10.07.2014

Knight Rider and Quantum Leap (Opening Credits)

The TV Tomb of Mystery is an ongoing attempt to stave off  acquisition of any more impulse-buy DVDs by taking better inventory of the ones already in hand. 

I'm a fan of TV themes and title sequences of any kind. Good ones, anyway, but I like the artform / pitch side of it so much that even the bad ones interest me in some fashion.

They come in all shapes and sizes and change with the tide. Most shows nowadays aren't concerned with getting their core concept across via their opening credits or to burn a jingle into your brain. Which is probably overall a good thing - freed from these expectations, some shows have put together some of the most beautifully designed title sequences I've ever seen. For example:

 Both images above taken from Art of the Title - a site which explores this sort of thing exclusively.

Don't get me wrong - both Mad Men and Game of Thrones have themes that are highly memorable. I just mean that musically this is not the approach taken by The Brady Bunch or Gilligan's Island, communicating the essentials of the set-up, or Batman, Hawaii 5-0 or Welcome Back, Kotter, overwhelming you with the simple catchy-as-hell fact of itself. You may not get a sense of what actors play what roles, or what's going on, but you get a decent (and enticing) idea of the world in which either show takes place.

And of course there's The Simpsons, which is all of these things. And an ever-replenishing feast with all of these guest-directed title sequences.


My point is not that title sequences of any one era got it right or wrong. But I'm interested in the evolution of these things. Also, Game of Thrones, Mad Men, and The Simpsons are, increasingly exceptions. As Ken Levine lamented in a blog from a few years back:

"Networks today, so deathly afraid of tune out, have all but eliminated theme songs and opening credits. They go by so fast you can’t tell the difference between opening titles and vanity production cards. And I think it does a disservice to the shows and the viewers. A good opening title sequence can really set the tone for the show. Cheers wasn’t just a bar, it was the place where everyone knows your name. If it premiered today you’d see the logo, an animated glass of beer being filled, and ten seconds of 'Sweet Caroline.'"

He makes a good point. Lost didn't even have a theme (not counting the end credits music or the Jack Cries in the Woods/ Someone's Crying in the Hatch themes - all great stuff, again, don't get me wrong) or a title sequence. Neither did Breaking Bad, really. But have we thrown out the baby with the bathwater?

Granted, for every memorable theme or title sequence, there are ten or twenty terrible ones, and granted, too, I'm mixing genres and eras indiscriminately. My aim today is not to exhaustively catalog anything, merely to look at two that have been on my mind recently. Namely:

and

I'm sure I'll blog up an episode or two from either show for the TV Tomb, but today we'll just look at their opening credits and how they communicated information about their respective premises.

There was a third show I wanted to look at, but unfortunately I don't know the name of it and cannot hit upon the right combination of google search terms to get me anywhere close to finding it. It aired on Univision or Telemundo in 2003 or so. Let me know if any of this rings a bell: a pair of female boxers in a ring, one knocks the other out so hard that it kills her. Her spirit rises from her corpse and floats around, eventually possessing, Deadman-style, some other guy.

I may be mixing up or missing some details. But it's always stuck with me as an efficient and effective way of communicating a wack-ass concept. And really, that's the kind of thing I'm getting at today: take a show with a conceit that may seem like a bridge too far for the proverbial viewer and how do you sell it to him or her in ninety seconds?

Let's start with Knight Rider.  


Have a listen to the actual theme and narration:


Richard Baseheart provides the voice-over narration. That little breath-intake he does between "Knight Rider," the way he chews on "man-nn," and the wonderfully histrionic "a shadowy flight into the dangerous world of a man who does not exist" crack me up far too much. The kind of lunatic excitement that accompanies any binge-watched credit sequence, or binge-watched anything. As soon as I hear the theme music start and see KITT (Knight Industries Two Thousand) cruising across the desert towards the camera, I tense up in anticipation of hearing the over-the-top way he delivers every word. "Knight Rider..." 


"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."

Okay, so we instantly know a couple of things - our hero is a "loner" and a "crusader" and he doesn't officially exist. Most importantly, he drives a very fast car.

One that is tricked out with various gizmos -
And frequently looses its earthly bonds to sail majestically through the air.

We don't know all the ins and outs of the car and why it's so special - nothing in these images tells us, for example, that it has both a voice and a personality - but we can clearly see it's not just some ordinary Trans Am. 

Shots like this demonstrate, as well, that Michael Knight can do two things the show's targeted demographic cannot: drive, and stay out late at night, cruising the city streets.
Next, we get a look at the supporting cast:


Who's this guy? He's in a Cadillac limousine, is well-dressed and smiling, and he's older. And what's this?


A cowboy hat! Clearly, he's some kind of paternalistic figure for our hero, but the hat shows us he gets out of the office/ boardroom every now and again.

Is it just a show about two dudes and a car, though? That can't be cool. Ergo:

Rebecca Holden played April Curtis in season 2; Patricia McPherson played Dr. Bonnie Barstow in seasons 1, 3-4.
Outside of the fact that she's got huge-ass hair and occasionally handles a phone, we know nothing else about her.
BUT SHE'S A GIRL!
The way she's tied her men's dress shirt above her navel in the screencap above suggests to the viewer that if you stick around, she'll put on some kind of hot outfit. 

The credits end with this one-two punch:

KITT beneath the eye of Ra, racing at the viewer.
KITT, racing away now, into the Horus Rising. WILL WE TAKE HEED AND FOLLOW?
Season One even added this voice-over reiteration at the end: "Michael Knight, a lone crusader in a dangerous world: the world of the Knight Rider." Bam!

I'm going to give this one something like a B+ or an A-. It's definitely memorable and communicates the fun and core concept of the show. It should do more to get across the fact that KITT is a sentient automobile, perhaps with a "Voice of KITT by William Daniels" credit, but apparently Daniels (who was starring on St. Elsewhere at the time) requested his name not to appear in the credits. So, while there's little here to suggest this isn't just an update on the General Lee or something, I guess I can't hold that against it.

Where I feel better deducting points is that there's not enough going on with Michael Knight. Certainly nothing to suggest the character was once a Las Vegas detective named Michael Long who after being shot in the damn face, gets reconstructive surgery to become the adopted son and primary field agent of Wilton Knight's public justice organization, the Foundation for Law and Government.

Does there need to be? Well, probably not. I mean, effective credits or not, Knight Rider is a fairly silly show. The fun of it comes across, and that's more important. Interestingly, though, the DVD menu makes up for both of these oversights by clearly demonstrating KITT can talk and montage-ing Michael in a variety of action-hero guises, establishing him as the sort of protagonist with a broad enough range of adventures to justify all the "crusader against injustice" stuff.


Onto Quantum Leap, which came out a few years after Knight Rider went off the air . This was a relatively higher-concept show, but see for yourself how effectively its jist is communicated:


Show producer Deborah Pratt provides the voice-over. She's a bit dramatic about it, eh? I'm not saying it's inappropriate, but if I were to try and transcribe how it sounds to me, here's how it would look:

"Theorizing that one could time travel within his own (loud whisper) LIFETIME... Doctor Sam Beckett stepped into the Quantum Leap accelerator... and vanished!"
Incidentally, I never knew what to make of this lady in the foreground. The shot obscures Scott Bakula back there, and her prominence in it always made me wonder if I was seeing a tense-looking, hunched over Sam Beckett in what appear to be heels. Anyone else?
"He woke to find himself trapped in the past, facing mirror images that were not his own, and driven by an unknown force to change history for the better."
"His only guide on this journey is Al, an observer from his own time, who appears in the form of a hologram that only Sam can see and hear."
"And so Dr. Beckett finds himself leaping from life to life, striving to put right what once went wrong -"
" - and hoping that his next leap - "
(quivering) "will be the leap home."
Again, not that it's bad, and it could be just hearing it so many times has distorted its acoustic elements in my brain. Actually, this is a quick side-point about TV themes: the best ones have this effect, at least with me. Which is why they're so funny out of context. When we hear the Knight Rider theme as Mark Wahlberg's ringtone in Ted, it's funny; ditto for The Wedding Singer, when Julia's boyfriend drives up and the Miami Vice theme is blaring. It's not just knowing the context; it's that they communicate a range of personal associations, often exaggerated.

Quantum Leap was one of those shows that more or less kept the same episodic structure: you started with the intro, then you saw a recreation of what ended the episode before, (i.e. Sam waking up in a new body) then Sam said "Oh boy," and then the title sequence.

First shot: soaring through the clouds, as the song kicks in.
Quantum Leap didn't display its actual title until the very end of the credits.
But it side-scrolled throughout, which was a pretty cool effect.
It did the same for images from the timespan of the show: a great way to communicate to the viewer both the time travel itself and the range of temporal movement allowed.

The credits now reiterate things we learned from the intro, namely Sam's looking at mirror images that are not his own.

And - in case you forgot! - Al's a hologram.

It also - unlike Knight Rider - gives the viewer a clear idea of the kind of adventures to be had in the set-up. Sam Beckett wasn't the hero who could be you; he was the hero who could be anyone.


I never quite understood why we-the-viewer see Sam as Scott Bakula, but we see the person he's leaped into's clothes. But I suppose the alternative was him wearing the silver tights of the Quantum Leap experiment from episode to episode, which would have been terrible.

Okay, so we know all that, but is this just some show about a time traveling dude and his hologram best friend?



And the one guy is in drag half the time?


As if to say "Hey whoah, settle down, bro" is this next sequence, which comes right after the start of the middle eight. 

That's another thing - this theme song has a middle eight! Classy.
  
The show's premise is pretty wacky - not for TV, really, but wacky enough - but is it solidly communicated through the title sequence? Absolutely. This is one I'll give a solid A - and bump it up to an A+ because it really is such a kick-ass song.

I'll end these remarks with a look at the credits for an even higher-concept show, the all-too-short-lived Dollhouse. This came out in 2009, so well into the era where it was no longer vogue to take either of the approaches above.


If you don't know anything about the show, it's unlikely these images explain it to you. It's got a great theme and is beautiful to look at, undoubtedly - I particularly like how, well, doll-like all the non-Eliza shots appear. But is Eliza the only star of the show? We see her in different outfits and brandishing a weapon and the shot with the geisha-robe hints at some kind of forced sexual arrangement or something. There is the split-second shot of her head during a "treatment," but for all any non-viewer could make of it, she could be getting her hair done. And does the show take place in a dorm? A spa? What is going on?

Like I say, it wasn't designed to answer these questions - that sort of thing was well done with by 2009. Frankly, I'm not sure how you could convey Dollhouse's many complexities in the concise manner old-school TV title sequence sensibilities demand. But as this Fanboy Films mash-up demonstrates, as silly an idea as the approach may seem, an awful lot of information about the show is indelibly conveyed.

 

10 comments:

  1. I shouldn't be surprised by how apt that Dallas/TNG mashup is, but I am. Good stuff.

    Regarding "Knight Rider" -- that theme music still gets me excited to sit down and watch an episode of the show. And I haven't done that in, like, three decades. BUT THE MUSIC MAKES ME WANT TO!!! I love that shot of K.I.T.T. racing toward, and then away from, the camera; that's good editing.

    In retrospect, it's very surprising that they didn't try to sell us K.I.T.T. in the opening sequence. I wonder what the deal that was?

    Regarding "Quantum Leap" -- one thing I'd point out here is that the opening credits sequence is actually two things at once: it is a saga-sell AND a credits sequence. The saga-sell is still getting used by shows here and there; for example, "Under the Dome" has a fairly effective one. It rarely reflects the actual series, but that's another story.

    I didn't know it was a producer doing the narration during that saga-sell element. That's interesting. She over-does it, sure; but I think it's very effective, and given how prone the show was to being sort of corny and over-earnest (and not in a bad way), I think it works remarkably well. As with the "Knight Rider" intro, that voice-over she delivers makes me want to sit down and watch an episode of "Quantum Leap."

    I'm a big fan of television shows having opening-title sequences. It's a shame that more shows don't invest the effort into having them. Hell, if you don't want to run them in front of each episode, just make them and put them on frigging YouTube and market your show that way! Then you could at least add them to the episodes for home-video consumption, streaming, etc.

    There ARE some good ones out there these days, though. I could watch that dang "Game of Thrones" sequence five times a day and never get tired of it.

    More recently, I'm a big fan of the opening-titles sequence for Starz's series "Outlander":

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YrusSXEEv1M

    I dig the show, too; but I absolutely love the credits. Much of that is due to the song (written by Bear McCreary, who scored the revamped "Battlestar Galactica" and currently scores both "The Walking Dead" and "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." in addition to "Outlander'), which is gorgeous. When the bagpipes kick in, it raises the hairs on the back of my neck. Every time.

    Great post!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The only reason I can think of for not emphasizing the sentient nature of KITT is to perhaps distinguish it from other talking-robot shows of the era - maybe they were trying to distance themselves from Wonder Woman and Buck Rogers or what not. But, the more I consider this, the less sense it makes sense to me. Maybe Daniels' desire to remain unnamed extended to KITT. I guess it would be a little difficult to get the concept across if he didn't even want his voice to be used.

      I've caught some of Bear McCreary's tweets about Outlander and have followed a few links here and there and enjoyed them all, but I'd never watched the opening titles for the show. And you're right, those are great. I know the concept of the show already, but if I didn't, I'd be instantly intrigued by the mix of eras on clear display. Great music, as well, and title card.

      What you're calling the saga-sell for QL I seem to have identified as just the pre-credits intro. But googling saga-sell, a term I've somehow never heard before, it seems that's the term I should have used. But yeah, QL always had the intro/saga-sell, the quick pre-credits sequence leading to the "Oh boy," then those marvelous credits.

      Sometimes, it was downhill after that, but that's always the risk you run with a kickass title sequence.

      Delete
    2. I'd never heard the phrase "saga-sell" either until a few years back when somebody on a commentary track for an episode of "The Dead Zone" mentioned it. So I thought, Huh, there's a phrase for that? Makes sense. I'm not sure I know of another series that used theirs as a direct lead-in to the opening credits the way QL did.

      Where's my reboot of that, by the way? I'd be a little terrified of it sucking, but there's just SO much potential there that I'm a little shocked nobody has tried yet.

      Delete
    3. Agreed on Quantum Leap. At least for being surprised no one's tried it yet. Hell, they could still get Bakula and Stockwell together for a movie and update it that way. They should.

      Delete
  2. I think it's safe to say that catchy opening title sequences, while not exactly a lost art, are most likely seen is either incidental or too old school by the standards of modern television practices.

    If so, then it's ironic as there seems to be a great resurgence in all things 80s and retro among the great majority of the American populace at least. Not just TV and film fans, either but the country at large. The kind of thing I'm talking about was referenced in an article I once read:

    http://spectator.org/articles/35102/old-new-new

    In terms of 80s openers, I think things can be neatly divided into three basic categories: Good, Bad, and Guilty Pleasures (though this last is probably near indistinguishable from the Good).

    Knight Rider, I think, straddles the line between Guilty and Good. I just keep thinking I'm about to be sold a new micro-machine at any second (does anyone even remember those toy cars?). Also, there's something about it's appearance that's just so charmingly of the decade, and yet it's strangely timeless, like a synthesized version of a Frederick Remington painting as done by Daft Punk.

    As for Quantum Leap, it also straddles the line, I think, while the main show itself manages to really reach for something higher in terms of sci-fi on television. There's something almost Spielbergian in most of the show, and I think that might be the key to a lot of it's staying power. Certainly I remember thinking it was one of the most humanistic genre shows ever put out there. It's something that helps distinguish it from a lot of the grittier, anti-heroic stances taken by most sci-fi today, or even franchises like Stark Trek, for that matter.

    One final thing, since you mention the Eye of Ra. Without even meaning to, I stumbled on an Illuminati reference, perhaps fittingly, in an Alice Cooper vid (sorry for some spotty audio work, it's the vid itself, not the computer):

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qdo0oU2SIhQ

    I do think the vid could be further proof that the art of perfectly matching rock to movie soundtracks is slowly becoming another lost art.

    ChrisC

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yikes, Daniel Flynn seems awfully mad in that spectator article. I don't exactly see attention to the past as cannibalizing it or symptomatic of parasitic rot. But I don't begrudge him the perspective.

      I didn't want to get into the specific qualities of either show, at least not yet - I'm sure there'll be a post for both somewhere down the line - but I agree, Quantum Leap is at least borderland to if not fully administrated by Spielberg Country.

      Nice Alice Cooper vid. I remember that one well.

      Delete
  3. Well, I think all discussion on opening credits can now be divided into pre-and-post-"Too Many Cooks."

    http://www.hitfix.com/whats-alan-watching/adult-swims-too-many-cooks-a-sitcom-theme-song-nightmare/

    Holy moley.

    ReplyDelete
  4. It's too bad so many links in this post got axed. Perils of embedding video, they've gone and sailed on to the Grey Havens. Blogger, you ephemeral rapscallion, you!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I try to go through and check a few of mine every once in a while, but, like, that's a lot of work. Bummer, though, for sure.

      Delete