How do you determine the greatest TV show themes of all time? It’s a daunting task. Consider that, in 2016, more than 1400 shows ran on prime-time television in the United States; more than 400 were original scripted programs. And that doesn’t include streaming. Most of those shows have some kind of introduction with music, stretching the line even further. Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine, suggested that bands should be considered for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on the basis of “impact, influence, and awesomeness,” so we’ll use a similar criteria of catchiness, memorability, and appropriateness for the shows. We’ll also be breaking this list into three distinct categories: live-action, spoken-word/voice-over, and animated intro themes. A few months ago, we brought you the greatest live-action themes. Today, we bring you part 2: spoken-word/voice-over themes.
Honorable Mention: Forever Knight (1992-1996)
While not quite great enough to make the list, the opening of Forever Knight does show what a good spoken-word intro does. The best of them establish a premise, which is why they’re so pervasively used in science-fiction, fantasy, and horror programming; they clue the audience into what the show is all about so they can hit the ground running. Forever Knight does that, letting you know that Nick was “brought across” (that is, turned into a vampire) centuries ago while giving you some insight into the ongoing plot.
25. Highlander: The Series (1992-1998)
Based on the cult classic film starring Christopher Lambert, the series gave us Adrian Paul as the immortal Duncan MacLeod (the cousin of Lambert’s Connor from the films). The show proved popular enough the it generated both live-action and animated spin-offs, and Duncan eventually joined Connor on the big screen in 2000 before returning in a television film in 2007. The spoken-word intros changed frequently over the years, adding nuances of plot and situation.
24. Xena: Warrior Princess (1995-2001)
The wildly popular Xena (Lucy Lawless) spun out of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, a surprise 1994-1999 hit. The two series ranked among the most highly rated syndicated shows in the world during their runs. An unapologetic female action hero on the air during a time when there were precious few, Xena appealed to multiple audiences. The show contained plenty of action, frequently delivered with a nod and a wink. The over-the-top narration set the stage perfectly.
23. Knight Rider (1982-1986)
“A shadowy flight into the dangerous world of a man . . .who does not exist.”
Sounds pretty cool, right? David Hasselhoff played Michael Knight (originally Michael Long, a policeman who was shot and presumed dead, but had his face fixed and a new identity given to him by the Knight Foundation). Knight’s partner was KITT, an artificially intelligent talking car voiced by William Daniels (of St. Elsewhere and Boy Meets World). The introductory narration is provided by Richard Baseheart, who played Knight’s patron, Wilton Knight; the character died in the first episode, but his voice remained.
22. Kung Fu (1972-1975)
The Kung Fu intro pulls the trick of using dialogue from the show, but it does it in a way that explains the training and journey of Kwai Chang Kane (David Carradine; interestingly young Kane in the intro is played by David’s younger brother and fellow actor, Keith). With this set-up, you understand a bit more about Kane before he went to walk the Earth.
21. Hart to Hart (1979-1984, plus eight made-for-TV movies)
Created by novelist Sidney Sheldon, Hart to Hart worked off of the same vibe as Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man: rich couple solves crimes. Robert Wagner and Stefanie Powers played the Harts, while Lionel Stander played their assistant, Max (who also delivered the voice-over). The show proved popular enough that it returned for a series of TV-movies in 1993; Stander appeared in the first five before his death in late 1994.
20. Quantum Leap (1989-1993)
Quantum Leap didn’t have the voice-over intro right away, but it did acquire one in season three. Not only does it explain the premise (Dr. Sam Beckett is leaping from body to body across time, trying to set things right), but it also strikes a plaintive note of danger (telling us that Beckett just one day hopes to leap home). The final episode contained one of the great “down” endings in TV history, as a final title card tells us, “Dr. Sam Beckett never returned home.”
19. Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979-1981)
Buck Rogers is one of the longest-running science fiction heroes in popular culture, having first appeared in the 1928 novella Armageddon 2419 A.D. by Philip Francis Nowlan. Since then, Rogers has appeared in comics, novels, film serials, TV series, and theatrical movies. NBC’s TV series launched with a theatrical film that featured a theme song, “Suspension” by Kipp Lennon. That melody was used in the instrumental theme for the TV series. The film’s opening narration by William Conrad was edited down for the first season; in the second season, a new voice-over was delivered by Hank Simms.
18. Battlestar Galactica (1978-1979)
“There are those that believe that life here . . . began out there.” Such are the words of John Colicos, who also played recurring antagonist Baltar. Certainly, BSG is the only show with a voice-over that references the Toltecs and the Mayans. The narration gives you air of mysticism before the soaring theme by the great Stu Phillips crashes in.
17. Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (1999-present)
With 458 episodes and counting, SVU will break the record for the longest-running American prime-time live-action series this month. Certainly the most successful spin-off ever, it makes the list because of its own iconic opening passage. However, we just couldn’t place it above the original, which you’ll find later on the list. Dun-Dun.
16. The Flash (2014-present)
When Mark Waid took over as writer on The Flash comic book in the 1990s, he took the character’s long-time nickname (The Fastest Man Alive) and ingrained it into the narration that opened each issue: “My name is Wally West, and I’m the fastest man alive.” While the 2014 CW series opted to go with original Flash Barry Allen as its lead, it kept the spirit of Waid’s narrations. Series star Grant Gustin reads the openings in character, which adjust for each season and the arc of that year’s plot. We also use this entry to give a special nod to the Flash’s fellow CW crimefighters, Arrow, Supergirl, and The Legends of Tomorrow, all of whom use a variation of this device.
15. Tales from the Darkside (1983-1988)
Created by Night of the Living Dead director George Romero, Tales from the Darkside was a horror anthology series. Among the many legendary writers who contributed scripts or allowed their work to be adapted were Stephen King, Clive Barker, Harlan Ellison, Robert Bloch, and John Cheever. Romero wrote the opening and closing narrations himself; the lines were performed by Paul Sparer, best known for his work in soap operas like Another World. “Until next time, try to enjoy the daylight.”
14. Farscape (1999-2004)
An Australian-American production that combined the forces of The Jim Henson Company and Hallmark Entertainment, Farscape remains one of the most off-beat science fiction series ever made. Action-packed, frequently hilarious, and put together with a mixture of CGI and Henson creature creations, Farscape tells the tale of John Crichton (Ben Browder), an astronaut who ends up on the other side of the universe and on the run from a fascist army with his collection of alien companions. The intros quickly explain the plot and premise via Browder’s narration, and were updated each season to reflect ongoing changes to the plot. Most notable? Season four’s “Look upward, and share the wonders that I’ve seen,” a grand tease for Crichton’s return to Earth.
13. Babylon 5 (1993-1998)
Sci-fi classic Babylon 5 might be the ultimate expression of the changing introductory voice-over. In each of the first three seasons, a different actor from the show did the narration, with the dialogue changing to reflect the evolution of the story. The most telling change from the first two seasons to the third was the switch from “Babylon 5 was our last, best hope for peace” to “Babylon 5 was our last, best hope for peace. It failed. In the year of The Shadow War, it became something greater: our last, best hope for victory.” Season four included the majority of cast delivering alternating lines of narration, while the final season altered the intro into a collage of dialogue from across the series, ending with a game-changing moment from the previous season finale.
12. The A-Team (1983-1987)
A perfect marriage of narration and theme song, the intro to The A-Team captures the story with precision (“In 1972, etc.”) before launching the music with a fusillade of bullets and a literal cannon blast (from the TV-movie pilot). Veteran composers Mike Post and Pete Carpenter composed the main theme, which puts nearly everyone immediately in mind of the flipping jeep.
11. The Incredible Hulk (1977-1982)
The second live-action Marvel Comics-inspired series of the ’70s (the first being the short-lived Amazing Spider-Man), The Incredible Hulk turned into a hit that ran for five seasons and a handful of TV movies. The theme by Joe Harnell sounds very of its time, but it’s definitely emotive. The narration gives you everything you need to know about Dr. “David” Banner (though other reasons have been posited for the name switch, it was because the producers thought that the alliteration of “Bruce Banner” was too comic-booky; just imagine a comic book character’s name sounding like it came from a comic book), including Bill Bixby’s rather famous line about being angry. The narration was provided by Ted Cassidy (yes, Lurch from The Addams Family). Actual Hulk actor Lou Ferrigno has spent the last decade-plus providing the voice of The Hulk in the various films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, including the recent Avengers: Endgame (“So many stairs!”).
10. The Six Million Dollar Man (1973-1978)
“Better . . . stronger . . . faster.” “Gentlemen, we can rebuild him; we have the technology.” You know that the voiceover is a stone-cold classic when it produces multiple quotable lines. Richard Anderson, who plays Oscar Goldman, the boss of the titular bionic man, Steve Austin (Lee Majors) handles the monologue. The Six Million Dollar Man was a huge hit, spawning merchandise, a spin-off (The Bionic Woman), TV movies, and an entire generation of kids that made “chug-chug-chug-chug” noises when they bounced on a trampoline.
9. Charlie’s Angels (1976-1981)
Jack Elliot and Allyn Ferguson’s jazzy ’70s main theme became a classic when paired with the smooth, knowing narration of John Forsythe (Charlie himself). The “Once upon a time” opening gently mocks the “very hazardous duties” that female police officers were subjected to, trying to strike an empowering note. However, the show was divisive on that point, with some critics dismissing it as “jiggle TV.” Social critic Camille Paglia recently wrote that the show was an “effervescent action-adventure showing smart, bold women working side by side in fruitful collaboration.” The show proved exceedingly popular for a time, even with cast replacements. After an abortive late ’80s reboot failed to materialize, the show has since seen life as two theatrical films, a revival TV series, spin-off comics, and a pending return to the big screen.
8. The Outer Limits (1963-1965; 1995-2002 revival)
The Outer Limits wastes no time getting to the creepy. As the picture begins to fail, a voice tells us, “There is nothing wrong with your television set; do not attempt to adjust the picture.” Most often compared to its fellow anthology, The Twilight Zone, this series hewed more closely to science-fiction, whereas Zone cast a wider net. While the original series only ran for two seasons, the words of the intro have stuck around in popular culture ever since, meriting a Top Ten spot on the list.
7. Dragnet (1949-1957 on radio; 1951-1959; 1967-1970 revival)
Jack Webb played Detective Joe Friday across three mediums off-and-on for 21 years. He was the lead in the radio drama, the first TV series (and its spin-off film), and the series revival. From the radio through the second TV show, two ongoing narration pieces were used. The first was an announcer, letting you know that the story you are about to see is true (although the names have been changed to protect the innocent). The second element is Friday himself, setting the L.A. scene and introducing himself. The no-nonsense set-up is the ancestor of our next entry.
6. Law & Order (1990-2010; on cable somewhere at this precise moment)
A franchise engine of the highest order (every pun intended), Dick Wolf’s Law & Order ran for 20 years while producing six direct spin-offs (with L&O in the name), indirect spin-offs like Conviction (the 2006 series), absorbing characters from other shows (Richard Belzer’s Detective Munch from Homicide: Life on the Streets), and sharing a fictional universe and ongoing character crossovers with programs like New York Undercover and the family of Chicago shows (Fire, P.D., Med, etc.). The iconic introduction, echoed on most of the shows that bear the Law & Order name (including SVU from earlier in the list), lets you know that the show will follow both the police (Law) and the prosecutors (Order). Dun Dun forever.
5. The Odd Couple (1970-1975)
Certainly one of the greatest television comedy series, The Odd Couple was based on the film that was based on Neil Simon’s stage play. Starring Tony Randall and Jack Klugman, the series had the distinction of doing so well in summer reruns that its second-run performance became the deciding factor each time it was awarded a new season. At the close of its run, the show was given a genuine finale episode, wherein Randall’s Felix re-marries Gloria and moves out. Multiple remakes of The Odd Couple exist on stage and screen, including a gender-flipped play, a remake with an African-American cast, and, this is true, an animated take with dog and cat roommates (The Oddball Couple, which ran on ABC in 1975).
4. The Lone Ranger (1949-1957)
Cue The William Tell Overture.
Narrator: The Lone Ranger!
Lone Ranger: Hi Yo Silver!
Narrator: A fiery horse with the speed of light, a cloud of dust and a hearty, ‘Hi Yo Silver!’ The Lone Ranger!
Lone Ranger: Hi Yo Silver, away!
Narrator: With his faithful Indian companion Tonto, the daring and resourceful masked rider of the plains led the fight for law and order in the early west. Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear. The Lone Ranger rides again!
And scene. Do you really need anything else?
3. The Adventures of Superman (1940-1951 radio; 1952-1958 TV)
Though the opening narration may have been imported in large part from the radio, they remain some of the most famous words in the history of popular culture. It’s all there . . . “Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s . . . Superman!” You get that he’s a “strange visitor from another planet.” You learn that he’s “faster than a speeding bullet . . . more powerful than a locomotive . . .” Basically every word of this is classic Americana. It’s like the super-hero Pledge of Allegiance. There is zero chance that you haven’t heard some part of this in the course of your everyday life.
2. Star Trek (The Original Series, 1966-1969)
A perfect marriage of text, image, and music, the opening narration of Star Trek gives you everything you need to understand the show and a dose of otherworldly tunes to go with it. Alexander Courage composed the theme, and the immortal words are delivered by Captain James T. Kirk himself, William Shatner. It’s been repeated in films, covered by Patrick Stewart for the first live-action spin-off (Star Trek: The Next Generation), and completely assimilated by popular culture. Or did it assimilate us? Only the Borg know for sure.
AND . . . the Greatest TV Spoken-Word Intro belongs to . . .
1. The Twilight Zone (1959-1964; revivals from 1985-1989, 2002-2003, and 2019-present)
Witness if you will, a TV series with a basic premise so powerful it’s spawned a legion of imitators and has been rebooted itself three additional times. Submitted for your approval, a show so gripping that people who saw individual episodes as children still remember the endings decades later. Amazingly, though the lines of the intro were tweaked across seasons, every iteration remains incredibly memorable. Part of that was the delivery of the show’s creator and host, Rod Serling, and part of it was Serling’s own talent for finding that cold space in your mind and squeezing. Not every episode was scary, and not every episode had a twist, but the intro let you know that you had to be ready for anything. It’s timeless, it’s iconic, and it’s our Number One.
Read Part One of our look at the Greatest TV Themes here.
Featured image: Pictorial Press Ltd / Almy Stock Photo.
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