10 best TV show opening credits of all time
Game of Thrones, Mad Men, True Detectives top the list
We’re living in perhaps the greatest era of creativity on the small screen* — and that extends not just to TV dramas and comedies but to TV shows’ title sequences, or opening credits, as well. (* TV news? Not so much.)
The best opening credits match the mood of the series — brooding, fantasy-escapist, avant-garde— and convey a bit of Eye of God context or backstory, or perhaps a sly insider bonus to regular viewers. The best ones not only are visually arresting but connect on a visceral level. They make you feel — awe, dread, wonder, compassion, moral judgment.
I’ve put together this personal list of my 10 favorite TV opens of all time. See if you agree or disagree with these picks, or share your own favorites!
1. Game of Thrones
Game of Thrones will air its seventh season starting July 16 (winter is drawing nigh) before concluding with its eighth and final season next year. The opening sequence continues to mesmerize with its imagery of dragons, steel and wild deer (House Baratheon’s sigil is a black stag). There’s no one opening intro, as halfway through the credits the map displays the specific lands and topography where the action in the current episode takes place.
2. Mad Men
Mad Men had an up-and-down seven-year run, and it resonates even more profoundly now in the age of our Pussy Grabber In Chief. But one of the best things about the show was its opening sequence, an homage to Willy Lomanesque desperation and moral void mixed with fantastical advertising imagery, allusions to alcoholism and shattered families and the vibe of an omnipresent patriarchal era that has not yet left us.
3. True Detective (season 1)
The first season of “True Detective” (2014–2015), starring Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, shot out of nowhere to become one of the most riveting series on TV. Could they keep it up in season two? No. But the first season’s credits still amaze. They messed with the credits starting with season two and it just wasn’t as powerful.
4. The Twilight Zone
One of the epic sci-fi series of all time, “The Twilight Zone” (1959–1964) was a surreal blend of science fiction, fantasy and supernatural horror packaged neatly in a chilling anthology series narrated by the super-cool Rod Serling. The show set the stage for “Star Trek” and much of today’s brew of paranormal storytelling. You’re traveling through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind; a journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. Your next stop…the Twilight Zone. Each of the show’s five seasons had somewhat different introductions.
5. True Blood
I ran hot and cold with “True Blood” (2008–2014). The show was a bit too bloody for my tastes and the plot too uneven as we followed halfling Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin) and shapeshifter Sam Merlotte (Sam Trammell) through a bayou landscape of violence, family dysfunction, drug addiction and faith lost and restored. But the opening credits were awesome, particularly the religious imagery.
6. The Sopranos
“The Sopranos” (1999–2007) was quite simply my favorite TV series of all time. I miss David Chase’s genius dialogue, James Gandolfini’s impish smile belying a darker impulse and Edie Falco’s (Carmela) dead-on New Jersey accent. (I grew up in North Jersey and in fact I’m flying there next month for yet another Jersey wedding.) More than any other show, “The Sopranos” is about place, and the opening sequence captures that perfectly. Interesting factoid: In the original sequence you would see the World Trade Center in Tony’s rear view mirror, but the WTC was edited out from 2002 onward.
7. The Simpsons
“The Simpsons” (1990-present) has lost some of its edge in recent years, but if you’re a fan, you have to pay attention to the credits each week to see exactly what Bart scrawls on the chalkboard and what will await the family on the communal couch. Above is the opening sequence from Season 1 in 1990.
8. The Man in the High Castle
This introductory sequence from the uneven but fascinating Amazon Prime series “The Man in the High Castle” still sends chills down my neck, especially now that we’re living in an era of alternative facts. The trippy premise for this three-season TV adaption of Philip K. Dick’s novel was that the Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan won WWII, and that a handful of Resistance fighters had one surviving copy of a vintage film containing an alternative history in which the Allies won the war. The series is returning for season three later this year.
Other than “Saturday Night Live,” no show was more instrumental in bringing popular culture and terminology into Americans’ living rooms than “Friends” (1994–2004). Starring an ensemble cast of Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox, Lisa Kudrow, Matt LeBlanc, Matthew Perry and David Schwimmer, it was the best comedy on TV for the better part of a decade, and the opening credits reflect the wackiness we came to expect each week.
If you haven’t caught HBO’s “Westworld” yet (its first season ran October to December 2016), you should, if you’re a fan of near-term science fiction and unexpected plot twists. The title sequence nicely hints at the genre-bending mix of sci-fi synth, Old West twists and dramatic story arcs. The player piano — the first robot? — is genius.
“The Mary Tyler Moore Show” (1970–1977). There’s nothing dazzling about this 55-second intro, but the groundbreaking series helped to change television and the perception of modern women in society. Moore’s death earlier this year recalls that memorable, iconic cap flip at the credits’ end.
House of Cards (2013-present)
Mission Impossible (1966–1973)
Downton Abbey (2010–2015)
Six Feet Under (2001–2005)
The Gilmore Girls (2007–2014)
The Office (2005–2013)
Flight of the Conchords (2007–2009)
Rizzoli & Isles (2010–2016)
How about you? Which are your faves?
J.D. Lasica was a features editor at the Sacramento Bee before he entered the startup world.