The new credits canon: 20 recent TV title sequences as brilliant as their shows

The new credits canon: 20 recent TV title sequences as brilliant as their shows

Photo illustration by Nick Wanserski
Photo illustration by Nick Wanserski

In 2007, an A.V. Club Inventory featured 22 TV credit sequences that fit their shows perfectly, paying homage to Homicide: Life On The Streets, The Sopranos, The Andy Griffith Show, and other series where a simple montage serves as an overture for the program’s themes and aesthetic. In the near-decade since that piece ran, we’ve seen a mini-revival in the art of the title sequence, which has been heartening after a long stretch where networks were doing away with them altogether. Some of these new classic openers follow tradition, helping set up the show’s premise. Others just spend 20 seconds (or less!) to set a mood, putting viewers in the proper emotional space before the story begins. All of them are at least on par with the programs they represent—which makes them, in and of themselves, exceptional TV.

1. The Leftovers season two

The Leftovers’ season-one credits were roundly mocked for their pomposity, placing dramatic orchestral music behind exaggerated paintings of sex, violence, and spiritual crisis. One of the first signs that the show’s second season would be an overall improvement came when HBO released the haunting new opener, which makes great use of Iris DeMent’s plaintive folk song “Let The Mystery Be,” making it the soundtrack to a slideshow for ordinary people’s snapshots—each with one or more figures missing. The song’s “go with the flow” message, coupled with the deep sense of loss in the pictures, defines The Leftovers’s core dichotomy. This is a show about how life’s randomness makes every moment more meaningful. [Noel Murray]

2. Better Call Saul

Better Call Saul embraces its spinoff status by using our previous knowledge of Bob Odenkirk’s lawyer character as a central point of tension: We know that this Jimmy McGill kid is going to become Saul Goodman, but we have little indication of when or how this will happen. To keep the specter of Saul fresh in our minds, each title sequence features a jittery snapshot of the Goodman lifestyle, rendered in hypersaturated color and overlaid with the sort of grungy video effects you might see in one of Saul’s cable TV ads. The color scheme sets the vibrant Saul Goodman era of the character’s life apart from the post-Breaking Bad glimpses we’ve seen, which are rendered in black and white, and from the show’s earth tone-heavy main timeline.

The second-season credits employ the same images as the first season (so far, at least)—except now, those images intermittently flash into black and white. This aesthetic tweak suggests that Saul’s eventual downfall will be a point of emphasis this year—or, at least, that creator Vince Gilligan wants us to keep that downfall in mind as a counterpoint to Saul’s rise. [John Teti]

3. The Late Show With Stephen Colbert

The personality of a late-night talk show is often informed by where that show is taped, but with the exception of the occasional remote bit, the many offspring of Johnny Carson don’t get many chances to show off their coastal digs. When they do, it’s often over the opening credits, through the type of miniature travelogue that makes Jimmy Kimmel look like the only inhabitant of the second-largest city in the United States. Kimmel’s New York-based competition does a better job at depicting their bustling base of operation, none better than Stephen Colbert’s revamped Late Show. Over the ever-evolving strains of “Humanism” by house band Jon Batiste And Stay Human, filmmaker Fernando Livschitz takes a bird’s eye view of the Big Apple that’s simultaneously epic and intimate. Like Livschitz’s viral clip “Rush Hour”—in which pedestrians and motorists whiz through a busy intersection with clock-like precision, always appearing mere moments from a collision—the Late Show intro is an elegant contraption, with tilt-shifted and time-lapsed photography packing a stunning range of activity into the frame. The attention to detail makes it an ideal sequence for the HD era—the fact that it depicts New York City in the daytime makes it a rarity for any period in late-night history. [Erik Adams]

4. Broad City

Each of Broad City’s animated openers is brief, wisely minimizing the amount of time we spend without Abbi and Ilana, those lovable NYC stoners, gracing the screen. Still, visual designer Mike Perry, who animates all of the intros, makes the most of each eight-second window he’s given. Perry concocts a different ebullient visual explosion for every episode, making the screen come alive with splashing paint, bursting sunshine, and maybe even a nipple or three. It’s clear that Perry works with the same sense of whimsical adventure that pervades this effervescent show. [John Teti]

5. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

If the title of Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna’s musical dramedy rubs people the wrong way, than they obviously haven’t seen the title sequence, which makes fun of the name by referring to it as “a sexist term” and defensively saying, “The situation’s a lot more nuanced than that.” The credits also explain the premise—that the clinically depressed Rebecca Bunch has moved from New York to California for a fresh start—and gives a sense of the heroine’s self-delusion. Plus, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend often uses its intro the same way That Girl did in the 1960s: as a punctuation for the cold open. That’s a fine bit of TV history to emulate. [Noel Murray]

6. Review

The title sequence of the ever-meta Review creates the illusion of a TV show within a TV show by featuring clips from host Forrest MacNeil’s past “life reviews”—segments we’ve never seen. The opening is especially sharp in revealing who Forrest is and how he relates to the world. He gives four stars to “Life As A Woman,” which he apparently reviewed by putting on a burka, and he gives half a star to “Being A Genius,” because the experiment ended with him spinning helplessly on stage in a motorized wheelchair. The best snippet shows Forrest giving a half a star to his attempt at “Babysitting,” which left him assisting the police in a grim-looking search through an open field. As always in the world of Review, the MacNeil experience of the ordinary is limited and bizarre. And as far as he’s concerned, it’s only one that matters. [Noel Murray]

7. Halt And Catch Fire

The opening minutes of Halt And Catch Fire are infused with the almost overwhelming speed and energy of the ’80s PC revolution thanks to a visual sequence by the design studio Elastic and music by Trentemøller. The three main characters, seen in silhouette, appear to be on the verge of tearing apart, and only the intensity of their forward-looking gazes hold them steady amid the hurricane of change. The sequence builds to a fitting climax as the pixelated inferno and surging electricity are shown to be a stylized rendering of a tiny LED flickering on—a reminder that the titanic efforts of our heroes resulted in technology that became so pervasive, we soon regarded it as banal. All successful revolutions end the same way: with a new normal. [John Teti]

8. Transparent

TV credits are supposed to be a fanfare. They’re an announcement, an entrance, a declaration that your small-screen friends have arrived for another self-contained adventure. So a celebration of difference like Transparent ought to flout those conventions. Not since the heyday of Taxi has the commencement of a show been so winningly placid, with typographical swashes and grainy home movies that call back to that mellower period in TV’s visual design. There’s also a wistfulness at play here, captured in Dustin O’Halloran’s Emmy-winning theme and the grainy footage of functional families at family functions.

But the Pfeffermans were never truly functional. Their happiness was a put-on, a front that forced Maura to be Mort, unable to express herself like the voguing bar mitzvah boy, the drag queens (in footage from the pioneering LGBT doc The Queen), or the hopeful immigrants who were added to the season-two intro as an extension of the Weimar Berlin flashbacks—which serve as a family history more potent than any home movie. [Erik Adams]

9. Rick And Morty

Rick And Morty’s opening varies a bit between its two seasons, following the model of older shows whose opening credits would highlight a few moments from that year’s episodes. But the basic concept is always the same. Doctor Who-like science fiction music and images give way to scenes of the mad scientist hero Rick leaving his family members to die whenever there’s real danger to escape. Rick And Morty’s credits establish the show’s genre bona fides and its dark wit. Anyone who finds them funny is tuned in to the right channel. [Noel Murray]

10. Man Seeking Woman

The romantic trials and tribulations of Man Seeking Woman take root in everyday anxieties and escalate to magical-realist extremes. That’s also true of the animated grid depicted in the show’s opening title, which starts with a stylized male profile and ends with a grave, a wolf, a bug’s head, a carnivorous fish, and, most terrifying of all, some sort of smartphone dating app. Synchronized to the glitchy minimalism of Photay’s “Reconstruct,” the grid opens and closes, opens and closes, assigning an icon to each of the principals: A wounded arm clasping flowers for lovesick Jay Baruchel, menacing anthropomorphic condoms for horndog Eric Andre, and some busted frames for the bespectacled Britt Lower. (In the first season, the flowers were put in a doomed vase for Maya Erskine, who played Baruchel’s ex.) Certain images break through the barriers or recur throughout—blood, pointy teeth, reptilian monsters, hearts (anatomical and otherwise)—all suggesting the poorly compartmentalized fantasies and nightmares of the dating set. [Erik Adams]

11. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

The most celebrational intro this side of the original Muppet Show, the Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt theme song gives the Indiana Mole Women their own post-bunker praise chorus, a collaboration between series composer Jeff Richmond and Songify The News creators The Gregory Brothers. The spirit of the piece depends on one Mole Woman specifically: terminally optimistic Kimmy Schmidt (Ellie Kemper), whose smile beams at a world she didn’t know was still there while her personal Lisa Frank aesthetic spills across the credits. Building from the foundation of the Gregorys’ “Bed Intruder Song,” the sequence pulls stock footage into its mash-up of fake news and processed audio, creating the illusion that tap dancers and prancing princesses are stepping in time with Richmond’s hand claps. While mimicking how the arrest of Reverend Wayne Gary Wayne would be received in the real world, the opening testifies to the resilience of Kimmy and every “strong as hell” woman just like her. [Erik Adams]

12. Playing House

There’s not a lot to this 20-second intro: just images of two best friends, from girlhood to now, set to Say Hi’s dreamy alt-rock song “Back Before We Were Brittle.” But the earnestness of the music underscores that even though Playing House is fast-paced and funny, the show’s primarily about the bond between these women. They knew each other when they were goofy kids, and even now they’re still more attuned to each other’s moods and habits than any romantic partner could be. [Noel Murray]

13. True Detective season one

It has essentially become the default for crime shows’ credit sequences to plunge the viewer into a wilderness of overlaid semi-transparent images (one recent example: Making A Murderer). But few series execute this aesthetic as gracefully as the first season of True Detective, which featured a gorgeous opener with musical accompaniment by The Handsome Family (specifically, their song “Far From Any Road”). Yes, the images get at the sex, religion, and isolation that define the season’s central mystery. More to the point, though, they intersperse busy compositions with strikingly spare moments, such as when a silhouette of Matthew McConaughey’s character is filled in with a dark figure who looms in his psyche. With this contrast, the sequence (designed by Elastic, the same studio that did the Halt And Catch Fire opener) establishes the threads of philosophy and quiet obsession that would set True Detective’s debut season apart from other crime series. [John Teti]

14. Bob’s Burgers

While no Fox cartoon will ever top The Simpsons’ blackboard or couch gags, Bob’s Burgers comes closest with its two regular bits of schtick: the ever-changing business right next to Bob’s restaurant (everything from the “Meth I Can Methadone Clinic” to “Attempted Crepe French Cooking School”) and the pest-control van that arrives each episode (with names like “Chester The De-Pester” and “Hit The Rodent, Jack”). Besides setting up the show’s wry sense of humor, the gags cue viewers to pay close attention for the next half hour. [Noel Murray]

15. Kroll Show

The Kroll Show intro is a short and sweet example of theme sequence as statement of purpose. By mapping its title onto a quick-cut succession of well-known logos, packaging, and landmarks, the series establishes its pop-culture-addled, channel-surfing approach to sketch comedy. Blink at the wrong second and you’ll miss the Kroll Show brand “comedy paste,” the imported “wacky farce” of Krollschau, or the Jurassic Park parody that replaces the T. rex silhouette with a human skeleton. The images fly by so quickly, it’s impossible to identify them all at full speed. But like the reality TV rhythms and editing tricks satirized by Kroll Show, the iconography on display was woven into the cultural fabric long ago. We need only register the basics—shape, color, texture—to grasp what Kroll Show is going for. [Erik Adams]

16. You’re The Worst

The narrative arc of You’re The Worst has seen its romantic leads, Jimmy and Gretchen, go from having a casual fling to half-committing to something more serious. But the opening credits—along with the show’s title—keep reminding viewers not to expect a conventionally happy ending to their story. Behind shots of the cast posing self-consciously in a portrait studio, Slothrust’s song “7:30 AM” warns, over and over, “I’m gonna leave you anyway.” You’re The Worst started out as a raunchy sitcom and has become increasingly dramatic over the course of its two seasons. This shouldn’t have come as a shock. The heaviness was always there, literally from the beginning. [Noel Murray]

17. The Americans

A frantic collage of Soviet-era propaganda and Reagan-administration Americana, The Americans pits its clashing cultures against one another in its opener. This cut-and-paste technique has been used by plenty of other prestige dramas (and Kimmy Schmidt borrowed the same hula-hooping footage), but the stakes here are higher. It’s not just the fate of the free world on the line—the souls and allegiances of Soviet sleeper agents Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) hang in the balance as well. This is the true source of tension within The Americans, illustrated in a compare-and-contrast fashion that reminds how “U.S.” and “U.S.S.R.” are separated by just two letters. The Americans takes place during a conflict with a predetermined outcome. Viewers return to the show every week to see which side of the screen the Jennings wind up on. [Erik Adams]

18. iZombie

Rob Thomas and Diane Ruggiero-Wright’s CW adaptation of Chris Roberson and Michael Allred’s Vertigo comic takes so many liberties with its source material that viewers may not even know where the show originated. That’s one reason why the iZombie opening matters so much: It features Allred’s one-of-a-kind artwork, along with cartoon captions that give new viewers all of the “story so far” they might need. Add in 20 stomping seconds of Deadboy & The Elephantmen’s “Stop, I’m Already Dead,” and iZombie gets off to an energetic start every week. [Noel Murray]

19. Orange Is The New Black

Although its minute-plus length has compelled countless binge watchers to hit the fast-forward button, the stark, beautiful opening of Orange Is The New Black is still effective in reinforcing the show’s humane perspective. The tightly framed faces—all belonging to real-life former inmates—literally manifests OITNB’s desire to put a face on the convicts who society typically ignores. We’re forced to gaze into the feeling, lively eyes of the women as Regina Spektor sings thematically resonant lyrics like “Taking steps is easy, standing still is hard”—a line that evokes the characters’ struggle to reckon with their choices and understand themselves in the stasis of lockup. There’s even an Easter egg: The blinking, blue-eyed woman who appears just after the one-minute mark is Piper Kerman, whose memoir provided the inspiration for the show. [John Teti]

20. Mozart In The Jungle season two

The first season of Amazon Studio’s comedy about sex, drugs, and classical music—as the subtitle of the original Mozart In The Jungle book puts it—punctuates its cold opens by rendering the Manhattan skyline as iridescent sheet music, a gaudy, on-the-nose coda cut from a longer symphony of blues and pinks. It’s a bad match for such a playful, impressionistic series, but fortunately, the same can’t be said the show’s second-season openers. In abstract flourishes owing debts to Fantasia and the midcentury malcontents of the UPA animation studio, the show visualizes multiple orchestrations of “Lisztomania,” Phoenix’s ode to the original “pop star” of classical music, Franz Liszt. The winsome sequence draws parallels between Liszt and the cultishly adored modern maestro at the center of Mozart In The Jungle, all the while representing the creative muses that seduce and elude the show’s cast of characters. And it looks a hell of a lot better than the After Dark screen-saver reject that served as a title card for the first 10 episodes. [Erik Adams]