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21st Century TV: The Age of the Title Sequence

How many of us watch opening credits anymore?

Over the decades we’ve seen credits decline from a 3+ minute staple at the beginning of a film to not just relegated to the film’s end, but necessitating an enticement to keep you there at all: here’s a ‘surprise’ scene----maybe two!----that everyone is going to be talking about. Better stick around. The title sequences of TV shows were seemingly in trouble the day DVRs came on the scene, but they’ve gotten even easier to bypass in the age of streaming. Now all you have to do is click once on the buffer bar (you all know roughly how far in you’ve gotta go) and boom, title avoided. If you’re even lazier than that just stick to Netflix. They have their handy-dandy ‘Skip Intro’ button.

I’ll admit, I skip them a lot myself. Or at least I did. A couple months ago I was having lunch with some other graduate students----a lunch made up of exhaustion and tears----and of course we all shared how our work was going. One friend is writing his dissertation on television title sequences. “Does it bother you that so many people skip them nowadays?” Friend #2 asked and thus the rant began. A justified rant though, given how significant title sequences are to our emotional involvement in a show. It is, put simply, all about the immersion: setting the viewer up for the particular experience of watching this particular show. There’s rarely a narrative structure here----the opening isn’t telling us a separate story-----but is rather attempting to create a sensory experience that prepares us for this specific world, its tone, and the overall aesthetic of the series. Like putting on your Game of Thrones hat after watching Brooklyn-Nine-Nine. You've got to find the right viewing mood.

Think for a moment about your favorite title sequences. One of mine has always been Dexter’s. Just imagine that we never had to sit through that god-awful ending and focus instead on the start:

It really is perfect, isn’t it? An excellent example of how both cinematography and context can set the mood. These mundane actions become sinister partly because of the viewer’s knowledge (we’re watching a show about a serial killer) and partly because of how the lighting, sound effects, and camera work all focus on unexpected details, encouraging us to question what we’re really looking at. We can see that’s a blood orange, yeah, but the close up on those saturated colors makes it look like something a bit more... gory. Pretty sure Dexter is just tying his shoes, but his grip is unusually forceful, calling to mind the strength needed to, say, strangle someone. Who the hell puts a shirt on like that? Oh, someone connected to imagery of suffocation. We’re supposed to have a rather different image superimposed on our mind’s eye at that moment: someone struggling to breathe inside a plastic bag. Dexter’s opening succeeds not just because it’s a wonderful nudge-nudge-wink-wink to the viewer-----you know why all these mundane acts are seemingly dangerous in his hands-----but because the entire show functions around this interplay between average Miami man and ruthless murderer. The sinister feelings surrounding these everyday acts are precisely the point, normality hiding danger, as is that final shot of Dexter smiling charmingly out in the sun. That’s the facade. But we know what goes on behind closed doors.

The mood is set then, our understanding that we need to look past that charming veneer and should expect frustration when the rest of the cast doesn’t do the same. Dexter’s intro primes us emotionally for what we’re about to watch. We see similar work happening in another favorite of mine, Dead Like Me (and I swear I watch things other than death-focused shows). Following the afterlife of George Lass, a newly appointed grim reaper who finds that death is just as absurd and capitalist as life, it’s a comedy-drama worthy of the Bryan Fuller name. Its opening had better represent that same quirky, humorous perspective then----and it does.

It’s more on the nose than Dexter’s credits, but that’s rather the point. Dead Like Me’s charm hinges not on ambiguity, mysteries, or narrative frustration, but just the wonderful absurdity of chucking a newly deceased young adult into another dead-end (ha) job that she’s really not interested in. So that’s precisely what the opening gives us. Grim reapers doing all manner of mundane tasks from photocopying their faces, to playing basketball after clocking out. The contrast between normal action and abnormal being----as well as the upbeat music----is what’s enjoyable here, getting to laugh at the absurd image of a hooded figure leading a 9:00 to 5:00 life. Then George throws back her hood and we realize there really is no symbolism. She’s literally a grim reaper going about her afterlife, interacting precisely as shown with those around her. The only true difference between our show and our title sequence is that real grim reapers don’t wear the robes. Otherwise, what you see is what you get. In contrast, Dexter’s opening makes you think a little more about those mundane tasks, namely whether we should really feel as creeped out as we suddenly do about a blood orange and if so, why? Each opening relies heavily on who is doing the action----a serial killer or a grim reaper----but whereas one invites reflection, the other settles on humor taken at face value. Dexter is a masterclass in the impact of music and cinematography; Dead Like Me artfully sums up its concept in one upbeat song. Both succeed wonderfully in setting the mood.

These modern sequences are undoubtedly in a category all their own. Whereas older title sequences definitely introduced their own show’s feel, many were functioning around more practical purposes. Namely, to tell you what in the world this show was about, in a more straightforward manner than just the visual implications we see in Dead Like Me and Dexter. Think about Star Trek’s famous opening.

Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds. To seek out new life and new civilizations. To boldly go where no man has gone before!

Iconic! You’ve got to love it. Five sentences and you’ve got a chill down your spine at the breadth and passion of this adventure. These lines are beloved in Western culture (even more-so once “no man” was changed to “no one”), but they’re also just dead useful. Original Series Star Trek belongs to the age of primarily episodic television, where you could jump in at any time and never get lost. Missed last week’s episode where Kirk battles a god, Spock has a breakdown, and McCoy is this close to jumping out of an airlock (pretty sure that was an episode...)? No problem. Everything is reset by the end of those 45mins. You might be upset at missing that material----the whole fandom is still talking about that one particularly amazing scene----but it doesn’t keep you from continuing to watch. You are not reliant on last week's information like you would be with serial television (how the hell can I watch episode four of Game of Thrones if I haven't seen three?) This is a great setup for longtime viewers, but it’s the title sequence that helps out the new ones too. It tells you everything you need to know in order to jump right in: they’re in space, this is far enough into the future that space is the “final frontier,” we’ve got a crew on a ship called the Enterprise, exploring for five years, and it’s primarily a peaceful mission. That’s it. That’s all you need. Anything else-----from character dynamics to Red Shirt jokes----you pick up along the way.

We see the same thing happening with shows like The Brady Bunch that lay out not just the premise, but an entire prequel. Setting this info dump to upbeat music is, quite honestly, the only thing that makes it bearable:

Here's the story of a lovely lady Who was bringing up three very lovely girls All of them had hair of gold, like their mother The youngest one in curls

It's the story of a man named Brady Who was busy with three boys of his own They were four men living all together Yet they were all alone

Till the one day when the lady met this fellow And they knew that it was much more than a hunch That's this group must somehow form a family That's the way we all became the Brady Bunch The Brady Bunch, the Brady Bunch That's the way we became the Brady Bunch

Not what you would call the most engaging title sequence. Head-shots of our main characters and a blunt explanation of how they came together? As said, only the music saves it. It was around the mid-90s that television began to grow up, so to speak. We entered the age of serial storytelling, technological advancements, and real academic interest in the form. Thus, title sequences grew too. They had to keep up. If you tried to chuck this much info at a modern viewer without a more engaging presentation their reaction would be something akin to

because we’ve grown used to a certain amount of sophistication. This is too on the nose, and not in the fun way that Dead Like Me employs. The Brady Bunch's explanation doesn't even give us side-jokes or creative animation like we see in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. If anything though, modern title sequences are inclined to go the subtle route, and not just through metaphors and other symbolic imagery. Stranger Things is well known for its nostalgic 80s title, the ITC Benguiat text adding an air of fear by reminding us of Stephen King novels. The version of Broadchurch uploaded to Netflix doesn’t have a title sequence at all, just the words BROADCHURCH superimposed over an establishing shot. In the digital age of excess, sometimes simple is better.

Those openings still invested in telling more of a story are thus expected to stand as fully-fledged pieces of art all on their own. It’s no longer enough to throw generic shots of the protagonist together over a catchy tune. Two excellent, recent examples of this are CBS’s The Good Fight and Amazon Prime’s Good Omens.

The former focuses on various, notable objects exploding: designer handbags, a gravel, desks, books... a TV showing a clip of Trump. Though not a narrative in the strictest sense, this opening does tell The Good Fight's story, reducing its message to just the visuals. It is highly anti-Trump, it is sophisticated, and that sophistication is routinely shattered as tempers fly and life gets complicated. However, my favorite part of The Good Fight’s title sequence is how it continually grows with the show, changing with each new season. Originally that just meant an update on the music, but heading into season three we’ve seen a new ending wherein the final explosion takes down the entire set, breaking the fourth wall and reminding the viewer that everything they see----including this title sequence----is just a fiction, staged and artificial. A compelling reminder considering the show’s emphasis on fake news and its desire to connect each plot point and character arc with our real, political climate. Fellow fans will remember the animated shorts The Good Fight has grown fond of, quick side-notes that interrupt the episode to explain some important point: like how NDAs work, or laying out the impeachment process in case, you know, we’d like to apply that to Trump. Twice in one season a character has looked straight into the camera and given an impassioned speech to the audience alone, once about racism and once about sexism. These moments are made more powerful by the title sequence saying in the most eye-catching, literally explosive manner possible, “Remember that the real world exists. Yes, this is technically fiction...but only just. Everything you see on this show has a counterpart when you turn off the TV or shut down your computer. Remember that this exists when you tear down the backdrop.”

In addition, The Good Fight often supplements this structure with other small, but significant changes. No spoilers, but there’s an episode where one character’s life is on the line and, in deference to this, the music is much more subdued than usual. In another episode of the same season, Diane starts using flowers in her window as a signal and that image is briefly superimposed over our first title sequence image, further connecting what we see in the opening with the actual events of the show----and by extension our real life experiences.

On the other side of The Good Fight’s elegant simplicity, we have Good Omen’s chaotic, multi-form, wonderfully detailed opening, the sort of piece that even those skeptical about a title sequence’s importance recognize as a piece of art. Something they could watch again and again and find each new experience to be a rewarding one.

You can read the story of the opening’s creation here-----including how various styles of animation were used-----but I’m interested in the sequence primarily because it's one of the few I’ve seen in a long time that actually walks through (literally) the story we’re about to see. It’s not a representation of the story, it’s a condensed version of it. This minute and forty seconds sequence shows us nearly everything we’re about to watch, though it’s not quite in chronological order and it's definitely too overwhelming to understand at first glance. Rather, the world of Armageddon, the world our characters are trying to save, and the past connected to both are all mashed together. We’ve got Eden and the apple, Crowley and Aziraphale’s illicit meals throughout the millennia, them saving one another, the rise of aliens and the Kraken and the skies raining fish, a burning bookshop, a hell hound, three becoming two to ride a motorbike, thousands of little humans marching to their end like lemmings (though apparently that’s a myth!) All significant objects from the Bentley to the M-25 make an appearance. It’s one of those lovely openings where if you know the story already you catch all the fun foreshadowing. If you’re a newcomer you don’t even realize how much the creators are giving away. This is just one fun and chaotic romp until you’ve got some context under your belt, which is why it still functions beautifully in the age of anti-spoilers.

Obviously that opening could be a post all its own, but for the purposes of this already long piece I’d simply like to say that Good Omens-----like many other shows nowadays-----plays with when we get the opening too. It should be at the beginning, right? Not necessary. The concept of the cold open (wherein we’re thrown immediately into the story, usually either to set up the episode’s conflict or provide some character interaction not tied firmly to the plot. Think Law and Order setting up the murder or Brooklyn Nine-Nine showing us some stupid thing the gang is getting up to) has also grown over the years, impacting the ‘when’ of the title sequence. Often times I find myself surprised by the dramatic conclusion to a scene, a cut leading us into the credits that I 100% forgot we hadn’t seen yet. That’s precisely what Good Omens does in episode three’s “Hard Times,” to wonderful effect. After all, those first twenty minutes are chronicling Crowley and Aziraphale’s meetings throughout the centuries, providing stepping stones from Eden to now. Why would you want to interrupt that? We don’t, so our opening isn’t an opening at all, but rather a divider halfway through the episode that functions as a conclusion to what we’ve just seen. A nice way of saying, “Now back to the current plot.”

It begs the question: how else might we tweak and adapt title sequences for future shows? What if we continue to place our “openings” farther and farther along, undermining the assumption that they need act as openings at all? Or change aspects of each sequence depending on the mood and content of an episode? Yet if we change too much-----if each title sequence was, perhaps, unique to each episode-----would that produce the same feeling of familiarity needed to get us into the show’s mindset? At what point might title sequences cease to be a paratextual element and might, instead, become an integral part of the show’s content? Similar to how you need to watch RWBY’s trailers in order to see the show’s prologue and character introductions, will we ever see an age where pressing 'Skip Intro' on Netflix is considered downright absurd? Why would I skip such an important part of my favorite show?

I certainly hope so because I personally believe we’ve already reached that point. Television is incomplete without its title sequences. Perhaps not from a plot perspective-----you still follow what’s going on-----but when it comes to engaging with the show as a complete piece of art? Openings are rather significant.

So next time Netflix does give you that option... consider ignoring it. Take thirty seconds to a minute out of your day to experience the entirety of this show in the manner it was intended. Think about what you feel when you watch that opening, whether it has changed at all since last week, whether it's dropping you any hints. Be it the chills you get when Dexter’s theme comes on or the hours you could pour into examining every detail of Good Omen’s animation, I promise that those thirty seconds are worth your time. Title sequences are works of art onto themselves. We should remember to treat them as such.

Image Credit

  • Mad Men Title Sequence:

  • Dexter Screenshot:

  • Dead Like Me Screenshot:

  • Original Series Star Trek:

  • Blinking White Guy GIF:

  • Stranger Things Title:

  • Broadchurch Title:

  • The Good Fight Short:

  • The Good Fight Flowers #1 and #2:

  • Good Omens Screenshot:

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