Contrary to the popular adage, a book is often judged by its cover. That’s why so many covers are designed to grab a reader’s attention. In television, the main title of a series works much the same way. So it’s no surprise that the creators of many original series on cable invest a lot of thought and resources in crafting their shows’ opening titles.
“A television series is like a new chapter of the story every week, but you want to reestablish that it’s from the same book,” said Alan Ball, executive producer of HBO’s southern-fried vampire series True Blood.
“A good main title should emotionally connect the viewer to the show,” said Digital Kitchen founder and chief creative officer Paul Matthaeus whose company is behind the title sequences for True Blood, as well as HBO’s Six Feet Under, Showtime’s Dexter and FX’s Nip/Tuck.
Whether they execute the ideas themselves or contract outside producers, series creators often have very specific ideas about the tone they want to convey.
For the True Blood opener, Jace Everett’s rhythmically raw single “Bad Things” accompanies a montage of imagery depicting nature, religion and the occult, sex, blood and death.
“I wanted a sense of the twin polarities of the need for transcendence as it plays out in the rural south — of church and sort of whipping yourself up into an evangelical frenzy, and the honky-tonk on Saturday night where you basically do the same thing only through drugs and hooking up and getting into brawls,” Ball said.
In the case of Showtime’s serial-killer series Dexter, benign activities such as shaving and eating breakfast become macabre as presented visually and underscored by Rolfe Kent’s music.
“It was the idea of 'everyday violence,’” said Matthaeus. “On the surface our world aspires to be civil and humane, [but] we still manage to inflict mayhem; and [that] is particularly relevant to the conflicted character of Dexter who brutally kills 'bad guys’ for self-gratification.”
Perhaps the most memorable of opening titles in recent TV history was Tony Soprano’s drive through New Jersey at the start of each episode of HBO’s The Sopranos.
“The Sopranos opening I think is the best and most classic opening for any cable show,” said Eric Deggans, TV and media critic for the St. Petersburg Times. “That’s because it’s a metaphor for the character’s journey from a working class neighborhood in New Jersey to the suburbs, and it’s accompanied by this kick-ass song [“Woke Up This Morning”] that sums up the spirit of the series in a really interesting way.”
HBO’s Michael Lombardo, president of the programming group and West Coast operations, acknowledges that “theme music has played an important part of setting up shows for a long time.” But what he sees as a more recent trend is that of “using the visual in arresting new innovative ways.
“I think music and the graphics are an incredible way of branding a show,” Lombardo said.
That is true of other iconic openings, including AMC’s Mad Men, FX’s Damages and Rescue Me, and Showtime’s The United States of Tara, a half-hour dramedy about a middle-aged housewife with multiple personalities.
The idea for Tara’s playful pop-up book opening came from two mid-level writers on the show, according to executive producer Alexa Junge.
Songwriter Timothy DeLaughter was hired to pen the theme and “he wrote this strange, beautiful song, an original for the show,” Junge said. “It’s a tricky thing to pull off. It’s like a tattoo — you don’t want it to be something that six months from now you’re like, 'Why did I get that? I’m bored with that.’”
In recent years, main titles — and kitschy theme songs — have come in and out of favor on broadcast networks.
While heading ABC programming in the 1990s, Ted Harbert issued a “No more theme songs” memo instructing that opening sequences be embedded into the shows in the belief that viewers were no longer interested in long openers.
Other broadcasters followed suit. “[CBS’s] Murphy Brown didn’t really have a theme song, it would kind of start and the credits would go on,” said Robert Thompson, founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. “[NBC’s] Seinfeld, for the most part, didn’t have one—it had that little popping stuff. [NBC’s] Cheers opened cold, but then it had its theme song once you got in a little bit, so all of that changed at that point.”
Broadcasters were hoping to counteract poor flow between programs “and at that point they were focused on [their] lead-in and how to make their lead-in the most effective,” said FX president and general manager John Landgraf.
On cable, show creators have had the artistic freedom to opt for lengthy main titles (the opening for Dexter is over a minute and a half long) or none at all.
“I happen to think part of what is great about [FX’s] The Shield is lack of main titles, and what’s great about The Sopranos is the main title,” Landgraf said. “If a main title helps get you into the mood of a show and it’s something that you love, there’s real value in it.”
It’s also not uncommon for an opening sequence to evolve as casts change or, in the case of season four of Showtime’s Weeds, when a show changes locale. When the Weeds storyline shifted from a pristine suburban development to a border town, a new opener was introduced and the original theme song “Little Boxes” was dropped.
For USA’s Monk, when the show’s producers decided to put a different spin on the opener, they literally changed their tune.
“Early on, we decided we were going to highlight Monk being Monk to get across the idea that this was a character-based piece about his obsessive compulsiveness,” said David Hoberman, the show’s executive producer. “Jeff Beals’ score created a piece of music that sort of fit to it.”
But by season two, Hoberman was “trying to elevate the show and give it a shot in the arm.” Composer Randy Newman’s theme song “It’s a Jungle Out There” proved to be the remedy.
“It’s interesting because while we were doing Randy’s theme song, Jeff Beals won an Emmy and we were all embarrassed,” Hoberman recalled. “The fact that Randy won an Emmy [the following year], it was like, 'Thank God.’ ”
Ultimately, the opening sequence is about giving credit where it’s due, and Rescue Me executive producer Peter Tolan laments that “someday somebody’s going to do a show with no title sequence. And they’re going to use the excuse, 'I have no time.’
“That disregard of talent and of people who are involved in shows, is the only reason I would continue with it, just to battle that side of it,” Tolan said.