Theyve been abstract, simple, lavish and ripe for parody but now TV title sequences have morphed again, to a new lo-fi style
The pilot of Amazons critically adored, award-winning Transparent doesnt begin with any locations that actually appear on the show. It doesnt open with a shot of any of the Pfeffermans, not even Jeffrey Tambors Maura. Instead, viewers first taste of Transparent is a bit more oblique and a little more abstract, but no less lovely for it.
A pastiche of family footage from weddings and bar mitzvahs, scenes from the 1968 drag documentary The Queen and a few original shots indistinguishable from the authentic ones, everything in Transparents title sequence functions in service of a particular sort of heartache. Rhys Ernst, a film-maker and producer on the show who worked on the sequence, says about hunting down archival footage: I was looking for a feeling of intimacy, and a feeling of belonging. It was very emotionally driven. He succeeded Transparent has one of the best TV title sequences in recent memory.
Theres actually a lot more competition for that ring than you might expect. As streaming and cable have warped and widened the boundaries of what TV can do, title sequences have changed to reflect those new possibilities. Thats how you get everything from The Wires seasonal riffs on Tom Waits and urban decay to American Horror Storys disjointed suggestions of wrongness (often much scarier than the show itself) to Homelands jazzy, mournful and unfairly maligned exploration of espionage and confusion.
The sheer weirdness of Homelands intro exemplifies the way in which as Angus Wall, the head of title design firm Abstract (perhaps most notable for the dramatic Game of Thrones opening), puts it title sequences are little experimental films that actually have to function. It makes sense, then, that Transparents title sequence is so good Ernst is first and foremost an experimental film-maker. I really thought of the title sequence as being its own sort of art film, he says.
Describing title sequences as their own short movies is a line that has been repeated consistently across the history of television. During an interview with the website Art of the Title, Sopranos showrunner David Chase describes the shows title sequence as its own little movie. In a New York Times story from 1992 about Castle Bryant Johnsen the group behind the title sequences for, among other shows, Cheers, Moonlighting and The X-Files, designer Bruce Bryant calls them very little films.
It wasnt always that way however. Early title sequences were purely functional and stripped-down, reflecting the nature of the production. Even one of the more ambitious early intros, for The Honeymooners, is still little more than a background for an announcer to read off the names of the cast and let the audience in the living room know its time to sit down.
With a few notable exceptions, for years title sequences were formulaic. The conventions of the mini-genre settled to the degree that cloying sitcom titles have found a second life on the internet as a parody engine, inspiring mock opening credits for hyper-dramatic shows (especially Breaking Bad), as well as Adult Swims Too Many Cooks, one of the best pieces of satire of the past few years.
And for other dramas shows that younger people will primarily remember as the source material for bad movies titles often served a more practical purpose, in particular explaining the often absurd concept of the show in the least artful way imaginable. Many classic sitcoms did this effectively remember the openings of Beverly Hillbillies or Gilligans Island? – but it nearly always failed with dramatic shows. This is the era of The A-Team and Quantum Leap. In the next decade, however, everything changed.
In the mid-90s you saw this great resurgence in terms of attention to main titles, Wall notes. Many of the most fondly remembered sequences are from that era, such as the X-Filess collection of B-movie outtakes (which returns, unchanged, for the seriess current revival), The West Wings explosion of Clinton-inspired optimism, or Twin Peaks funeral tour through the post-industrial American north-west. Even the bad 90s title sequences, such as Friends, remain embedded in popular imagination, perhaps because theyre so flagrantly evocative of the decade.
TV is a fast-paced medium prone to bandwagon-jumping, but title sequences might be even more subject to fads than shows themselves. In many cases, its painfully easy to tell what decade a TV show is from, simply because of how in love the title sequence is with the aesthetic of the time. Is there anything more gloriously 90s than the opening credits of Buffy the Vampire Slayer? It turns out the answer, somehow, is yes.
So: what are the fads of today? On the negative side, the same free-for-all environment that has allowed experimentation with episode length and blurring generic boundaries has led to excess. Even the worst 80s title sequence cant hold a candle to something like House of Cards nearly two-minute-long, so-bad-its-good march of dullness or Masters of Sexs carnival of bad sex metaphors. Many successful recent shows have overly explanatory title sequences, but the worst ones avoid functionality while still being terrible.
In fact, higher-concept series have moved away from explanation. Several of them have returned to the use of simple title cards (Mr Robot, The Knick, Breaking Bad). Others utilise increasingly complex CG abstractions that represent some aspect of the series, including Daredevils dripping wax, Halt and Catch Fires microchip or Mad Mens falling man.
This is precisely what Transparent is pushing back against. The trends in the last several years lean so much more toward graphic treatments theyre very composite-heavy, Ernst says. Theres kind of a style of a lot of those recent title sequences, and I really wanted to do the opposite. Its decidedly lo-fi.
Still, the beauty of the Transparent title sequence, as much as it nakedly and cleanly lays out the emotional content of the show, works on a level separate from the actual plot and characters. This is the culmination of a trend that dates to the 90s the same Times story about Castle Bryant Johnsen identifies artier title sequences in the process of trying to avoid reiterating the premise of a show. One designer refers derisively to Gilligans Island, while another notes: The ideas behind them are more abstract.
Its unsurprising, then, that perhaps the most popular title sequence of the past few years success precisely because it marries formal beauty and utility: Game of Thrones. The exploration of Westeros, which is now so renowned that it spawned its own Simpsons parody, arose out of necessity the original conception of the show had a crow flying between locations in a way that broke up the flow of an episode, forcing the mapping onto the titles. It has a concrete function in the world of the show, in that it serves as a legend the way the map at the beginning of a fantasy book orients you, Wall notes.
In its way, Game of Thrones exemplifies a principle of the best title sequences: map the world of the show, without delving too far into absurdity. The clockwork map of Westeros, along with the introductions of animated series such as Adventure Time and BoJack Horseman, take after what is perhaps the best title sequence of them all The Sopranos.
Wall admits to bringing up The Sopranos title sequence in every pitch meeting, and for good reason in following Tonys commute, the beginning of The Sopranos artfully maps the shows world, physically and thematically. Though other industries exist, and occasionally intersect with the mob, Tonys world is mostly just that: Tonys. The most notable feature of the sequence is that Tony is never seen in full, variously wreathed in smoke, viewed through the rearview mirror of his car, and only really emerging once he reaches his home, a space he can control. Its functionally elegant, and really visually interesting at the same time, Wall says. Its very simple, but everything is working beautifully.
In discussing the goals of the sequence, Chase claims that its primary purpose was establishing the series world in New Jersey nothing more, nothing less. Except that, as with most of The Sopranos, the facts dictate our reading. In this case, the fact that, as he puts it: We were not dealing with Rome, we were dealing with one of the provinces. And that was the most important thing for him as Ernst does for Transparent and Wall does for Thrones, Chase stresses that there were never really alternate concepts, or at least none that were seriously considered.
Perhaps thats because once a title sequence lands, its impossible to imagine the show any other way. They simply become a necessary part of the foundation. In discussing standout title sequences with Wall, I mention the opening of Cheers, which I, admittedly, dont much care for. He thinks about it for a moment. Its not good or bad, he says. Its just iconic.
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