Friday, May 27, 2011

Idiot Boksen - The Art of the Opening (Part 1)

Posted By on Fri, May 27, 2011 at 3:30 PM

Last week, in discussing Treme and one-season wonder Terriers, I mentioned how both have excellent main title sequences. I love opening credits, and posting them kicked off a bi-annual binge on my part, where I re-watch all my favorite openings. I figured I'd share them after the jump.

The best opening credit sequences are doorways, preparing viewers for the narrative worlds they're about to enter. They're also, usually, familiar enough to serve as anchors from episode to episode. No network understands the importance of the opening credits better than HBO. They even preface their opening credit sequences with that familiar static-y hiss/angel choir hum, which brings out a Pavlovian sigh in me every time. Get ready for greatness, it seems to say.

The network's finest example of this might be The Sopranos' opening, which features a scowling and cigar puffing Tony Soprano driving around New Jersey, paying tolls at the Turnpike, passing the Twin Towers (which was edited out post-9/11), through dingy industrial sectors, then finally into increasingly upscale residential neighborhoods until Tony arrives home as Alabama 3 growls "Woke up this morning/Got yourself a gun". The lyrics match the imagery, from Tony's upbringing ("Born under a bad sign with a blue moon in your eye" and "Your papa never told you about right and wrong") to the depression of New Jersey's major cities ("Things ain't been the same since the blues walked in our town"). By the time "Woke Up This Morning" bleeps out and The Sopranos logo flashes across the screen, you're as home as Tony is. True Blood's opening credits are along the same lines, utilizing clips of nature and the American South and setting them against Jace Everett's darkly sexy "Bad Things" to establish a sense of place (the Bayou) and theme (sin versus virtue). The result is menacing cool, which is exactly what True Blood is about.

Initially, I wasn't sold on the opening for HBO's latest drama, Game of Thrones, what with the spinning gyroscope and all. The cities rising like clockwork from a map of Westeros were a neat effect, and they were enough to keep me from fast-forwarding. Then, two weeks ago, the sequence was different, adding a new city to the mix, Riverrun. Riverrun is featured later in the episode, and the opening credits give the viewer an idea of where the city lies in relation to others, and also its defining characteristics. In other words, the screenwriters used the main title as exposition, something entirely necessary for a mythology as deep and intricate as George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series. I'll be watching the credits even more closely from now on.

The music in the Game of Thrones opening is also stirring, but not quite so stirring as HBO's miniseries John Adams, which chronicled the life of America's most mercurial founding father. I don't consider myself especially patriotic, but I'm ready to break out the muskets and bayonet some redcoats by the time it's over. Maybe if this was the national anthem instead of "The Star-Spangled Banner", we'd have a whole lot less commie pinkos trying to take our automatic weapons and coddle Mexican laborers.

HBO isn't afraid to shake things up, either. The Wire's opening credits changed with each season, though all featured a variation on Tom Waits' "Way Down in the Hole". The rotation worked as the show's scope expanded from the street-level drug trade to cover nearly aspect of urban Baltimore. Switching up doesn't always work ideally, however. For the first three seasons of Big Love, the main title was optimistic and hopeful, depicting the Henricksons ice skating on a miniature Great Salt Lake against a backdrop of the Wasatch Range and Great Basin deserts. For the last two seasons, the credits were more ominous. I liked the second sequence, which seemed to reflect the direction the show was headed as a whole, but a lot of people (well, my wife at least) never came around.

While HBO puts great care into their openings, they obviously don't have a monopoly on excellence. Most of AMC's opening credits are lackluster or stripped down, but Mad Men's is stylish and fitting. Showtime's Dexter opening is terrific, too, wonderfully portraying its lead's murderous intentions behind mundane morning rituals like flossing and eggs over-easy.

Comedy might be the most difficult genre to open for since jokes are usually stale by the third episode. Many great shows (Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm, in particular) ignored drawn out credits completely. My favorite opening credit sequence for a comedy relied more on a comforting marriage of nostalgia and community, lending a poignant note to a show that was, at root, about finding a place to belong.

It helps that Cheers had a masterpiece of a jingle to work with, but the imagery is equally striking, providing a sense of history and comfort in knowing there have always been Norms and Cliffs.

As great as it is, though, the Cheers opening isn't funny. To pull off humor, comedies have to rely on flexibility. The most famous instance is probably The Simpsons' couch gag, which puts a weekly twist on the familiar opening sequence. (For instance, the show recently gave the credits over to Banksy, who responded spectacularly.) For my money, though, the funniest opening credits of all-time belong to Police Squad, which varied enough from week to week to stay fresh.

So, The Sopranos had the most perfectly fitting opening credits, Police Squad had the funniest, and Cheers can put anyone in a great mood. The best credits ever made, however, belongs to the short-lived Dust Bowl period piece known as Carnivale. It's about as epic as opening credits get. If only the show itself had been as great (and it was still pretty good).

Next week: The worst opening credits. I have a few in mind, but I'm open to suggestions. Also, I promise I won't worship HBO nearly as much.

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