10 great modern TV title sequences

Top 10 Juliette Harrisson 8 Jan 2013 - 07:01

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. 

10. Fringe 

Music? Original theme by JJ Abrams.

Format? Animation.

Mood? Mysterious.

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. 

9. Elementary

Music? Original theme by Sean Callery.

Format? Live action, but featuring no actors.

Mood? Intellectual.

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.

Format? Animation.

Mood? Irreverent.

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.

Mood? Fast-paced.

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).

Mood? Slapstick.

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. 

5. Dexter

Music? Original theme by Rolfe Kent.

Format: Live action featuring the title character.

Mood? Violent.

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.

Format? Animation.

Mood? Dark.

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. 

3. Rome 

Music? Original theme by Jeff Beal

Format? Combined live action and animation.

Mood? Grubby.

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.

Format? Animation.

Mood? Epic.

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.

Format? Montage.

Mood? Sexy.

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.

 

Disqus - noscript

the best title sequences are those that take less than 30 seconds, like SG:U or Lost. Ones like Dexter take too damn long and just bore me

Ill be honest - I just scrolled down first to check you had listed Game of Thrones! Agree with No 1. True Blood has an excellent opener although I admit Ive seen it so many times I tent to skip it on the itunes

Too old to be on the list obviously but does anyone else remember the title sequence from Alexei Sayle's Stuff wherein a young handsome bloke was prosthetically enhanced to resemble our titular hero, also trading in his red sports car for a beat up moped? Not seen it since I was a kid but that used to get me every time. Also possibly too old but Garth Marenghi's Darkplace had a pretty amusing intro.

Gotta say I think carnivale should have been on this list

Notable exceptions: American Horror Story, where it's a scare in its own right, and Carnivale, as noted by Pip, which although it's pre-2007 should have been in the last one and was overlooked! Great list and fun to see, title sequence design looked like a dying art in the days of heroes/lost but I think it's a very important way of setting tone and is good to see on the rise again.

Downton Abbey sequence is also fantastic.

I love AHS's titles too and it really does have that ability to set you on edge before you even get to the story.

Dexter, True Blood and Game of Thrones are indeed fantastic. Long, yes, but great works of art in their own right. For the past few seasons True Blood's credits have been the best part of the episodes. Mad Men is probably the best example of fitting quite a lot into a very short space of time as well.

I also have a soft spot for the Deadwood credits as well.

A good opening title sequence can really help set you up for the show and as with AHS and Dexter it gives you a short period of abstract reveling in the show before plunging into the storyline.

Sorry, Homeland is meant to be 'physically uncomfortable to watch', because it reflects Carrie's mind. It's my number one by miles. True Blood and Game of Thrones just have to move down.

How can you not include Deadwood? I know it hasn't been on tv for a few years but it is without a doubt my favorite.

I can't stand the pointless stings like Lost, Hero's and Breaking Bad. It's the prefect opportunity to set up the atmosphere of a show.

The intro and Outro to Red Dwarf are classic.
For some reason I can't see the fuss about Game of Thrones (the intro love the show) but Dexter is unskippable for me, has to be watched every time even if watching a few episodes on the trot.

It was too old, unfortuantely, but I know there's a lot of love for it! It would have been on there if the list had gone back further than 2007.

I hate it when the opening titles get cut short just to go straight to the episode. I quite like the opening for Archer.

how could you overlook smallville

You forgot to mention the imagery on the bands around the globe on the Game of Thrones one reflecting the history of Westeros! Brill attention to detail, I adore that opening sequence. If you think it's epic on the small screen, you need to see it on a full size wall :D My partner wanted a projector instead of a TV and this was the first thing I wanted to see on it!

No mention at all for The Wire?

ahh, missed the 'last 5 years bit'

Also, and i may be wrong here, but doesnt the intro also show us which locations will be used during the episode?

I really liked the opening of Caprica. I felt it did a great job of introducing all the main characters along with the basic story lines of the entire show in a matter of seconds.

Really surprised that Sherlock isn't here. Very stylish, great music and sets the stage beautifully.

'Chuck' not even getting an honorable mention?

The list is definitely missing Breaking Bad. The music and graphics fit the show perfectly. The best part is that it only lasts around 15 seconds. Yeah, the Game of Thrones intro is epic and cool, but it's also nearly 2 minutes long. If I watch the show every week, I would rather have a short intro like Breaking Bad and an extra 90 seconds of plot than an epic, 2 minute intro that I have to sit through every week. Sure, Game of Throne's intro sets the mood, but so does Breaking Bad's cold open and, unlike an intro, the cold open actually contains plot.

wa ke ke DUH DUH DUH DUH wa ke ke DUH DUH DUH DUH scrape BOM, BOM BOM, scrape

The Game of Thrones intro gives a lot of information otherwise needed to be intergrated in the plot of each episode. If you pay close attantion, you will see that the intro shows us the locations of where the story is taking place at that moment. That way you have a reminder where everybody is in this world.

I remember when the SciFi Channel (now SyFy) gave Stargate SG-1 and Atlantis episodes only a title card. This lasted only a few weeks, because of fan uproar. Where are they in this list anyway? They had beautifull music!

I don't watch Game of Thrones, I was just using it as an example of a long title sequence. If it gives information relevant to each episode, then it at least justifies being that long.

I would still make my original point, but use a different show, like True Blood which has a 90 second into. If the intro is the same every week, then I don't want to sit through an into of that length every week when it takes away time from the actual show.

What, no Rubicon?

I know it was canceled and everything but that doesn't make the titles any less awesome.

I cannot believe the grounbreaking sequence of Six Feet Under has been left out (maybe they wanted to leave just one Allan Ball series?).

Archer

What about Carnivale? That had a beautiful, mysterious and symbolism-laden title sequence.

Rubicon should've been on the list for sure. Game of Thrones is ok, but it looks too much like a rendering software demo. Walking Dead titles and music gave me the creeps, even when the show itself didn't.

I wouldn't call the fact that BB's title sequence is only 15 seconds a selling point (that'd make the Lost and Heroes title sequences brilliant). It does the job well, and it doesn't diminish the episode, but it can hardly be a masterpiece when it's so short. True, some shows have title sequences that are far too long (as lovely as the Dexter title sequence is, at nearly 2 minutes it really is too long. When you include the 'Previously On's, it has in the past taken more than 5 minutes to get to any new material).

For a half hour show the title sequence should be about 30 seconds (slightly under, but not by too much). For a 45 minute-60 minute show (or longer) it should be between half a minute and a minute.

(also, disappointed that Animaniacs didn't show up on the previous list. What a tune. What a mood setter).

I'm not saying that Breaking Bad's into is genius or even that's appropriate for every show. I'm just saying that it fits it's own show perfectly, which I think is the definition of a great title sequence. I would say that Lost is in the same category. It fit the show perfectly. Neither are flashy or elaborate, but they fit the show. You know you are going to have a cold open that will set the tone for the episode or tease something that will happen later, then a brief title sequence, and then the episode starts.

The title of the article isn't title sequence that are brilliant or masterpieces. It's title sequences that are great. I think Breaking Bad, and yeah even Lost, had title sequences that served as seques to carry momentum from the cold open to the show. Neither show needed something flashy or elaborate. Something like Game of Thrones, which appropriate for it's own show, would have taken you out of Breaking Bad.

Just to be clear, I wouldn't say Lost belongs on this list at all. I didn't even mean to end up defending it as much as I did.

Fringe is easily my favourite. Not overtly long unlike True Blood, Game of Thrones and Dexter which are great but I find myself skipping them each time I'm watching an episode.

Carnivale, in my view, would be the all time number 1 title sequence for a show. I feel Doctor Who has lost it's creepiness since the Hartnell era.

Sherlock?

Hmm, don't think I'd classify the True Blood as "sexy"--it's got decaying animals, etc.--I'd say more like "disgusting". I actually hate the True Blood opening and just FF through it. Many of these cable shows need to cut down and update their excessively long opening sequences--even ones I used to like, like Dexter, I've grown tired of. When these shows start at 9 or 10, I don't want to sit thru 5 mins of opening sequence and recap just to finally get to the show!

Teen Wolf is another gorgeous one, particularly for being so short. Granted, it's probably another excuse to get its leading men shirtless, but still, it's well done.

I'm gonna add The Walking Dead to this list. It's not too long and the quick pace of the music nails the sense of urgency and desperation.

Oh, for pity's sake, you children.

Six Million Dollar Man

(Game of Thrones, my arse...)

So do we not make great TV intros in the UK? These are all American. No Doctor Who, no Sherlock (which has a better intro the its US remake). What's going on?

I understand, and I can understand the desire to carry on the momentum from the cold open. I also understand wanting to see an extra minute or so of material in the actual episode, rather than a 45-60 second set piece that we've already seen before.

My point is; they can't then be great. They can be fitting, yes, (and Breaking Bad's certainly is), but they can't be great. My reason for mentioning Lost and Heroes is that I get bugged by TV shows that don't seem to care enough to make a decent title sequence, and so jut slap the words on the screen in a fancy way and then move on. They won't even try to make a decent, memorable, noticeable title sequence, which for me is important. There's a lot of that about unfortunately, and I always find myself disappointed when, say, 'Go On' has just a title card and then into the show (I even feel disappointed when the odd Community episode just shows the paper unfolding on the title and finishes). When you look at shows like Animaniacs or The Simpsons and see just how enjoyable the title sequences are, as well as being all-encompassing for the content and the tone of their respective shows, it's almost awe-inspiring.

The Breaking Bad title sequence is good. Perhaps even perfect. But it certainly isn't great, and I can't help feeling that (as with any show with that short a title sequence) there was a bigger and better one they could have found.

(If you want an example of an utterly brilliant recent title sequence, go to the one for 'Episodes'. It's a masterpiece. It's just a shame that the title, the characters and the dialogue are so bad)

Dexter's is definitely too long, but Lost's is a waste. They didn't even try, it's shameful, really.

Just a shame that sense of urgency and desperation has to cut away to a bunch of people standing around a farm looking bored

No My Little Pony: Friendship is magic still? Tsk.

Brillinant choices, top two
SPOT ON !

Yeah, the music didnt really fit for season 2 I have to admit. But for the current season it feels very appropriate again.

S.O.A. Sons of Anarchy! Short and sweet and good lyrics. All time Rockford Files, always a message on the answering machine and such a recognizable tune still played.

I loved Rubicon! Shame AMC forshame!

Yes the Wire, and different every year.

The Sopranos, The Wire, Boardwalk Empire and Justified all have great title sequences. None of them are on this list but Elementary is? Sigh.

Boardwalk Empire should definitely be on the list.

I would like to mention The Killing's opening. It's wonderfully dark and moody.

Any show that opens with a shot of a dog's arse gets a thumbs up from me.

Hang on, perhaps I'd better rephrase that...

Seriously, No Twin Peaks? No American Horror Story or AHS: Asylum? You suck.

Let's not forget the lovely graphics and awesome music by Bear McCreary for Human Target (season one). Delicious!

Six Feet Under had a game changing opening sequence, you only have to look at Downton Abbey to see its influence!

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