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The art and evolution of TV title sequences

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Before cable television and streaming services came along, TV title sequences largely served a straightforward purpose: to set up the tone and backstory of a series, and or reveal the show’s stars. But as the quality of television series has grown, so too has the artistic intent and calibre of its opening title credits, many of which not only complement the themes and tone of the series they represent, but often stand alone as pieces of visual art.

“Here’s the story, of a man named Brady...” The opening title sequence of The Brady Bunch is perhaps one of television’s most iconic. Just as enduring too, was the approach of offering audiences heavy-handed exposition through song. After all, even in the 90s comedies like The Nanny and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air used the same technique. Exposition was big in title sequences, either through song, or cartoon caricature (I Dream of Genie) or straight-up narration like that in Star Trek or The A-Team. The 80s and 90s too had a predilection for jamming us much action and imagery into their title sequences, along with the obligatory hero shots of the show’s stars, like those of Baywatch, or Dr Quinn Medicine Woman.

In some sense, titles haven’t changed that much. Exposition is still important, after all credits are our entry point, and like film trailers can turn an audience on (or off), we can usually tell from a show’s title sequences whether we’re sold on the ride we’re about to embark on.

What has changed is how exposition is approached, and the willingness of networks like HBO to outsource the creation of these sequences, and get something a little edgier in return.

Just ask Australians Patrick Clair and Raoul Marks who created the stunning opening credits for True Detective. In an interview with Smith Journal, Clair spoke of his first conversation with the show’s creator Nic Pizzolatto, Clair picking up on Pizzolatto’s idea of using “broken and exploited landscapes as a metaphor for broken and exploited people”. Clair and Marks then produced a concept to reflect that idea, with “portraits where the actor’s faces were broken up by oil refineries, flames, sea creatures...”

The pair have since created further striking title sequences for AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire, which plays with the idea of impregnation and applies it to the personal computer revolution, and The Man in the High Castle for which they created a haunting sequence depicting a merging of Nazi, Japanese and American imagery to reflect the alternate universe wherein the Allies lost World War 2.

Title sequences nowadays then are perhaps more about contextualization than they are exposition. As the popular Stranger Things has showed us, they need not even be grandiose, just clever. Stranger Things opens by tracking the lines of the title’s neon lettering whilst foreboding synth throbs away, leading to the reveal of the title in a font many would immediately associate with the novels of Stephen King.

It's clever contextualisation, and that's something the best sequences do: providing a memorable introduction that subtly places the viewer in the world tonally, or perhaps even geographically like  Game of Thrones.

So, the ability for title sequences to provide that context is simply subtler nowadays. Manhattan for example takes the show’s storyline, that of the building of the atom bomb through the Manhattan project, and reflects that through technical diagrams. However the content of that technical imagery is replaced with ideas of social propriety to reflect the numerous relationships and marriages also central to the story. As the opening credits close, people turn to atoms – imagery that can have multiple interpretations. You see something similar in  Mad Men, which hints at the show being about the world of advertising, but also foreshadows the journey of the show’s main character Don Draper.

But where did all this start? While we may be tempted to credit prestige cable channels like HBO for both the TV renaissance and herlading a new standard of opening sequences such as The Sopranos, it’s hard to go past Twin Peaks for turning opening credits on their head. It simultaneously adheres to and defies the then expectations for opening credits. It's picturesque and inoffensive in once sense; giving you a vague yet haunting feel for the town of Twin Peaks, but story wise tells us very little bar the framed photo of Laura Palmer at the very end.

Besides that image, the opening is a mood piece - and a disassociated one at that; the green neon highlights of the title font and the plodding synth and bass at odds with the imagery of waterfalls and timbermills - it's as if Lynch is suggesting this is typical middle-America, but not as any audience knows it.

Lynch's approach of providing an intro that tonally give you hints about the show you're about to see, without forfeiting too much as to what it will actually be about, is done well by many series nowadays, from True Detective and Bosch to shows like Trapped, which forces us to draw parallels between humans and the landscapes we inhabit through microscope imagery of a dead body, and birds-eye landscape shots of Iceland.

An interesting side affect of audiences’ willingness to sit through cryptic sequences over and over is the almost red-herring type opening credits, sequences that push the envelope in terms of its links to the show. The original opening credits of HBO’s The Leftovers suggested something religious was behind the disappearance of two percent of the world’s population, but being a Damon Lindelof (Lost) series though, there are no easy answers and by season two the opening sequence had changed completely in style, tone and even meaning. Meanwhile other shows, like Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad spin-off Better Call Saul foregoes a sequence entirely, providing a minimalist title with a guitar lick, with imagery alternating each episode. AMC’s other new show Preacher, which could well have had a memorable title sequence as well, didn’t have any sort of title sequence until episode three, and even then provided one that breezes by with little fanfare.

Despite the minority of shows that take the minimalist approach, title sequences in the 21st century suggest the range of what we consider popular or commercial television is getting broader and broader, that long or short, cryptic or thematically clear; titles sequences are not just endured by audiences but enjoyed – adding to a show’s depth by providing a piece of visual art that can be appreciated along with, or separate from the show it represents. More importantly, and to both creators and audiences alike, that we now expect something more understated than obvious exposition.

- Garry Westmore