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Film Independent Thu 8.25.2016

The Must-List: Six TV Title Sequences that Add Art to Binge-Watching

Way back in July (which, can you believe it’s back-to-school time already?) we devoted an entire Must-List to discussing our favorite movie title sequences. And just like Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac Parts 1 and 2, here we are just a little more than one month later with that original masterwork’s follow-up, this time taking on TV opening credits.

Though the screens may be smaller, TV title sequences are often just as indelibly seared on viewers’ imaginations, worming their way into our subconscious by virtue of sheer repeat exposure. Think about it: you’ve probably seen your favorite movie (and by extension, its opening title sequence) only around 20 times or so. But you’ve probably seen hundreds of episodes of shows you might not even like that much, each one opening with the same repetitive, hypnotic jumble of old show clips, theme music and clockwork commercial cues.

But just as in film, over the years TV opening credits sequences have gradually become more and more elaborate and creative. Gone are the days of the freshly scrubbed 1950s sitcom family, each taking a turn finding the camera and freezing in place as their performer’s name appears in elegant Betty Crocker calligraphy above their Kinoscope midsections. These days, TV credit sequences exist at the intersection of cutting-edge graphic design, motion graphics and experimental filmmaking—and can go viral at the .gif of a hat.

For this week’s Must-List, we asked our Film Independent staff and blog contributors to tell us their favorite TV title sequences, old and new. So set the season pass on the DVR and binge this sterling collection of TV credits sequences.

Six Feet Under (2001-2005, dir. Danny Yount)

HBO’s life-affirming series about life, death and so much else is (in my opinion) one of the few TV shows to have an absolute perfect run from start to finish. Everything about the show—from the cinematography, to the acting, to the characters arcs and storylines—was full of beauty. Which for being such a dark and dramatic series, had to have been a challenge to execute. The opening credits are similarly unforgettable, setting the tone of the show so perfectly and hypnotizing you the minute you sit down to watch. Set to a placid score created by Thomas Newman, the sequence features a body as it travels from morgue to burial, with images of nature spliced in. Life and death are both symbolized throughout the opening frames—the main star being a black crow, which appears at the beginning and again later, right as the title appears. I like to think of the crow as the figure that brings us along the journey to meet, and become captivated by, the Fisher family. 

-Chris Lombardi, Film Independent blogger

Dexter (2006-2013, dir. Eric Anderson)

For those of you unfamiliar with “America’s favorite serial killer”, the deliciously chilling Showtime series Dexter revolves around a forensics expert who doubles as a murderer. The opening credits are so ingeniously unsettling; preparing the viewer for the stylish carnage to follows. The credits follow Dexter’s morning routine, observing such seemingly innocuous chores as shaving, making breakfast, flossing and getting dressed. Most of the shots are extreme close-ups, which highlight every color, movement and detail of Dexter’s somehow calculated actions. The normal mundane routine is magnified and comes across as almost gory. Watching Dexter slowly shave his neck, carefully slice his meat and wrap floss tightly around his fingers to the eerie-yet-almost-upbeat score truly emphasizes the bizarre pleasure he gets from killing—and that we get from watching him kill.

-Kaia Placa, Film Independent blogger

Transparent (2014-present, dir. Rhys Ernst)

The most impressive thing about Rhys Ernst’s opening titles for Amazon’s Transparent is just how well this brief, deceptively simple sequence manages to trigger universal feelings of nostalgia while remaining incredibly specific. Ernst’s moody, kaleidoscopic montage of archival drag queen footage, home movies, bar mitzvah videos and newsreel footage eerily conjures the specific feeling of leafing through the yellowed pages of a tear-stained family photo album on a wistful Sunday afternoon—a triumph of tonal control. The show’s note-perfect use of its retro-looking, Judy Bloom-ish title font certainly helps, as does Dustin O’Halloran’s melancholy theme music (which somehow gives the impression of being played on a toy piano, even though its not). Over the past year, I’ve been lucky enough to chat with Ernst not once but twice. During one of these conversations, I asked Ernst what his own favorite opening TV title sequence was. No spoilers for that interview, but I will say: there are two peaks involved.

-Matt Warren, Digital Content Manager

Weeds (2005-2012, dir. Robert Bradley and Thomas Cobb) 

Weeds, Showtime’s quirky comedy starring the incomparable Mary-Louise Parker, definitely has one of my favorite opening credit sequences of all time. Before she created Orange is the New Black, Jenji Kohan rose to fame with this addictive series featuring Parker as a widow who resorts to selling pot in order to support herself and her two eccentric, hormonal teenage sons. The opening credits change with every season, with a rotating series of images meant to represent the plot as it evolved. Season One’s titles capture the premise of the show perfectly: images of suburbia, where all the houses and people seem to look the same. Whether using animated drawings or photographed visuals, the credits always made me chuckle. But without a doubt, it’s the song “Little Boxes” that makes these sequences so memorable. Setting the tone for the oddball series, the unusual acoustic tune dates from 1962, written and performed by Malvina Reynolds. In some of the seasons, artists like Elvis Costello, Regina Spektor, Randy Newman, Jenny Lewis, Ben Folds, Joan Baez, Aimee Man and Billy Bob Thornton covered the opening track. That’s just to name a few, and doesn’t even include the bands—Linkin Park, The Shins, The Submarines and Death Cab for Cutie are just some of the many awesome artists who “blazed” their way onto the openings, but only Malvina who can be heard throughout each of the show’s eight seasons. (Chris Lombardi)

The Night Manager (2016, dir. Paul Kim and Patrick Clair)

The opening title sequence of The Night Manager epitomizes the exquisite masterpiece that is Susanne Bier and David Farr’s modern retelling of the 1993 John Le Carré spy thriller novel of the same title. A co-production of the BBC and AMC, the show garnered 12 Emmy nominations this year. The story pits former British soldier-turned-spy Jonathan Pine (Tom Hiddleston) against an atrocious and powerful international arms dealer, Richard Roper (Hugh Laurie). The credits start with a RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) that blasts off into the air and slowly morphs into a champagne glass. Then, the 20mm rounds fired from the Gatling-style cannon mounted on both sides of an AC-130 Spectre gunship spread outward in opposite directions, creating a semi-circle that joins to form a pearl necklace. In the final moments, the three vessels speeding along the high seas transform into torpedoes, and then disintegrate into bubbles back into the champagne glass. Gracefully embodying the tone, premise, and theme of the show, the opening titles are the consummate teaser of what’s to come in this astounding 6-part miniseries.

-Su Fang Tham, Film Independent blogger

Twin Peaks (1990-1991, titles by Pacific Title and Art Studio)

Know those memories of the uncanny you can look back on privately and still smile about? The title sequence of Twin Peaks works like this—it’s a vehicle for memories of the entire series, re-watching them taxis memories of the absurdist show right back into your present experience. The sequence first alternates uneasily between scenes of nature and industry in the fictional logging town, and then it dwells on robotic machinery that sharpens the teeth of the lumber saws. Nothing but banal sparks fly while the tacky, optimistic intro music gives you just the right reminder of the desire and dysfunction teeming below the surface of the everyday.

-Jeremy Philip Galen, Film Independent blogger

Thanks to the great website The Art of the Tile for once again acting as a secondary source for this article—be sure to check out their site for any and all information regarding, well, the art of the title.

What’s your favorite TV title sequence? Let us know in the comments, or share your picks with us on Facebook and Twitter.

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