Setting the scene… or not

I’ve got a request to make of executive producers, or creative directors, or whoever it is that makes these decisions for television – stop putting title sequences on your shows.

That’s not to say I don’t love a good theme song and credits, I really do. But there are a lot of shows out there at the moment that seem to at the last minute before the first episode is delivered for airing realise they never filled the 30second place holder where the titles are supposed to go. An executive producer throws out last minute instructions to pick a random piece of music with no tune, throw together a montage of explosions and characters looking moody “and make sure my name is big”.

In the great days of old title sequences were about setting the scene for your show, give the audience a helping hand picking up what you were trying to say. Remember all those great opening themes and voice-overs you got on things like Star Trek and The Outer Limits? It wasn’t until I thought about it that I realised how amazing the title sequence for M*A*S*H was, it wasn’t a bright chirpy tune to put you in the mood for a comedy, it was sombre and quiet, reinforcing the sadness of the drama behind the comedy. More recently, Firefly did a similar thing, reinforcing the western feel that might have been over-shadowed by the science fiction.

The primary inspiration for this article came from the fact I watched an episode of NCIS: Los Angeles, followed by an episode of Blue Bloods and couldn’t help but see that the thing the shows had in common were two absolutely awful title sequences.

Standing alone the title sequences are both awful, loud cliché music, cheesy explosions, melodramatic posing from the actors and unimaginative text. The biggest crime though is how badly they fit with their shows. NCIS will usually jump from a dramatic reveal of a murder or crime straight into loud obnoxious music, Blue Bloods will jump from gritty and modern New York straight into a title sequence from the 80s. Knowing that each title sequence is coming leaves me anxiously hovering over the remote control so that I can fast-forward (god bless Sky+) before the opening chord intrudes on my viewing.

Most shows at the moment thankfully don’t bother with titles at all, taking five seconds for a splash screen and getting on with the show. Grey’s Anatomy used to have credits but rapidly got rid of them. Maybe it’s a bit surprising that Glee, a show all about music and presentation doesn’t have a theme song, but then how could they possibly pick just one song?

Some shows manage to make a surprising impact with even the most minimal splash screens, maybe Lost is the first that really got it right, showing exactly how much can be communicated with just a chord, a font and a fade. Supernatural adopts the same system, just the shows name, a sound and a special effect, but adds a variation by changing the effect and sound each season (and the occasional extra special version – see the collection). Even Brothers & Sisters with its simple sliding text and soothing couple of bars of music sets the correct tone for the show.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t however comment on a few shows that do manage to make title sequences work. For some reason channels like HBO and Showtime really make an effort and put a lot of thought into what they want their titles to say about their shows. The majority of things that would appear on my list of favourite credit sequences past (Six Feet Under, Carnivale, Deadwood, Dead Like Me) and present (Dexter, Sons of Anarchy, Boardwalk Empire) aired on HBO or Showtime in the US. All absolutely beautiful title sequences that really suit their shows. There would be a clip of the Sons of Anarchy intro here… but there doesn’t seem to be a version on YouTube.

Lie to Me – I can’t help but smile every time that woman’s eyes light up

Big Bang Theory – I don’t watch the show (I know I probably should, it’s on my list, I just haven’t got to it yet) but I love the titles!

Fringe – the standard intro is nothing special after a couple of seasons, but this year they’ve done a few alternate versions to fit with their alternate themes, including this genius one for their flashback to the 80s episode.

(Thanks to Smashing Magazine and TV.com for their collection of links.)

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  1. I agree that a lot of title sequences aren’t particularly good, but there have been enough decent ones that I’d be sorry to see them go altogether. For instance, when you see Atlantis rising, I genuinely think it’s beautiful, and I’ve bought a few soundtrack albums (e.g. for Star Trek).

    If the titles show cast names, I think it’s also a good idea to show the character names: that way, it’s easier for new viewers to work out who’s who, without clunky dialogue. This has been a particular problem in superhero comics, and I suspect it partly explains why characters used to refer to themselves in the 3rd person. (“Now Hulk will smash you!”) Birds of Prey has an interesting approach, where they put a caption next to each character the first time they appear in each issue, showing name(s) and relevant info, e.g. “Barbara Gordon, formerly Batgirl, now Oracle, provides information to the superhero community.”

    One problem with title sequences is cast changes. E.g. in Stargate Atlantis, the person in charge disappeared from the titles before it had been announced in the show, which gave the game away a bit. So, something like Lost has an advantage there, where the cast list can easily change each episode. On the other hand, the various Star Trek spin-offs just showed text (no photos) during their titles, so they had the same flexibility.

    The main downside to the Lost approach is that the credits intrude on the program. Then again, I think this has always been a problem for American TV/film; at school, people used to joke that you could recognise an American program because you’d been watiching it for 5 minutes and they still had credits appearing on the screen. UK TV used to be better about that, but the same thing seems to be happening over here as well now. I don’t object to subtitles on principle, e.g. I’m happy to read text that establishes a scene (“Moscow, 1942”) or has a translation of foreign dialogue. However, the cast list etc. just get in the way. I remember Joss Whedon’s commentary for the Buffy episode “The Body”, where he said that they added a frivolous scene after the title sequence just to kill time while all the text flashed up; I think it’s unfortunate that he wasn’t allowed to ditch the text altogether.

    The obvious alternative would be to put all the extra info (e.g. writer, guest stars) into the end credits. Unfortunately, those routinely get squeezed and/or truncated. Have you ever watched “Screenwipe”? I think Charlie Brooker comes across as rather an unpleasant person, but he makes some valid points about credit squeezing here:

    You mentioned the clash between the first few minutes of the episode and the title sequence. Back in Ye Olde Days, the titles were the first thing you’d see, so that wouldn’t be a problem. I assume it changed for the same reason as the credit squeezing, i.e. the TV channels desperately want to grab people’s attention and stop them changing channel. As I recall, Quantum Leap used to have two sets of titles: the brief “saga cell” to explain the basic premise, then a couple of minutes to set the scene, then the main titles.

    Ah well, I don’t watch much TV nowadays, so this isn’t a major problem for me.

    • What I was trying to say (and utterly failing to do so clearly) was that a bad title sequence is a lot more damaging to my enjoyment of a show than not having one at all. While I appreciate good titles, I don’t miss them when they’re not there and I absolutely hate the bad ones.

      I don’t notice the text on the bottom of the screen at all these days, to the extent that I’d often quite like to know the name of the episode but miss it because I’ve developed ‘text blindness’ so that the credits don’t bother me.

  2. Hi, it’s been a while since I dropped by! I’m inclined to agree. I don’t mind a simple splash screen, I hate a bad intro, but I do love a good one. It’s just a shame that time constraints mean many shows do without them these days. I’ve been doing an occasional series on classic TV intros, and it strikes me how few of them are from recent shows – and those that are are typically from cable shows like The Sopranos or True Blood, where the constraints aren’t the same.

    You’ll find some of my favourites under the category here:
    http://slouchingtowardsthatcham.com/category/classic-tv-intros/

    Blue Bloods’ titles are particularly meh. Although, looking at your previous post, I do like the show more than you do. It’s not ground-breaking, but I rather like it.

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