TV Intros

As requested by Ben Masters on Facebook, I am following up on my TV themes post and have a look at the visual aspect of TV intros. I don’t know about you, but if an intro is well done, I’m already getting into the mood for a show I want to watch. If the music and visuals match, the better the effect. So when I think about intros without primarily listening to the songs, the shows that have had a lasting effect on me with their introductions are definitely Charlie’s Angels, Bewitched and (you probably guessed it) Perry Mason. Like many other fans (so I’m sure), I’ve always wanted to know what was in that silly script that brought out Raymond Burr’s handsome dimple smile.

Charlie’s Angels, like Hart to Hart or Babylon 5 used narration to add to their pictorial introductions, explaining the background or premise of the show. While Lionel Stander introduced his screen bosses with scenes from the Hart to Hart pilot and only slight textual changes in the five years the show was on TV, Babylon 5 used a different introduction every season. Merging scenes from the show with the voices of lead characters, the season intros offered an outlook on the individual seasons, as well as a quick summary of what you needed to know to follow the plot of this complex show. And since I’m speaking of the 90s, who could forget ER, Home Improvement, Touched by an Angel, The X-Files or Chicago Hope – all equipped with visual intros that made clear what to expect from these specific program. Friends and Mad About You, two sitcom flagships of the era, also put us right into a quirky, urban mood, something Sex and the City would perfect in 1998 by making Manhattan a visual main character.

Looking at the evolution of these TV intros, in the 1980s, Cagney and Lacey and Scarecrow and Mrs. King already used their urban setting (New York City and Washington DC), as well as scenes from episodes to give the audience an idea of the content and nature of each show. The Golden Girls and Who’s the Boss did the same while The Cosby Show, Growing Pains, Roseanne or Valerie primarily introduced us to the type of family we were about to visit for half an hour every week. In the 70s, the intros of Happy Days, M*A*S*H, The Mary Tyler Moore Show or Family set the tone for very different shows while the 60s had already distinguished themselves from the often sponsor-laden intros of the 1950s. As the first era to introduce color TV, the 60s loved to use colorful effects and a contemporary style of music that showed a development away from family-friendly entertainment to more adult-oriented shows. While Hazel still proved to be traditional and rather quiet in the early 60s, Ironside‘s intro made clear the show was going to be filled with action, not unlike Adam-12.

In the new millennium, The West Wing tackled the unthinkable and turned politics into popular TV, the show’s intro already setting the mood and quality of a show that had a good run of seven seasons. The original CSI uses a similar pattern, creating a symbiosis of music and images, teasing the audience without giving too much away while the intro to the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica did not only set the tone for a dark-edged series, but also treated its audience to a glimpse into each new episode. Whether you enjoy the classic style of merging video material with a catchy tune like Trapper John M.D. did in in the late 70s and early 80s, prefer graphics as used in Cheers or are fond of the genuine way The Closer interlaced its credits with an already commencing episode – TV show intros are a like a good business card. Selling your product without being obtrusive while making a lasting impression on your audience.

Then and Now

It’s interesting how your perception shifts when you change your viewing patterns. When you watch classic programs only for a while and then return to what’s currently going on on TV, at the movies or online. It gives you a whole new perspective on what works for you and what doesn’t, on how styles have changed and what kinds of issues have evolved when and why. It can give you reassurance about how little our key issues have changed over the decades or make you cry at the loss of dignity and a certain kind of innocence that’s too often been mislabeled ignorance. My conclusion is this: they tend to overdo it these days.

Take Grey’s Anatomy. Once a celebrated new show, it is now a guilty pleasure gem with an entertaining cast and a soapy plot. Not only do they pick up where ER left off at trying to make its audience cringe every week by showing pseudo-realistic shots of injuries that border the macabre, they are also trying to push the boundaries of emotional storytelling. This year’s Valentine’s Day episode, for example, was a little bit of everything: romantic with the right dash of cheese and nostalgia, and a little bit of medical drama on the side. It all went well until the sappy was blown out of proportion as the episode was already on home stretch: a staged romantic dinner at the hospital, maitre d’ included, taking the twists and turns way beyond the already maxed out entertainment factor.

Something similar happened on an otherwise brilliant show now in its third year, The Good Wife. Early in its current season, two of the (vast pool of) main characters got engaged in a sizzling affair. Fine. Half of Perry Mason‘s clients were somehow affected by adultery back in the 1950s and 60s, and after all, that was one of the main topics The Good Wife started out on. But was it really necessary to show us scenes of the likes of a censored soft porn? It didn’t seem to fit the style of the show nor the voice of the characters involved. But maybe that was the point: expect the unexpected, break the rules to keep the audience on their toes. That’s how it works these days, isn’t it? It’s like film noir only at a much faster, dizzier pace.

When I compare contemporary shows with classic programs, it’s striking how dissimilar they are. Cursing, sex and violence – almost anything goes these days – trust pay TV to throw the last taboos overboard if necessary. Personally, I have tired of programs that keep raising the stakes, that show adults who behave like depressed teenagers and dress women in so-called hooker heels. That doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy some of what’s out there, of what 2012 has to offer. But the options are somewhat limited if reality TV isn’t for you and the ever so popular dramedies tap into the marginally acceptable areas of nerdification, pornification and gayification, repeating themselves over and over again by creating unfortunate clichés.

It doesn’t surprise me that so many people are buying their favorite childhood programs on DVD now, that they are looking for reruns on TV or online. Funny enough, that kind of repetition never seems to get old. And I can only recommend embracing your favorite classics, at least for a while. It may open your eyes.

The 90s

The 1990s

In the 1990s the motto was anything goes: grunge style or casual, leggings, neon colors, bike shorts and a comeback of hippie clothes. Mothers often dressed like their daughters, over-sized Ts and sweatpants made good exercise outfits or worked as simple slouching-at-home attire. Musically, Nirvana released their debut album “Nevermind”, Celine Dion and Mariah Carey made it big, Lauryn Hill entered the scene, as well as a very young LeAnn Rimes, and En Vogue or BoyzIIMen were popular doing contemporary R&B. Cell phones and the internet slowly entered American lives, changing them forever, and DVDs also began to replace VHS releases by the end of a decade that lived on the excitement and fear of a new millennium to come.

On TV, The X-Files stirred up conspiracy theories and fed on the Y2K spirit of doom. Science Fiction became more popular and darker in their plots, often featuring women in positions of power and command, while sitcoms presented entertaining shrewds with their best girlfriends e.g. on Cybill, High Society or Sex & the City. Ally McBeal introduced another popular female lead of the decade, Home Improvement was a rather old-fashioned example of a family comedy show and The Nanny successfully imitated I Love Lucy while managing to create a genuine heroine from Queens.  Judging Amy and The West Wing tackled more sophisticated themes, embracing an audience that wished to go beyond mere entertainment while Chicago Hope and ER fought for the spot of best medical drama. Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman revived the Western genre in a nontraditional way, Sabrina bewitched teenagers and families alike and Picket Fences added to the decade’s need for odd-ball characters with eerie pasts and endearing flaws. Nick-at-Nite had successful reruns of many popular classic shows, including “Lucy Tuesdays” and “Bewitched Be-Wednesdays”, reminding audiences of the before while an increasing need for the beyond was explored on many Star Trek spin-offs and emerging mystery shows like Buffy or Charmed.

In movie theaters, Disney had its golden age in the 1990s, producing smash hit features every year. Awarded with Academy Awards for their genius musical scores for many consecutive years, the studio did not only create classics such as The Lion King or Beauty and the Beast, but also used its creative overflow on numerous spin-off TV shows. Sneakers, Fried Green Tomatoes at Whistle Stop Cafe, Pretty Woman or Sister Act were some of the last old-school Hollywood classics Tinseltown knew to breathe life into and Dances With Wolves did bring back the myths and struggles of the Wild West from a unique perspective. All in all, the 1990s often seem to have been a decade of indecisiveness or freedom of choice, depending on your point of view. It was the long goodbye of the 20th century, its history and rules tossed together in one big salad bowl, looking for a new ingredient to spice up the new millennium.