No matter what you think of HBO’s brooding, violent anthology series True Detective, or of its divisive creator-writer Nic Pizzolatto, it’s hard not to be impressed by the show’s opening credits. Whether or not we’re truly in a “Golden Age” of television is a subject for debate, but—the quality of the shows themselves notwithstanding—there’s never been another time with so many engrossing title sequences.
At their best, opening credits do two things: Allude to some of the show’s pivotal themes, and establish a mood for what follows. The credits to the first season of True Detective, set to the enchanting “Far From Any Home,” by the Handsome Family, did both of those things beautifully, taking home an Emmy for best title design in 2014.
That was a tough act to follow for the show’s second season, which premiered June 21 on HBO. Like the first season’s credits, they’re heavy on the spliced photography, but this time employ Leonard Cohen’s husky, seductive “Nevermind” to ratchet up the intrigue.
As TV critic Alan Sepinwall notes at HitFix, opening credits are now mostly a cable TV phenomenon, as the networks (CBS, NBC, et al) have eschewed elaborate title sequences in order to save commercial time (R.I.P. the Friends theme song). Citing the FOX show New Girl, which shrunk its credits down to a few seconds, Sepinwall argues that it “lost one of the most powerful weapons for building a bond between show and viewer.”
Both of True Detective‘s addictive sequences were designed by Elastic, the production studio that’s also responsible for the credits to HBO’s Game of Thrones (which won them an Emmy in 2011), Netflix’s Daredevil (video), and FX’s Justified (video), among many others.
HBO has long utilized excellent opening credits, dating back to The Wire (video) and The Sopranos (video), and more recent shows like True Blood, which may have fallen off the rails in its later seasons but always had fun opening credits:
And now HBO is once again at the height of its opening-credits powers with some its new shows, like the enigmatic modern-day rapture series The Leftovers:
To be sure, HBO isn’t the only channel with terrific opening credits. The credits to AMC’s Mad Men, which themselves became fodder for eager viewers looking for clues about the show, were arguably among the best sequences of all time:
Likewise, AMC’s hit zombie series The Walking Dead features a captivating opening title sequence, even if it’s not quite as cool as the one a fan made (video) before the show premiered:
Other notable examples include the Starz series Black Sails (video) and Da Vinci’s Demons (video), FX’s American Horror Story (video), and Showtime’s Dexter (video).
A cynic might argue that the key to a “good” opening title sequence is merely picking the right song. Pick the right music and you can make anything seem interesting to viewers, like in the HBO miniseries John Adams, which set two minutes of a flag waving to a magnificent, sweeping orchestral score (video).
Certainly, music is an extremely important part of any opening credits, but they don’t necessarily tell the whole story.
Showtime’s Homeland, which has won a number of Emmys including best drama, has been lauded for pretty much everything except its opening credits. Many believe that, despite its distinctive jazz score (which actually fits the show well), it’s a bit too on-the-nose with its imagery:
On the other hand, the wrong music can ruin otherwise interesting opening credits, like in the case of Netflix’s Orange is the New Black. The show uses a montage of close-ups of the faces of real incarcerated women to chilling effect, but the song that’s set to—”You’ve Got Time” by Regina Spektor—often annoys people:
But for a show like True Detective, the opening credits are truly an integral part of the TV-watching process. Fans on Reddit are already obsessively perusing the new sequence for clues; others have remixed it with the song from the first season’s credits (video), or to the music from the various HBO promos (video).