The title shot
Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s question: “What’s your favorite TV intro?”
A lot of positive developments have arisen from the proliferation of great television shows on cable and streaming services, but one that I’ve found especially gratifying is the return of the opening credit sequence. I’ve noted elsewhere that opening titles are becoming a lost art for movies—to the point where sometimes we don’t even get to see the title itself—and that’s all the more true for television, where executives are terrified, perhaps rightly so, that audiences will use any excuse to change the channel. As a result, it’s hard to imagine a sitcom these days getting the iconic extended credits of Cheers or The Simpsons, the latter of which rarely even survives syndication. (Admittedly, part of the problem is that the shows themselves are also getting shorter: with multiple commercial breaks eating into narrative time, a lengthy title sequence is a luxury that most showrunners can’t afford.) And that’s a real loss. For casual viewers, credits can be an annoyance, but for fans, they amount to a short film that ushers us instantly into the world that the show inhabits. If anything, that kind of transitional moment counts for even more on a network broadcast, in which shows with radically different tones and styles are often juxtaposed side by side.
Of course, it’s possible for a clever producer to make the most of the few seconds afforded by the network. The opening titles of Community make me happy every time I see them, and it occasionally toys with the format for special episodes, like “Advanced Dungeons and Dragons,” which is something I’d like to see more often. Still, it’s nice when a show has the breathing room to give us something really special. On cable, there’s less pressure to make every second count, and shows from The Sopranos to Game of Thrones have taken advantage of this fact. Netflix pushes it even further, with credits that can run to close to two minutes. Orange is the New Black goes a little far—as much as I like Regina Spektor’s theme song, I generally use it as an excuse to get a beer—but House of Cards has delivered an opening title sequence that instantly ranks among the greats. In some ways, it’s almost too good: House of Cards is both the most visually beautiful television series I’ve ever seen and deeply infuriating from a narrative perspective, and I always wish that the show itself lived up to the promise of its titles. (It helps that the credits are nothing but image and sound, without any dialogue to ruin the effect.)
What really fascinates me about opening title sequences is that they’re effectively a statement of intent, a declaration in forty seconds of what the show is going to be about, and it’s often completed before the series even knows its own strengths. The X-Files evolved in striking ways over its first few seasons, but those eerie credits always remained superbly right, which made it all the more jarring when they were revised after David Duchovny’s departure. Long before its glory days, The Simpsons stated in its title sequence that this was going to be the story about an entire city, populated with hundreds of memorable characters, a vast increase in ambition from those original shorts on The Tracey Ullmann Show. And the opening of Star Trek, perhaps the most iconic of them all, evoked a sense of adventure and possibility that the episodes themselves only intermittently managed to capture. Occasionally, a show will outdo its own credits, but find itself stuck with the opening sequence it used for the pilot: I find Mad Men‘s credits a little pedestrian, although it’s too late to change them now, and I occasionally wish Breaking Bad had used something more like the wonderful fan-made extended credits that were recently posted online
For all these reasons and more, I still believe that Twin Peaks had the most effective opening titles of any television series in my lifetime. This is partially an accident of my own biography: I first saw the show when I was just old enough to start taking these things seriously, and Angelo Badalamenti’s score—especially the songs sung by Julee Cruise—was an integral part of my life for a long time. Watching them now, they seem insolently long and uneventful: a shot of a bird, a sawmill, and a long pan across running water, accompanied by a comically interminable cast list and the instrumental version of “Falling.” Yet for me, that opening sequence is Twin Peaks, and when I go back again to watch the show itself, I’m sometimes surprised at how unevenly it captures the mood of those images, which have taken up permanent residence in my dreams. That music and those languorous shots are the emblem both of the show that was and what could have been. Perhaps that’s why opening titles are so precious: in the end, the countless hours of the series that we love are distilled down to a few images, a handful of memorable lines, and a sense of something lost, but when we put on a favorite episode and see those titles once more, we fall into it all over again.