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Friday, February 3, 2012

The Lost Art of the Television Intro

  Though I have not been a big fan of modern television, I will admit to having watched every episode of 24 and Lost.  And while I think that these were excellent productions, I was always bothered by their abbreviated introductions.  Lost's intro could actually be called non-existent.  The word Lost slowly revolving, and getting closer while an eerie sound accompanies it?  Underwhelming.
  So just yesterday, while watching an episode of one of my favorite all-time detective shows, I was reminded of just how excellent a TV intro could be.  Which led me to do a mental inventory of what shows really hit the nail on the head in this category.  I'll leave out the iconic story-telling intros that are too obvious--The Beverly Hillbillies, Gilligan's Island, and Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.  Instead, I just wanted to look at the ones that really set the mood, both visually and musically, for the show being introduced.  And really, when I look at it, there is little difficulty in coming up with five great examples.
 I'll start with Hill Street Blues.

  This intimate look at police work starts with the typical siren and lights of a police cruiser rushing into action.  But right off the bat, the music fades in with a soft jazz that lets us know this show was not about car chases and shoot-outs.  Instead, it was a landmark show that spent season after season highlighting the personal costs of maintaining law and order.  The intro was sublime, and nearly impossible to take your eyes off it as it played each and every week.  (And that's not just because it lingered on Veronica Hamel at the end, but that didn't hurt.)

Get Smart

  This was a no-brainer.  And by that I mean choosing it, though the intro certainly gave us an indication that this show was a no-brainer.  But just watch this intro and soak in the genius of it all.  We see a sporty little car careen around the corner, we see the suave agent emerge, we watch him penetrate layer after layer of security protocols as he enters the spy inner-sanctum, we watch him drop through a devilishly clever phone-booth, all to a hip, jazzy beat that is really easy to dig.  What?  Wait a minute... that's really a pretty dorky little car, and Don Adams is hardly suave (more like cornball), the security system opens door after door with the simplicity of a grocery store electric eye, and the man falls down a hole just to enter the office!  And that's the genius of it all.  Get Smart took the hip, cool spy genre and flipped it upside down.  And this intro demonstrated this perfectly.


  There's two things here that really stand out.  First of all, the images are just perfect.  After the glimpse of modern times, we fade back to an earlier time, the Boston of old, where we see dapper bartenders and gay party-goers.  At no time do we see the stars of the show, yet as each name appears, we see vestiges of the characters in these dated pictures.  Just enough to remind us who populates this authentic, Boston pub.  And speaking of pubs, that's the second part of this intro that is so perfect.  Through the use of a ballad, with lyrics that millions of Americans could relate to at the end of a hard day at work on Thursday night, with one more day of work left in the week, we were easily convinced that a bar was such a wonderful place for these characters to spend their lives.  It just made sense to us.  And made us want to be able to join these people, regardless of the fact that they were, for the most part, a pack of idiots.

The Rockford Files

  This is one of the best of the best.  Here we see Jim Rockford, on the job as a private detective.  But we don't see images of car chases, we don't see him going toe to toe with thugs.  We don't even see him in the arms of lovely clients.  What we see is him sitting at a diner, patiently watching from his car, from a street corner, we see him putting on his coat, heading out the door, shopping in the frozen food section, and basically leading the mundane life of a two-bit gumshoe.  There is very little glamour about these shots of Los Angeles.  And there's no video, just the compilation of photographs, as if we are on the stakeout, staring at so many photos of this man's daily routine.  The music is the extra touch here.  This was the seventies, we'd just seen a decade of the greatest jazz music with TV intros like I Spy, and The Saint, yet the music here is nearly honky-tonk, letting us know that we're not dealing with the hip crowd.  Rockford deals with the lower classes, which are often masquerading as the upper classes.  I'll just add one more thing.  That image of Rockford with the sunglasses, reflected in the mirrored glass, is one of the coolest images ever to grace a television set.


  This has to be the best of them all.  A situation comedy that uses the song "Suicide is Painless" with images of an Army Mash Unit rushing about as wounded are flown in.  Hardly makes sense, unless you've watched the show.  Then it all makes perfect sense.  Here was a show that pretended to be a comedy but in fact was merely a window into the rotten world of war.  This show was on so much, as I was growing up, that I must have heard this theme thousands of times.  And yet each time I hear it, it still makes me stop and stare.  Which, I'm sure, is what war must be like.  Interestingly enough, each season had a different version of the song, and some of the seasons had multiple version of it as well.  Yet, the overall effect was never lost.  The sound of that helicopter in the background seals the deal.  Knowing that no matter what silliness was going on during the show, every petty fight, love tryst, and sweet moment could be brought to a halt by that one word:  Choppers!

So remember these gems the next time you see one of these three second abbreviated intros to today's modern shows.

Let me know what intros were your favorites!  I had to leave out so many...Magnum, Charlies' Angels, CHIPs, Emergency!, and Welcome Back Kotter, to name a few.

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