I used to ignore them. For the minute or two that they would run, I would take a phone call, grab a bag of chips, or make a sandwich. And as the song played in the background, I would check my watch to see when I had to meet up with so-and-so to do such-and such. They had no effect on me as a casual television viewer.
They are the opening titles of a television show, and over the last few years they have transformed from the obligatory rolling of credits into an art form that demands attention. Mostly gone are the days of catchy theme songs played over sappy images of cast members smiling at the camera. Their purpose was simple: to tell the audience who the stars are and who worked behind the scenes. But in recent years their job has expanded; the design of a show’s main titles are being used to set the tone for the program that follows.
It was only in the past few years that I realized how well certain main title sequences were being designed, so I was surprised to learn that the Emmys had been awarding main titles for well over a decade. The category was established in 1990, when only two shows were nominated: the PBS arts anthology “Alive from Off Center” and MTV’s “Downtown Julie Brown“; there were so few contenders that they could not even fill a standard slate of five nominees. A lot has changed since then.
Considering this year’s five nominees, it’s difficult to predict which one Emmy voters will honor. “Any Human Heart,” a “Masterpiece Theater” miniseries that centers around a man whose journals chronicle some of the most important events of the 20th Century, begins with a two-dimensional rendering of a figure as it explores a world of sepia tones. “Too Big to Fail” opens with a sequence of clips documenting the aggravating bailout crisis that struck our country only a few years ago. AMC’s “Rubicon” features opening titles that illustrate the way in which the series’s characters utilize code-breaking and redaction in their work as intelligence analysts for the US government. “Boardwalk Empire” is the only nominee to feature one of its characters in its title sequence: Steve Buscemi stands on the shore, looking out at the sea as thousands of bottles of illegal alcohol wash up onto the beach before turning back towards the boardwalk with an almost proud grin on his face. And HBO’s “Game of Thrones” capably reminds its audience of the major settings in the series’s mythical world of Westeros, and in doing so provides a feast for the eyes that I personally believe will help it win the Emmy this year.
Comparing the quality of this year’s nominees against the two sequences recognized in the category’s first year, it is clear that title design has become an important medium of artistic expression, and that has been the case for quite a while now. Just look at HBO, for example, which occupies three of this year’s five nomination slots. Over the last decade, the network has produced several programs distinguished by their outstanding opening title sequences, many of which were awarded in this category. “Six Feet Under” won in 2002 for its title sequence, which followed a dead body’s journey from the morgue to the funeral with stark, beautiful images. 2004’s winner, “Carnivale,” expertly juxtaposed the images of tarot cards with footage of Franklin Roosevelt, the New Deal, and World War II, informing its audience that the show’s world would blend historical fiction with the supernatural. And the opening sequence for “The Sopranos,” though it was not nominated in this category, is still cherished by fans of the series: antihero Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) drives down the New Jersey Turnpike with a cigar in his mouth, giving us a sense of his dominance. The sequence emphasizes Jersey’s industrial area while expressing the very attitude of ownership and power that fueled the series throughout its six-season run.
Creating main titles that thus express the tone of a series is an artistic dance that only the most capable designers achieve. 2007’s Emmy winner, “Dexter,” takes something very mundane – the title character’s morning routine – and turns it into a series of still shots that are at once ordinary and disturbing. Watching Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall) tightly lace his shoes evokes images of violent garroting. And who knew that the cooking of breakfast – including, quite appropriately, a blood orange sliced with a serrated knife – could be made to appear so visceral? The next year, AMC’s “Mad Men” introduced its story with an animated scene of a faceless ad man plummeting to his death from a skyscraper while surrounded by the superficial advertisements that he worked tirelessly to bring to the consumerist public – a stylistic reflection of its era, and thematically a reflection of protagonist Don Draper (Jon Hamm), whose career-driven ego is his Achilles’ heel. And in 2009, another Showtime series, “United States of Tara,” presented its opening credits as a pop-up storybook that, while it might not have perfectly fit its subject matter, was certainly beautiful to look at.
I consider the main title design of “Game of Thrones” to be the most impressive of the year, but whether Emmy judges will agree is another matter. But that is also a testament to the quality of work currently being devoted to an aspect of television that, before, seemed like such an afterthought. So the next time your favorite show is about to begin, don’t take phone calls, grab the chips, or make a sandwich. Instead, take in the images that have become an integral invitation into the respective series’ worlds. You won’t be disappointed.