Across the interminability of their runs, TV shows are known to digress and regress into diverse forms of badness, but their credit sequences, for better or for worse, remain relatively unchanged. This means that for every five-season show, we’re watching the same “I just figured out iMovie!” stream-of-consciousness splice-fests hundreds of times. Because of this repetition, certain images stick with us — often more than other moments from the shows they belong to (whenever I see a hearse, for example, the gassy reverie of Thomas Newman’s Six Feet Under theme song plays in my head and I envision a lone tree on a hill). The morphing nature of TV shows set against the invariability of their opening credits often exposes a fissure between the tone of the credits and the tone of the show. Sometimes the credits just don’t get it right from the start. This can work to the advantage of bad shows, the disadvantage of good shows, or, you know, just be sort of confusing.
American Horror Story: Coven
I began reexamining this concept when I first started watching American Horror Story: Coven, and wanted to convince a friend that she, too, should get on board. To sway her, I YouTubed and showed her the opening credits, which are gorgeous, artful, suggestive, and terrifying. I intentionally failed to tell this friend that the show itself is none of these things: that it is, rather, campy, cheesy, excessive, and hilarious. The misrepresentation of the show’s tone here worked in my — and in the show’s — favor. Nowhere to be found in the credits’ deluge of beautiful camera work are the slanted frames and fish-eye lenses the actual show overuses to suggest that something’s amiss. Especially apparent is the disparity in the scoring: the opening theme, a minimalist and tasteful series of squelches, drops, and the repetition of an onomatopoeia that sounds remarkably like “Cookizza,” is a far cry from the show’s actual score, which often sounds like the music that would play if a yard of cheetah-print fabric went missing from the workroom on Project Runway.
Similarly, before Breaking Bad’s untimely and arguably unimpressive close, I had made many attempts to prove to the same friend that it was more than the sum of its hype. I wanted to show her that her aversion to the conversational myopia it induced — where dinners, drinks, funerals, etc. would inevitably devolve into cyclical debates about how “bad” Walter White had “broken” — would be quelled if only she watched five minutes of any episode. When the title sequence rolled, however, I could feel her disdain rising, and found myself fidgeting on my couch. I wanted to apologize for the intro, to assure her that this middle-school science assembly PowerPoint (seemingly set to a B-side from the Seinfeld soundtrack) she was watching was not indicative of the direction of the show. Breaking Bad’s opening sequence is thankfully terse, but its cheap graphics and silly highlighting of actors’ names containing elements on the periodic table fail to express the show’s meticulous study of landscape and character.
Orange Is the New Black
Orange Is the New Black is sharply written, darkly comic, and heartfelt without being maudlin, but its opening montage “featuring real, incarcerated women” is not only hokey, but a little misleading. Not only does it represent a very funny show as humorless, but its grainy filters impose a false sense of documentarian grit to which the show thankfully never stoops. One of OITNB’s strengths is that, while providing a voice for characters society often ignores, its wild plot twists and cliffhanger structuring suggest it’s not too caught up in presenting “reality.” The title sequence’s flashing close-ups of eyes and mouths are a condescending attempt to “humanize” the criminals in the eyes of the audience. In an amazing moment of Werner Herzog’s documentary On Death Row, concerning a female prisoner, the director stated that he does “not make an attempt to humanize her. She is simply a human being, period.” OINTB’s intro, with its confrontational “Look at these eyes! They’re the eyes of people! With emotions!” attitude seems to suggest that this humanity should come as a surprise bit of wisdom that the show is thankfully imparting. This, coupled with Regina Spektor’s “You’ve Got Time,” in which the singer clumsily sets imprisonment to the confines of a pop song, makes for an opening that does a serious injustice to the show.
The title sequence of True Blood gives the impression of a gorgeous, if perhaps problematically aestheticized, study of Southern grotesquerie rather than the thinly veiled litany of middle-school sex fantasies that the show turned out to be. Never quite delving into the intricacies of the Deep South, True Blood skims the surface of the region, stopping in at any household where someone with an incredible Pilates instructor is making weird nookie with a vampire, werewolf, fairy, Maenad, mermaid, or panther person. Like American Horror Story, this is a show of smut, camp, and guts. Whenever the thrilling opening credits are over and the camera shifts to Anna Paquin hate-fucking a house-elf or something, I’m struck by the show’s preposterousness and failed potential to be the politically charged allegory Allen Ball initially billed it as.
Veep’s humor lies in its way of inflating the insignificance of the vice president and then, when she eventually becomes embroiled in world issues, deflating her newfound sense of significance. Clocking in at a phoned-in 12 seconds, the sitcom’s titles make it look like a straight-to-DVD dramedy about one women overcoming male hegemony in Washington. Don’t get me wrong. Selena Meyer is slowly but thankfully overcoming male hegemony, but she does so the good way — through labyrinthine insults, cursing, and pratfalls, as opposed to upstanding personhood.
Sabrina the Teenage Witch
Sabrina’s witchcraft was so easy. She didn’t have to deal with the complicated spells — the blood, sweat and tears of the Harry Potters, the Taissa Farmigas, and even the Hocus Pocusers. All she had to do was avoid Libby, make Hilda and Zelda proud, and fingerbang the air from time to time and all ill would be remedied. (If only Melissa Joan Hart’s finger of glory could turn her into less of a Republican.) Despite the lightheartedness of her witchcraft, you’d think the creative forces behind the show would have, with the title sequence, wanted to be a little more blatant about the one exciting thing Sabrina had going for it. But this rather muggled-out credit sequence from Sabrina’s fifth season (college edition!) merely features the star walking through a collegiate neighborhood in alternating outfits. Hart’s catwalk, exhibiting the most lackluster of ’90s garb, makes the viewer worry that a talking cat or enchanted gym locker might suddenly croon, “Do you love it? I love it. I got it at Ross.”
Despite Arrested Development’s very explanatory credit sequence (a run-down of the family tree), the show was nonetheless here misrepresented. The grating score, which I can only describe as the sound of Zooey Deschanel remixing a commercial for a used Honda dealer, is painfully jolly. Its cutesiness and exuberance belies the show’s dark brilliance. While it would make sense that a cheery title might work to counter a show’s twistedness, the Arrested Development opening credits just seem a little cheap and a little tone-deaf.
Though 30 Rock seems to make a point of asserting that nothing but shenanigans go down in the titular building, the wide-eyed opening credits aggrandize 30 Rockefeller Center as would a tourist video. This sequence totally lacks the tongue-in-cheek jabbing that makes you wonder how they aired a candid spoof of the decline of NBC on NBC. While the expressions on the faces of the featured actors hint vaguely at “comedy,” nothing here indicates the wonderful absurdism the show adopted in its later seasons. These credits seem very much stuck in the more straightforward humor of the show’s earlier days.
Everybody Loves Raymond
The deceit of the Everybody Loves Raymond title sequence from Seasons 3 to 5 is quite simple: the scoring, a climactic portion of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” is suggestive of a show that moves, a show with stakes. When the intro is through, however, and Beethoven’s angelic hysteria subsides, we are left with the slurred, lobotomized baritone of every actor on the show — a soundscape evocative of a Randy Newmanian attempt at atonal music. The opening credits hijack the theme of the first season; you may recall Ray Barone talking over lite jazz as his family passes him on a conveyor belt. Note that for a few seconds, this new sequence begins with the old, mopey intro, which is then quashed as Frank, Marie, and Robert approach Ray’s home, and as Ray and Deborah nearly burn their house down trying to keep them out. These credits seem to suggest that this new season will be more exciting, more absurd, and more dangerous. In beginning with such a high-tempo intro, however, the show’s utter insipidness becomes even more apparent (the Wikipedia plot description of Season 3, Episode 1 notes a termite fumigation, some underlying tension about who cooks dinner, the breaking of a fridge door, and the hiding of a remote as the major plot points).
In both a 2007 New York Times article and The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, Slavoj Zizek discusses “Ode to Joy’s” strange universality, its status as a sort of international anthem; of the piece, Zizeç states that “one can imagine a fictional performance at which all sworn enemies — Hitler and Stalin, Saddam Hussein, and George W. Bush — for a moment forget their adversities and participate in the same magic moment of ecstatic musical brotherhood.” Just as these abhorrent men might hypothetically use the transcendent adrenaline rush of “Ode to Joy” to humanize themselves, Everybody Loves Raymond here tries to make itself seem a little more alive and a little less like the evil zombie-dictator of late-’90s sitcom culture that it was.
In his famous musical number, Ash refers to the Pokemon as his best friends, as opposed to “slaves-that-only-leave-tiny-pokeballs-to-fight-or-fuck” or “nearly-mute-child-soldiers.” The injustices of this show are infinite, and Ash just clearly can’t own up to his inhumanity. Enough said.