shadow and substance, of things and ideas," while the graphics - a door, an eyeball, a clock - revealed an otherworldly dimension. Beginning in season 2, Serling used the signature theme music ("Etrange No. 3," composed by Marius Constant) that has become synonymous with creepiness.

THE ART OF INSINUATION

"Dexter"

This opener is a little masterpiece. It suffuses the most ordinary of Dexter's morning rituals with sinister atmosphere. The idea is that sociopathy and violence are hiding in even the most innocent of moments. The flossing, the orange grinding, the sizzling slices of ham, the shaving - they are shown in close-up, as if we should be looking for the darker truths behind them. We do.

HONORABLE MENTIONS:

"Sex and the City" Glamour meets the gutter.

"Rescue Me"

New York is smoking.

"Star Trek" The final frontier in plastic models.

"Happy Days" Jukebox joy.

"Mad Men" Not-so-comic strip.

"The Addams Family" Gothic snap.

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