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The Opening's the Thing
August 14, 2011  | By Eric Gould  | 1 comment


The Emmy nominations are out, and AMC's Rubicon, the one-season wonder (or blunder, depending on your point of view) got only one nomination -- for title design. It's a small, but important, nod for this cancelled little show that went way outside the lines of conventional TV storytelling. And maybe it's a fitting tribute to one of its best parts -- its tantalizing, cryptic art direction.

It's also an excuse for us to look closely, and appreciatively, at one of TV's most creative elements of all: the opening credits of quality series...


Title design gives us a quickie film -- the cinematic equivalent of an M&M -- where you get the sensibility and, sometimes, the back story of a show. And once it succeeds as a greeting card, it soon becomes a familiar, Pavlovian doorway to the world inside the shows you love each week.

Creating a good one is no small task, and the intro for Rubicon, arguably, ranks up there with the all-time greats.

The Rubicon opening (by the brilliant firm Imaginary Forces) is a slide carousel of surveillance photos marked-up in grease pencil and redacted government documents -- along with a swelling orchestration -- that put us right into the conspiratorial world of the show's fictional post-9/11 counter-intelligence agency, The American Policy Institute. Each week, we were drawn instantly into API's murky world of hidden signs and ciphers.

You can watch the opening credits of Rubicon by clicking HERE.

The good ones go way back. Perhaps the British understood it the best with the opening of The Saint, starring a very young and dashing Roger Moore. Initially syndicated to the States just after the James Bond spy craze first hit theaters, it featured a great '60s jazz-danger theme, a superimposed halo over Moore each week, and then, onto nothing more than a stick figure drawing, the logotype of the show, with that trademark halo. The suave, leading character -- Simon Templar -- couldn't have been branded, or have endured, more simply.

Same thing for the opening from Perry Mason, which ran from 1957-66 on CBS. I don't know any boomer who could not recognize a few bars of that swinging saxophone backbeat and the braying trumpets. Although it wasn't much visually -- just Mason (Raymond Burr) grinning to himself about how he was going to stick it to District Attorney Hamilton Burger (William Talman) yet again.

Since then, there have been some true, memorable greats. The '80s gave us the great Jan Hammer synth-theme for Miami Vice, accompanying the quick-cut montage that put Miami Beach on the world map as a sexy, dangerous playground. This is an example of the first-season opening credits, from the NBC series' launch in 1984:

Soon after, in 1990, ABC's Twin Peaks had fades of gushing waterfalls and bucolic scenes of the Great Northwest scenery of Washington State, coupled with an unforgettably watery, dream-like theme that was in creepy juxtaposition with David Lynch's oddball Killer Bob and the murder of Laura Palmer. The show's beautiful opening credits can be seen below -- after the not-so-beautiful but unavoidable commercial.

More recently, there was the brilliant mash-up of historical clips that began HBO's Carnivale (2003-2005), conveying a setting through old film and collages of tarot symbols. These images, presented by the Los Angeles production firm known as A52, set the table for a metaphysical war between the forces of good and evil, fought out in the depression-era Dust Bowl period.

The close-cropped mortuary scenes that opened the 2001-05 HBO series Six Feet Under (by the design firm of Digital Kitchen, and my favorite opening sequence of all) were wonderful, neutral-toned, sometimes intentionally over-exposed shots that set up the oddball world of a dysfunctional, family-run funeral home. Its tinkling, ticking clock-y theme seemed to mark off time that was running out for all of us.

And currently, we've got some great quick-cuts and black-and-white footage from the dark bayou of barflies, faith healers, civil rights marchers and boys smacking on red jam -- along with some seriously off-putting fast-motion decay -- that start off HBO's True Blood every week. (Again, another very credible mood and sensibility set-up by Digital Kitchen.) Great music, too -- Jace Everett's "Bad Things."

FX's Justified uses similarly grainy, out-of-focus shots and bad edits for a montage set-up of hillbilly noir in the back woods of Kentucky. So does HBO's Real Time with Bill Maher, which uses a black-and-white newsreel montage to whiz through 20th-century politics in under 30 seconds.

Real Time gives a sense of weekly urgency with an urbane hip-hop, pulsing theme that runs along with a time-code counter at the bottom of the screen. FX or its Fox parent corporation, oddly, has policed YouTube postings to keep its Justified opening theme video off the web, but the Maher camp has let one or two sample show openings slip through:

It's plain that the appeal of a show such as AMC's Mad Men is strongly linked to its styling, which is up front as a main feature of the opening credits.

Maybe the winner here -- and yet another wonderful piece by Imaginary Forces -- it brilliantly takes line drawing styles and colors from the early '60s (and, I'd argue, from the product literature of renowned 20th-century furniture maker the Herman Miller company).


Along with its drifting classical theme, the opening sets the table perfectly for Don Draper's house of cards each week. (Anyone notice that Don is always falling in this sequence? Perhaps a foreshadowing of his ultimate downfall for the series finale?) You can see it HERE. And, just for laughs, you can compare it to the equally brilliant Simpsons parody, which you can see HERE.

(The Mad Men original artwork is shown at the top of this column, the Simpsons parody at right.)

Mad Men has created such a buzz with its branding and styling that it has spawned new retro furniture lines, and at least two broadcast TV knockoffs coming this fall: ABC's Pan Am and NBC's unfortunate Playboy Club, which aspires to go no farther than giving us a Don Draper doppelganger, this time as a shadowy lawyer surrounded by Bunnies.

And finally, there's Showtime's Dexter -- one final Digital Kitchen triumph), with its blood spattered drain, creepy closeups of breakfast meat being seared, and its ironic, macabre and playful theme... all with closeups of Michael C. Hall's Dexter, the serial killer's serial killer, chewing his breakfast.

Opening titles never broke a show. But done well, they've forever branded shows in the minds of their faithful audiences. The Six Feet Under and Carnivale clips, from shows that have been off the air for six years now, still make the top ten title lists on most websites.

That's a memorable calling card, and one that has helped memorable shows endure after they're gone. No small feat for a minute of air time.

And it's probably how I'll prefer to remember the conspiracy-laden, alienated New York City of AMC's lost Rubicon.

So let's start a dialogue: What are the opening theme sequences you most remember, and consider the best? And why?





Rich said:

OOh...classic TV Openings listed, to be sure. However, The Japanese make it an Art form (literally). Some shows actually have 3-5 different Openings a season just to follow the flow of the show.

case in Point "So Long Mr. Despair" - which is about a high school teacher who is so intelligent he literally rationalized ALL hope and interest in his life to the point of self despair. On the day he tries to commit suicide he is foiled by the most optimistic and unjaded school girl ever. He is then forced to teach her and a group of students with personalities, phobias, talents, and problems so bizarre that even he can't figure them out (much to his despair) thus causing him greater challenges and greater chances for hilarity and despair.

Season 1's opening is a classic so weird, dark and artistically chaotic it can't even be duplicated in 3-D:


Season 3 opened with a song so catchy and coherent, mixed with a repeated catch phrase so odd ball and annoying for getting stuck in your head you couldn't sing it aloud without getting stared at (which was probably the point). US viewers can try and figure out its appeal:


Atleast it beats The Brady Bunch or Gilligan's Island themes.


Comment posted on August 15, 2011 3:58 AM

Erin said:

So glad that you included Dexter (I was worried for a while that it wouldn't make the list!). I was late to the Dexter party, but the first time I watched Dexter, I paused the DVD after the credits and my husband and I discussed how awesome it was. I love how those credits reveal so much about the show. The light music coupled with the tight shots of "grotesque" action set up beautifully the moral tension between right and wrong that Dexter faces as he deals with his "Dark Passenger." I often fast-forward through opening credits, but I always watch Dexter's credits.

Comment posted on August 15, 2011 10:02 AM

Eileen said:

I still get the chills thinking about the opening sequence of "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" -- I was just a kid, but the opening, and the music, really creeped me out.

Amazing to think that was over 50 years ago! Black & white tv, no computer graphics, just Mr. Hitchcock literally walking out of an illustration of himself while the theme music played. And, of course, his "good evening" perfectly punctuated with his British accent. Still my favorite intro after all these years.

Maybe being a New Yorker makes me a little prejudice, but I still like the opening sequence and music for L&O SVU. The music is addictive; I've actually read where people's dogs howl along to the theme. You really can't get it out of your head, which I guess is quite a compliment!

Comment posted on August 15, 2011 10:04 AM

jan said:

Right now, I think almost every HBO series has a great opening: "Rome," "The Sopranos," the first few seasons of "Big Love," "Deadwood," "Boardwalk Empire," etc. I usually sit through the opening credits of all of them. For other series, I really love "Rescue Me," "Firefly," and "Psych." And for older series, you can't beat "The Avengers" with Steed and Mrs. Peel. I think it's a combination of the visuals and the music that make them so mesmerizing to me, which is what "Dexter" does so well, for example.

Comment posted on August 15, 2011 11:10 AM

phil jones said:

I've watched the Sopranos DVDs about 5 times and I almost never fast forward the opening.

Comment posted on August 15, 2011 4:20 PM

Evelyn said:

I love the idea expressed in previous responses about never fast forwarding through our favorite opening credits. I think it's the perfect litmus test for really great openings.

For me, the opening and closing sequences of The No.1 Ladies' Detective Agency were perfection!When it wasn't even nominated for an Emmy I was livid (and I said as much on TV Worth Watching three years ago).



Comment posted on August 15, 2011 11:42 PM

phil jones said:

What about The Simpsons. New opening credit every episode!

Comment posted on August 16, 2011 1:57 PM

EricG said:

Erin: Breakfast will never be the same after watching Dexter eat.

Eileen: Excellent catch on Alfred Hitchcock Presents...how did that one slip by me?

Jan: I always thought the ice-skating combined with the Beach Boys number ("God Only Knows", one of Brian Wilson's great recording achievements,) was a dreamy, foreshadowing piece. About "Boardwalk Empire"...I've always felt that the electric guitar piece was an odd choice to set up the 1920's period for that show. Obviously a provocative one, and I'll have to read up a little more on it. I felt it was a toss up between "The Avengers" and "The Saint," so I went with the Halo. Of course, "The Prisoner" with Patrick McGoohan could have been in there, too, from that period.

Evelyn: Excellent artwork and motion graphic's on "The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency." Wonderful.

DB - "St. Elsewhere". Of course.

All: I maybe made a glaring omission excluding the original "Outer Limits" opening, which used to terrify me as a kid. Just a creepy idea that someone or something was omniscient and in control of the TV right in your house. Eek.


Keep them coming and we'll compile a new list in a future article coming up.


Comment posted on August 17, 2011 7:28 AM

SL said:

The opening that still scares me to this day is from the Twilight Zone.

Comment posted on August 18, 2011 1:44 PM
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Andy Balterman
I just encountered this great article and am immediately reminded of two things: (1) How much I still yearn for a "Rubicon" DVD (https://youtu.be/IjmpkXbk-Rs), and (2) How gorgeous the opening credits for "Tyrant" were (https://youtu.be/ws9XLb8Rd9k).
Oct 29, 2017   |  Reply
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