10 great modern TV title sequences
Juliette selects ten of TV's most impressive title sequences from the last five years...
Back in 2007, we listed our Top 10 Title Sequences of All Time. But here’s the problem with All-Time Greatest lists – people will just keep on making more TV shows! And so, the time seemed ripe to produce an updated list honouring some of the great title sequences featured in shows that have been on air at some point within the last five years (regardless of premiere date – some started earlier but continued until at least 2007).
What makes a great title sequence? There are numerous shows with fantastic theme songs (Red Dwarf), evolving sequences (Fringe), handy introductions to the show (Once Upon a Time) or humour (Futurama). But for a truly great title sequence, all these things have to come together with an added splash of sheer invention and creativity, resulting in a sequence that perfectly expresses the spirit of the show (preferably without inducing headaches or nausea – Homeland has a brilliantly inventive title sequence that, unfortunately, can be physically uncomfortable to watch). Any sequence that simply shows clips of the actors in character, no matter how well acted or artistically put together, will not make the cut here.
The sequences in this list all stand out because theme song, imagery and mood have all come together perfectly to introduce viewers to the theme and tone of the show, and because to that perfect combination is added an extra spark of unpredictable brilliance.
Music? Original theme by JJ Abrams.
How does it reflect the show? Fringe’s opening credits, much like the show itself, started out as an effective but not overly original X-Files homage. However, much like the show, the opening credits have evolved over the course of the series to reflect changes in plot, setting and tone. Season two first introduced a new credit sequence in the brilliant 1980s-styled opening to Peter, as well as subtly altering the floating words telling us which branches of ‘fringe science’ we should expect to see. But it was in season three that the series started to use small alterations to the credit sequence to tell us which universe we were in, culminating in the brilliant title sequence first seen in season four’s Letters of Transit and used throughout season five. This sequence throws us into a chilling new world in which ‘fringe science’ now consists of concepts like ‘individuality,’ ‘imagination’ and ‘free will’ and human beings are penned in to a barbed-wire surrounded prison camp. Fringe has changed more over five seasons than most shows might in ten, but the sense of continuity within that change provided by the title sequence helps to remind viewers of the show’s history as well as where it is now.
Music? Original theme by Sean Callery.
Format? Live action, but featuring no actors.
How does it reflect the show? Elementary needs to strike a balance between reflecting the Sherlock Holmes stories by which it’s inspired and appearing modern and fresh, and this title sequence does a good job of just that. The music is a little bit Victorian, a little bit modern and a little bit like the theme tune for the British version, while the inanimate objects featured are modern but not too modern, the smashing glass and smashing portrait imagery violent but not too violent. The spark of invention that earns it a place on this list, though, is the use of a Rube Goldberg machine to reflect the intricate and methodical way in which Sherlock’s mind works, a process that appears extraordinary to most but is based in pure logic and mathematics.
8. Desperate Housewives
Music? Original theme by Danny Elfman.
How does it reflect the show? Desperate Housewives’ opening sequence uses famous art works or styles to reflect the work of housewives from Adam and Eve onwards, culminating in a Pop Art housewife snapping and actually attacking her husband (which is mildly disturbing, to be honest) and smashing into the modern ‘desperate’ housewives of the title. Danny Elfman is the perfect composer for the music, which has the manic, surreal air of his frequent collaborator Tim Burton’s work. The series’ irreverent tone is set by images like Mr Arnolfi of the famous Arnolfi Portrait throwing away a banana skin, while the eternal tension between husband and wife is probably expressed best by the opening image of Adam and Eve.
7. The Big Bang Theory
Music? The History of Everything (composed for the show) by the Barenaked Ladies.
Format? Photo montage.
How does it reflect the show? The Big Bang Theory’s opening credit sequence whizzes through all of history, with a focus on scientific and technological developments, until we smash into an image of our favourite geeks (and Penny) sitting on their couch eating takeout. Basically, it gives the impression that all of human evolution has been leading up to the eventual birth and academic work of our core group (and, er, cheesecake, represented by Penny). Sheldon would approve. The addition of Amy and Bernadette in season six improves the sequence enormously by including women in a role other than Object To Be Preyed Upon By Leonard, and including women among the show’s scientific characters. Now if they could just throw in a female character with geek interests of the science fiction and fantasy variety as well as science itself, it would be nearing perfection…
6. The Simpsons
Music? Original theme by Danny Elfman. For all your jaunty, irreverent theme music needs, contact Danny Elfman.
Format? Animation (obviously).
How does it reflect the show? The Simpsons’ opening credit sequence, after more than twenty years, is iconic, providing a quick, character-based introduction to the Simpsons family and keeping things fresh with varying blackboard gags and couch gags. The sequence is so famous and so central to the show that over the years it has been recreated in live action, morphed into a Game of Thrones-style sequence and guest-designed by Bansky. The title sequence was updated in 2009 to reflect Springfield’s ever-growing population and to move it into shiny HD, but it’s the simpler opener used 1990-2009 that most of us know and love.
Music? Original theme by Rolfe Kent.
Format: Live action featuring the title character.
How does it reflect the show? Dexter’s opening sequence is a stroke of genius; a man’s morning breakfast routine, filmed in such a way as to make the whole thing appear violent and reminiscent of a murder scene. But in a light, quirky way – the jaunty theme music (not unlike the themes for Sherlock and Elementary) emphasises the blackly comic side of the show, while the dripping blood, dripping ketchup, spurting orange juice and sliced bacon emphasises the violent side. Beautifully put together and the ideal introduction to a show about a sympathetic serial killer.
4. Mad Men
Music? A Beautiful Mine by RJD2.
How does it reflect the show? Mad Men’s opening sequence is extraordinarily audacious, showing a man plunging from a high rise building (committing suicide?) and being caught James Bond-credit-sequence-style by an elegant woman’s foot. It’s extremely dark while at the same time clearly not designed for something gritty or particularly violent. The animation style perfectly captures the 1960s and 1960s-style movie credit sequences in an homage to Saul Bass’s classic style while the music suggests both 1960s sophistication and underlying darkness.
Music? Original theme by Jeff Beal
Format? Combined live action and animation.
How does it reflect the show? Just sneaking into the criteria for this list (Rome consisted of two seasons aired in 2005 and 2007), Rome’s title sequence was too good to leave out. One of the series’ selling points was that it was more down and dirty than previous Roman-set shows, grubbier and more authentic, following ‘ordinary’ as well as elite characters. The opening title sequence reflects that perfectly, using a well-known aspect of both ancient Rome and modern cities – graffiti – to demonstrate that this would be sexy, violent and down to earth. The images themselves look exotic but authentic, drawn largely from ancient myths, and there’s even a nod to the BBC’s classic I, Claudius’ opening sequence in the snake that curls across one wall. Overall, it’s a feast for the eyes focused on death and sex – just like the show.
2. Game of Thrones
Music? Original theme by Ramin Djawadi.
How does it reflect the show? Game of Thrones’ title sequence fulfils an impressive double purpose, both artistic and practical, as it introduces viewers to the series’ world while providing a beautiful series of images. Programme makers, journalists and reviewers may feel the need to remind viewers almost constantly that the series operates in a very different world from The Lord of the Rings, but the opening title sequence is one part of the show that is unashamedly epic fantasy. Maps have been an essential part of sword and sorcery novels since JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis and both the BBC Narnia series and the Lord of the Rings films made liberal use of sweeping shots across maps of their worlds. These credits’ journey across the map of Westeros together with that pounding music and medieval-style design reassure viewers that while it may lack hobbits or marsh-wiggles, this is still high fantasy. There will be dragons.
1. True Blood
Music? Bad Things by Jace Everett.
How does it reflect the show? The fight for the top spot was a close affair between True Blood and Game of Thrones, but we’ve picked True Blood for sheer inventiveness and creativity – for managing perfectly to encapsulate the mood and feel of the show while featuring only a few frames directly connected to the series, or, indeed, vampires (the ‘God Hates Fangs’ sign). The red lips inhaling smoke towards the end that have been used in the show’s branding are the closest the sequence comes to vampiric activity, but the imagery here is much broader and beautifully evokes the South for us foreigners. Images of birth and death, light and dark and of ecstasy both sexual and religious express the mood and themes of the show in such a way that the audience knows what to expect even without vampire-specific information. And the icing on the cake is that wonderful song – what better choice could there possibly be for a show about having sex with hot vampires than a song declaring, in ultra-suggestive tones, ‘I wanna do bad things with you?’
Honourable mention: The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air is, obviously, far too old to be included in this list. But we couldn’t let this topic go without at least a brief mention of a title sequence so beloved that an entire generation can still rap every word twenty years later.