“Best” Opening Credit Sequences, Part 2
Continuing from the last post with my listing of some notable credit sequences, I now turn to Best Thematic Rendering. I’ve got a bunch to list, so let’s subcategorize:
- Best Showtime Credit Sequences
- Best One-Off Viewing
- Best Overall Thematic Introduction
1. Best Showtime Credit Sequences
Since these two posts began in response to an article glowing about HBO’s credit sequences, and since I’ve said that I was motivated to write this partly to reject the idea that HBO is the best the business has, let me be provocative here and say that all three of these Showtime sequences are better than any of HBO’s. See, HBO’s can too often get up their own ass (technical term), too interested in being deep and meaningful and beautiful that they don’t do a good enough job to introduce the show. In my previous post, I criticize True Blood as deceptive; though I like Game of Thrones’, it isn’t the best and in part because it’s too smitten with its CGI; Carnivale’s is amazing but suggests a way better show that had way more to say about its place in history than was delivered; and Rome’s cutesy graffiti grows tiresome. If one wanted to learn how to make opening credit sequences that actually introduce the show tonally, gesturing towards characters, themes, and issues therein, by contrast, I’d recommend one instead turn to these. In alphabetical order:
A superb sequence that tells you so much about the show and what it hopes to do. Images of Dexter’s wake-up routine are rendered as deeply disturbing in close-up, suggesting the violence that is so a part of his everyday life while also saying something about the show’s intentions to get up close and personal. The music slides from eerie and unnerving to angry and aggressive to somewhat playful, and Dexter’s little eye-twinkle at the end further announces that the show will play with darkness, not revel in it. And thus it both warns away squeamish viewers with its aestheticization of violence and signals its dark comic potential through its playfulness. Moreover, it’s about him and him alone, leaving us with no confusion about the show’s hierarchy of interest.
Only lasting two seasons, Huff was a favorite of mine at the time, but quite apart from the show was its fantastic opening sequence. It’s a show about a shrink with his own issues, and we spend a lot of time inside Huff’s mind, as when we continually encounter his imaginary / hallucinated friend. Comparing it to Dexter’s is illustrative for while that one is so much about Dexter, this one communicates that the show is about Huff’s mind, or the mind in general, more than about Huff per se. If one listens to the discordant soundtrack, too, one picks up random strands of dialogue and stress points picked up by Huff from other characters, and so although no character is officially introduced, character relationships are nevertheless set up, albeit imagistically and minimalistically.
Weeds, Season 1
This is just a wonderfully fun opening sequence. A show about a drug-dealing widow in which we’re meant to like her from the get-go could potentially have its work cut out for it, but this intro does a great job of setting up suburban conformity, pleasantness, and normality as boring, monotonous, and contemptible, so that we’re ready for a mother and family who don’t play by television sitcom rules, and so that anyone who really wants more Full House will realize this show isn’t for them. It’s also interesting for showing us several people, but not the show’s characters; the suggestion is that we’ve already seen the people in the intro sequence over and over again, whereas this show will focus on the ones we haven’t seen. The song and Malvina Reynolds’ voice are quirky-indy, further characterizing the series itself, and as said above, it’s funny, so the genre is clear. Season Two brought in other singers, and the sequence was gone by the time the characters left Agrestic (perhaps understandably, though still regrettably), but not before the fire that torched the town led to a fun variation with everything on fire.
2. Best One-Off Viewing
A really good sequence keeps giving, so that it helps not just newbies but returning viewers and fans get in the mood. I’m not saying these don’t do that job, but their powers, for me, lie more in the first viewing. In alphabetical order:
Buffy the Vampire Slayer
It may seem mean to put this sequence in this category, because it changes so often, but it’s here because it’s an amazing feat of fast editing that probably shows more images of its characters than any other opening sequence. Thus, if you’ve never seen Buffy, the opening credit sequence tells you a vast amount about the the tone, the characters, the interrelationships, the mythology, and – especially important for a show like this – the hybrid genre.
Dead Like Me
Whimsical, fun, and funny, this collection of Grim-Reaper-doing-unReaperlike-things is good for many laughs, but the problem with jokes in an intro sequence is that they lose their power in subsequent tellings/showings. So I’d never call this a superb sequence, but it’s well worth watching.
Friday Night Lights
Kind of like Buffy, FNL is an interesting genre hybrid. In this case, it’s teen drama, sports drama, and (if we can call this a genre?) “quality drama.” All of which are communicated in the opening. We’re introduced to several specific characters, but also to the general class/type of characters in the show, we know football will feature prominently but that the relationships around the field will matter as much if not more, and the music by Explosions in the Sky and grainy, documentary filming style label it as “quality,” or at least as different in ways. For bonus points, all those shots of Dillon tell us that the show will be about place. I can happily watch this again, so it’s not bad in subsequent viewings, but its key powers come on first viewing.
There’s one important thing in this intro sequence, namely music that doesn’t sound like the music for a sitcom at all. Depending upon the episode, one could easily find oneself embroiled in pretty standard, bawdy sitcom fare with comic misunderstandings and the like. But the music puts you on notice that the show has a more pensive, brooding side to it. It may cut the lyrics – “Suicide is painless” – of the film’s version, but it still makes it clear that we should be prepared for serious issues, not just yet more innuendo at Hot Lips’ expense.
3. Best Overall Thematic Introduction
These are just excellent intro sequences. If you didn’t know the show, I’m convinced the sequence would tell you a lot; if you do, it gets you back in the mood. In alphabetical order:
Now that my daughter is watching Sesame Street occasionally, I see a new intro, but I’m going old school here. I’d suspect that any child raised on Sesame Street can’t but smile and feel happy upon hearing the song: it’s infectiously happy, it’s so obviously written and situated in a more optimistic time. Or, rather, its hopes to bring into being a world deserving of that optimism is clear, with images of kids roaming around both urban and rural spaces free of concern, playing with kids of other ages and races, exploring, learning, having fun. See this compilation of a few variations over time. Maybe some people think this is a bullshit choice, but the song makes me happy and it makes my daughter happy, so, like C for cookie, that’s good enough for me.
A masterful intro to the world of Springfield, setting up each family member (overworked Marge, bumbling Homer, precocious and underappreciated Lisa, unruly Bart, forgotten Maggie), buying itself cartoon license (with the ingot and the often spacy coach gag), communicating the genre (sitcom but with a twist) and tone (Elfman’s theme song helps set up the quirkiness), throwing in an allusion to the opening credits of The Flintstones to set itself up as the heir to that show’s primetime “for adults” cartoon legacy, often announcing its satirical and topical interests (via Bart’s blackboard lines), and even telling us the show, at heart, is kind of all about television (final image). And for the returning viewer, this is the only credit sequence I know of that builds in different elements to each iteration, with Bart’s blackboard lines and the couch gag changing (see a collection here), and with the latter sometimes destination TV in and of itself (see below for Banksy’s infamous version):
And c’mon, did you seriously think I wouldn’t pick this one??
The Twilight Zone
Sure, opening credit sequences have gotten fancier, but for sheer effectiveness and recall, this must be one of the most successful in television history. Serling sets the stage wonderfully for an anthology of weird, creepy, spooky, and odd. Much-quoted (both the words and the music) to the point of being absolutely iconic, any list not including this is being unfair.
~~Tags: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dead Like Me, Dexter, Friday Night Lights, Huff, lists, M*A*S*H, opening credit sequences, Sesame Street, The Simpsons, Twilight Zone, Weeds