8 of the Best TV Title Sequences, and Why They Matter
Think about your favourite TV show – what’s your routine when you sit down to watch an episode? Do you pull together snacks, dim the lights, and settle in for a streaming marathon? More importantly, when does the experience of watching the show really begin – when your favourite character appears on screen, or when you start to hum along to the theme music?
For me, the moment when I really get drawn into an episode of TV is the title sequence. Maybe it’s because of my visually-oriented brain, or how interested I am in the production of TV and movies. Whatever the reason, there’s something special – almost like a ritual – involved when the title sequence begins. Whether it’s the telltale horns from the House of Cards theme playing over the time-lapse sequences of Washington, D.C. , or the clockwork models unfolding on the Game of Thrones map, it’s as if the show is saying, “Here we go. The story continues…”
If there’s one aspect of TV that’s a constant, compared to movies, it’s the title sequence, or opening credits. It’s a component that movies only seem to use half of the time nowadays, but something that TV includes consistently. And as part of the ongoing new golden age of TV, title sequences seem to be getting more artistic and meaningful as each new show premieres.
On the surface, a title sequence has a rather utilitarian purpose: to remind the audience (who may be watching an episode for the first time, or after being away from the show for a while) of the name of the program, and the names of the cast and crew. In those terms, the title sequence need not be any more complicated than a series of words on the screen, but naturally, many production companies use the time to tease some of the ideas, images and themes of the show. So in an effort to both celebrate and decode the role of TV opening credits, here’s a breakdown of my 8 favourite sequences.
In the sequence from Homeland, we see a series of scenes from real-life news reports about terrorism, combined with clips from the show and snippets of personal photos belonging to the main character, Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes). On the soundtrack, we hear lonely strains of a jazz tune, which references Carrie’s love of the genre. Some of the pieces of audio layer on top of each other, making the viewer feel like an intelligence officer listening in on a strange conversation. As the images swim past, out of sequence, it also calls to mind the mental illness that Carrie suffers from: like her, we struggle to make sense of all the stimuli. For the brief couple of minutes we spend watching the credits, we’re given a powerful sense of what it might be like to be the main character in her tangled life of espionage and personal drama.
2. Breaking Bad
When we think about AMC’s Breaking Bad, how many of us immediately think of the slow, menacing theme tune and the curling trails of yellow smoke? The sequence for the show may be short, but it imprinted itself in our minds. No parody of the show would be complete without its own version of the title, or at least referencing the use of element abbreviations from the periodic table to spell out names. It’s a sequence worthy of one of the Walter White’s guiding principles: “The chemistry must be respected.”
3. Orphan Black
The opening credits for Orphan Black are one of the shorter packages on this list, but they still draw you into an episode. The sequence takes the form of a kaleidoscope of mirrored images, reflecting the topic of the show (human cloning) while also drawing connections to other scientific advancements. The sequence has the effect of a whirlpool, drawing us into a story that does require a certain amount of suspension of disbelief. The theme on the soundtrack also has some symbolic value, as it uses a choir of female voices (or artificial duplication of a single voice) – as if Sarah Manning (Tatiana Maslany) and her fellow clones from the show are the ones singing.
4. True Detective
There’s an impressive interview and step-by-step dissection of this particular sequence on Art of the Title, but from my own reading of True Detective, its opening credits serve two purposes: to remind us of the nature of the story and to hint at the inner turmoil the lead characters Rust Coyle (Matthew McConaughey) and Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) wrestle with. We see examples of the evidence they collect (like surveillance photos and the strange objects found at the crime scenes), the bleak landscapes they travel across to solve the mystery, and of their demons: Rust is seen consumed by fire, haunted by the death of his daughter, and Marty’s womanizing is depicted in images of naked women. The sequence is such a good match for the show that it makes you wonder how the producers can top it when the second season moves to Los Angeles this year.
5. House of Cards
This Netflix original recently returned for its third season, and with it those distinctive time-lapses that open every episode. This title sequence is notable in that it doesn’t include any shots of the main characters or events from the story: instead, seeing the scenery of Washington (including less-savoury locations like under an overpass and a view of trash by the river) fly past makes me wonder how many back-room deals, blackmailing and power struggles are taking place just out of view from the camera. Are the institutions that occupy these spaces as fragile as the title of the show suggests?
6. The Americans
I recently finished season one of The Americans, though its third season just premiered on FX a few weeks ago. The show’s title takes the form of a flurry of images, which juxtapose the ideals of American life during the Cold War with their corresponding propaganda from the Soviet Union. The sequence seems to suggest that the two countries weren’t that different, and that’s when the Soviet images begin “invading” the American ones: a photo of a mall Santa with child on his knee gets his head replaced with a shot of Karl Marx; similarly, a typical American family is pasted over with the faces of the lead characters, Soviet spies living undercover in a suburb of Washington, D.C. It’s hard to pack political commentary, thematic statements and production credits into such a short package, but The Americans pulls it off with style to spare.
7. Game of Thrones
One of the first things that struck me about the Game of Thrones title was how it changed between episodes, in step with developments in the plot. Accompanied by the bombastic, movie-style score, we fly between intricately detailed pop-up models on a map, first, to introduce the many locations in the story, and to give a sense of the scale of the world the characters inhabit. In later episodes, places like the Winterfell model eventually have columns of smoke rising above them, and we move on to new places as the characters explore new regions; the journey of the character Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) has probably revealed the most points of interest. And yet, the sequence still makes us feel like we’re looking at Westeros in miniature, as if the map is just the board on which the titular game is played.
8. Mad Men
The AMC drama (soon to complete its final block of eight episodes) has perhaps one of the most over-analyzed title sequences of recent memory. More than a few people have claimed that the title has teased the end of the show since the beginning, and that Don Draper’s story will conclude with him jumping off a building, consumed as he is by his fiery creativity, destructive vices, and family obligations. I prefer to do a less literal reading of the sequence: perhaps it’s as simple as Don falling into a bottomless pit of the advertising he creates – reflecting his constant struggle to understand people and their relationship with ads. If nothing else, the sequence is one of the most stylish on this list, befitting its classic period.
What are your favourite TV openers, and what role do you think they play in understanding the associated series? Join the discussion in the comments section, and if you liked this post, share it with your friends and followers!