We’ve come a long way from “Gilligan’s Island,” “The Brady Bunch,” and “Green Acres.” Those early title sequences had their charms of course, and their theme songs, which sometimes outlined the show’s premise, remain TV classics.
But by the turn of the millennium, the best TV dramas were opening with slick and impressive sequences that, like some of the more imaginative MTV videos, were more concerned with setting the mood than being literal. Just as the shows had become more movie-like, in terms of writing, budget, and star power, so did their openings. Like book jackets, they became a respected art form and not just an “Enter Here” sign.
Recently I’ve written about being smitten with the title sequence for an Apple TV+ series called “Bad Sisters,” with its Rube Goldberg-Like machine set to PJ Harvey’s cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Who by Fire.” Here are some of the others that have stood out since 2000.
“Severance” Some title sequences are more elliptical than others, evoking atmosphere rather than the specifics of the story line. Not the opening of “Severance,” which gives us Adam Scott’s Mark — who has separated his work memory from his personal memory — split in two and sometimes more. That mug on the office desk is overflowing with little Marks. The clip is a technical marvel, with Mark carrying balloons of himself, and it stirs up all the anxiety and mystery that define the show.
“True Blood” Set to Jace Everett’s raunchy and catchy “Bad Things,” this clip from the vampire drama is a breathtaking flash tour of gothic Louisiana — a swamp alligator, rotting cars and carcasses, roadhouse lust, ecstatic prayer, blood. It’s edited to a transfixing tension-and-release rhythm, a passionate visual tone poem that takes sex, death, desire, and fear as its subjects. It’s all so visceral and hot that, at points, the film itself appears to be burning up. “I wanna do bad things with you” indeed.
“The Man in the High Castle” The adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s alternate history was uneven, as we watched Germany and Japan divide America after winning World War II, but the title sequence was consistently haunting. On flickering footage as if from a 1940s newsreel, we see once-powerful icons of our country corrupted: a US map with a swastika, paratroopers falling into Mount Rushmore, and a wrecked Capitol building. The clip, an elegy to resistance, is a reminder of how essential song choice can be: Swedish singer Jeanette Olsson performs a fragile, childlike version of “Edelweiss,” a tribute (by Rodgers and Hammerstein, by the way) to a beloved homeland.
“Dexter” This one is a little slice of heaven — I mean hell. Set to a rousing wind-up-toy-like theme, it’s a model of the art of insinuation. The clip gives us probing close-ups of Dexter’s ordinary morning rituals, from flossing and frying sizzling slices of ham to grinding coffee and shaving, and it slyly suffuses them with sinister intent. The idea: Sociopathy and violence are hiding in even the most innocent of moments.
“The Morning Show” At first, I was annoyed by the perky, abstract, animated opening of this glossy mess of a drama. But I couldn’t keep my eyes off those colorful dots, all dancing and hopping around to “Nemesis” by Benjamin Clementine. Eventually, I realized that we have been invited, Rorschach-like, to project a story onto them. As the black dot moves among the crowds of multi-colored dots, it’s fighting to survive and prevail, just like the show’s characters are fighting their way through an intense and potentially self-destructive workplace. Go, little guy, go.
“Six Feet Under” The images in this elegant and unforgettable sequence include a cadaver on a gurney, a casket in a hearse, hands unclasping, lilies withering, gravestones, and (in a Joni Mitchell allusion?) a black crow flying in a blue, blue sky. So yeah, like the show it’s a sadly beautiful take on death and the journey to the final resting place, ending with a fade to white. Rhythmically wedded to the theme music by Thomas Newman, the clip captures the mordant whimsy that distinguished the series, and it went on to largely inspire the trend of high-end openers.
“Lost” Any title sequence that references “The Twilight Zone” is alright by me. “Lost” was a complicated show with a crowded mythology, but it started every week with a simple image: The title floating toward us, and overwhelming us, from out of the darkness. Was the emerging word “Lost” the answer on a fortune-telling Magic 8 Ball toy? Were the anxiety sounds those of a spaceship or a computer? The questions are the answers.
“The Affair” So much of the drama was set in Montauk, so the opening’s close-up images of the ocean — and sinking in the ocean — make sense. But the water also represents more about the “Rashomon”-like story, whose point of view constantly shifted, from the fluidity of facts to the promise of absolution. Fiona Apple’s “Container,” so stark and forceful, pulls it all together, with lines about how one action — an affair, perhaps — can ripple out into the future: “I was screaming into the canyon/At the moment of my death/The echo I created/Outlasted my last breath.” It’s a gorgeous, sad, and provocative lead-in.
“Game of Thrones” This dynamic, much-loved opener isn’t about characters; it’s a sweeping vision of an entire world, a history of a planet in flux. It screams “EPIC.” Each week was different from the last, with the map revealing parts of Westeros and Essos featured in that particular episode. The buildings, towers, trees, the throne, and ice emerge like finely engineered clock innards, turning gears that spawn a shifting landscape. All together, it was the unfolding story of a civilization, set to the best original TV theme song of recent years (by Ramin Djawadi). Not surprisingly, the prequel “House of the Dragon” is continuing in the same vein.
“Succession” Recalling the also excellent opening of “Transparent,” this one is a mostly grainy trip through the Roys’ memory lane. The home movies give us the super-wealthy family at leisure over the years, dining in their elegant garden and playing tennis. But it’s barren nostalgia, with a hint of malevolence. We can see the detachment of the parents, with mom barely registering and dad wandering off in the background. We can feel the emotional emptiness underneath it all. The cuts to the Roys’ Fox-like TV channel remind us of where this all ends. Best of all is the music, by Nicholas Britell; it sounds like a demented merry-go-round.
“Nine Perfect Strangers” The miniseries, which is flawed but compelling, gives us wealthy people seeking tranquility through meditation and juice. Oh, and LSD. This title sequence, set to Unloved’s hypnotic cover of Ray Davies’s “This Strange Effect,” offers a shape-shifting psychedelic journey. We’re looking as natural objects stretch and fade in and out, including vivid flowers, night skies, a broad ocean, and tongues of fire, and the closer we watch the trippy images, the more we see bodies moving through them. We’re looking at the world, it seems, but we’re also looking at ourselves.
“Shameless” This one captures the spirit of the long-running show about the Gallagher family of the South Side of Chicago. The clip is set in the family bathroom, of course; this was a show that wasn’t afraid to go to places — some of them raunchy, all of them intimate — that other shows avoided. We get glimpses of the central characters using the toilet, or passing out on the floor, or sneaking beer, or having sex. Set to the brash, upbeat “The Luck You Got” by The High Strung, it emphasizes the comic side of the show, dropping us into the action with just the right amount of smile on our lips.