If you think TV is increasingly dumbed down, you must have missed the 80s – when tons of shows were introduced with voice-overs and explanatory action sequences that told us exactly who and what the characters were.
In Knight Rider, there was “Michael Knight, a young loner on a crusade to champion the cause of the innocent, the helpless, the powerless, in a world of criminals who operate above the law”, while the opening credits made it very clear a car was somehow crucial to the plot. The A-Team, meanwhile, came with full backstory:
“In 1972, a crack commando unit was sent to prison by a military court for a crime they didn’t commit. These men promptly escaped from a maximum security stockade to the Los Angeles underground. Today, still wanted by the government they survive as soldiers of fortune. If you have a problem – if no one else can help, and if you can find them, maybe you can hire … The A-Team [bang, bang, bang, etc.].”
Exposition wasn’t just for crime fighting: even 80s cartoons came with Cliff Notes. Battle of the Planets and He-Man introduced characters and motivations with monologues, while Ulysses 31 threw in a rock soundtrack for extra explanation.
CHiPs in 60 seconds
CHiPs – the adventures of two motorcycle cops on the LA freeways – may not have bothered with an introductory voice over, but it still told you everything you needed to know about the show in just over 60 seconds (watch the intro here):
- It’s about cops on motorbikes: cue close-ups of tyres, licence plates and mechanical whatchamacallits.
- There are two main characters (in real life CHP officers rarely rode in pairs).
- “CHiPs” stands for California Highway Patrol: the letters fall out of an official crest so you know the show has nothing to do with snack foods.
- We (kinda) get the names of the main characters from shots of their badges. There’s J. Baker, the lead, and “Poncherello”, though you can’t really make this out on-screen.
- They’re armed. This might have been especially useful for international audiences whose emergency services don’t routinely carry guns, but if you were just after something with some bang, bang, etc., you knew this was the show for you.
Introducing the premise in the opening credits is pretty much obligatory – it would be a brave show which just launched straight into a new plot each week – but it’s far more muted than it used to be. Consider contemporary series which tell you more how you’re supposed to feel about the show, rather than where the characters came from or why there’s a show at all.
In those terms, Marcella is about a woman who drives around in the dark. The Goldbergs is about a family that doesn’t have Freeview. Brooklyn Nine-Nine is about a bunch of serious, angry and clumsy cops. The opening credits of Big Bang Theory don’t explain anything other than evolution, but you’ll feel cheery while you learn.
All this helps explain why retro shows get the love they do: the intros were just as exciting as the show; they were everything the programme stood for in 60 seconds or less, and they were simple enough to be sung or talked along with. Opening credits for the terminally stupid may be less common than they used to be, but they were remarkable memorable – which is why “Now this is the story all about how / My life got flipped, turned upside down” is Pavlov’s Bell for a good old-fashioned singalong…