TV's Most Inspired Title Sequences

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Over the last few years, TV shows have suddenly dropped the boring montage titles that used to predominate – you know, the ones with a shot of all the characters interspersed, perhaps, with a few landscapes to set the scene – and become one of the most innovative areas in entertainment. Some serve as microcosms of the shows they represent; others appear to go off on a tangent; still more create their own little world of comedy, adventure or horror. Here, we’ve gathered together 25 of the finest out there, with an emphasis on recent series rather than, say, Red Dwarf. Watch them and marvel – and in a few cases, shudder in terror...

brightcove.createExperiences();Luckily for anyone who wasn’t paying attention early on in this Battlestar Galactica spin-off, this opener comes laden with symbolism that explains everything – sort of. So if you keep your eyes peeled between sweeping camera moves, you might catch that Eric Stoltz’ daughter has been reborn as a Cylon, that Polly Walker’s schoolma’am is recruiting terrorists, and that the Adama family has links to organized crime even though patriarch Joseph, grief-stricken, strives to live straight. This sequence also manages the difficult task of communicating that it’s a sci-fi series, but also that it’s more of a soap about warring families than a series of space battles. The show itself may not have lasted, but this is an opening gambit to remember.

brightcove.createExperiences();“Humble fabulist” Garth Marenghi (Matthew Holness) precedes each episode of the short but perfectly-formed Darkplace with a reading from one of his execrable books, which alone would make this worthy of inclusion. But the title itself is an inspired pastiche of an ‘80s montage opening, showing each of the characters in awkwardly posed or simply ridiculous snippets. Holness’ Marenghi humbly plays “Dr Rick Dagless” himself, and the “author, dreamweaver, plus actor” never drops character for a moment, reveling in his own self-importance as he runs in the least convincing slo-mo ever. See it for the hair flicks. See it for the dodgy explosions. See it for Richard Ayoade’s Dean Learner furiously tricycling in front of a back projection.

brightcove.createExperiences();Archaeologists deconstruct dry stones and ancient monuments to bring the glories of ancient Rome back to life. HBO takes a shortcut and literally brings the stones to life in this credit sequence, thanks to moving mosaics, scribbled graffiti writhing on the wall and a carved Medusa with her tresses snaking in the breeze. Quite a few of the bits of animated graffiti are obscene and some of the walls appear to be blood-spattered, which could almost be labelled a spoiler for a show that is fully sexed up and frequently bathed in blood – on occasion literally, as when sacrificing a bull and standing beneath its severed jugular. Jeff Beals’ theme, which rejects big sword-and-sandal orchestration for a more probably-authentic combination of Roman-style instruments, adds to the sense of history come alive – although our Latin class was never like this.

brightcove.createExperiences();Good luck getting this theme out of your head - you'll need it.

If you’re after a way to communicate the soul-sucking uniformity of American suburban life, this is the title sequence for you. Identically dressed drones jog in unison past identical houses, march in turn into the same coffee shop and drive the same cars to the same jobs that keep them in lawn sprinklers. But the secret of Mary Louise Parker’s Nancy Botwin is hinted at in the very first shots, where houses grow almost organically in sweeping curves around a developer’s tract, and of course in that final shot of a marijuana leaf’s shadow. Yes, she’s a big ol’ pot dealer, which does not fit in neatly with that latte-drinking, lawn-mowing world. Full marks too for the inspired use of Malvina Reynolds’ Little Boxes as the show’s theme tune as well.

brightcove.createExperiences();Perhaps the smartest show on TV and one laden with double-meanings and hidden clues (so the internet boards have it, at least), this title sequence illustrates the lack of control behind even the most apparently ordered life – and quite possibly hints that this entire series is a massive downer about the fall of a man who seems to have it all. It’s also a gorgeous bit of design that has become iconic in its own right – there’s even a jewellery line – reflecting both a ‘60s Saul Bass aesthetic and a thoroughly modern edge – much like the show itself, then. Next time you see a man lounging with his arm along a couch, know that there’s a 79% chance he’s trying to look half as cool as this animation and a 3% chance he’ll succeed.

brightcove.createExperiences();There’s a fair argument that the Simpsons credits gags are now a better reason to watch the show than anything that follows them – particularly in the case of their recent Game Of Thrones homage. But Matt Groening’s show set the standard more than 20 years ago and has merely been fine-tuning and tweaking the formula since, adding more characters as the town of Springfield became as important as the Simpsons themselves and endlessly refreshing those blackboard and couch gags. And you know what? It’s still a nailed-on classic, mixing physical comedy with character-establishing moments and all scored to that endlessly catchy Elfman theme. And those ever-changing opening and closing gags remain a showcase of comedy genius.

brightcove.createExperiences();Sex. Death. Religion. Those are the three key themes in the True Blood, and they’re all represented in the trippy, acid-washed opening sequence. Whether you prefer pole dancers, old-fashioned faith healings or lurking alligators, it’s all here, set to Jace Everett’s sultry/sinister Bad Things. Given that most vampire shows go the crucifix/blood route, you have to give full marks for originality in choosing a decaying fox corpse instead; only a church bulletin board reading “God Hates Fangs” gives any hint of the show’s undead characters. But it’s the execution of this montage that’s really impressive: the burnt celluloid, the almost-subliminal flashes of naughty stuff. It all gives an extra touch of class to HBO’s beautifully-rendered supernatural soap.

brightcove.createExperiences();A title sequence that has inspired a thousand wannabes, this combines Thomas Newman’s instantly recognisable and incongruously cheery theme with images of death and burial. It’s a strangely beautiful sequence, with the rather lovely opening images – a bird flying across a blue sky, a lone tree on a hilltop, hands that almost look to be praying – slowly giving way to a mortuary slab and a tagged toe that drop slowly into view. That’s when you realise that the hands were actually disinfecting ready for body prep, as the preparation for burial begins. It’s less graphic and disturbing than, say, Dexter, but still gives you a notion that this show is a little off the beaten path of dysfunctional family comedy/dramas.

brightcove.createExperiences();Death: he’s just like us! Commutes, works in an office, enjoys some B-ball – at least, according to this quirky opening for Showtime’s series about an average girl who becomes a not-so-grim Reaper. The opening few frames, and bars of the theme, are more than a little reminiscent of Six Feet Under, but this takes a zanier, jazzier turn and becomes something a little more fun. We can’t help thinking that this would have been a blast to shoot – full marks, after all, to a guy who can shoot hoops while carrying a scythe in one hand – and it instantly establishes the show’s blend of morbid subject matter and light, matter-of-fact tone.

brightcove.createExperiences();A mixture of pop-up engineering and stop-motion animation brings to life this Emmy-award winning credit sequence from the Diablo Cody-created, Steven Spielberg-produced show about Toni Collette’s Kansan housewife and her multiple personalities. This sequence centres on the original three established early on – 1950s housewife Alice, hellraiser Buck and slutty teen T – but finishes on Tara herself, as the host of all three. Given that the show has a rather difficult premise to establish, this one had its work cut out – but delivers in rather stylish fashion, as you might expect from Jamie Caliri, who was also responsible for the fabulous end titles from Lemony Snicket’s A Series Of Unfortunate Events. Way to make multiple personalities look cool, team.

brightcove.createExperiences();How to establish that Rowan Atkinson’s Blackadder is a no-goodnik not to be trusted with the keys to your strongroom or your daughter’s virtue? Why, by showing that he’s the kind of knave who mis-shelves books and cuts the middle out of reference books in order to hide his trashy bonkbusters. That’s just what this sequence does, while also handily including the cast credits on the spines of various discarded books and cramming in some other jokes on the shelves; we could, for instance, instead read 'The Blackobite Rebellion', 'The Blackadder’s Progress' or 'The Encyclopaedia Blackaddica'. And all of this accompanying Atkinson’s sneering schemer, this time found working as butler to the Prince Regent. While he’s arguably slightly less awful than his ancestors in Blackadders One and Two, he’s still an utter bastard – and we love him for it.

brightcove.createExperiences();There’s more than a touch of surrealism to this title sequence. The lone figure, in the bowler hat, starring out to sea – is anyone else reminded of Magritte? Of course, instead of having an apple for a face, this particular fizzog belongs to Steve Buscemi as Enoch "Nucky" Thompson, Prohibition-era politician who more-or-less built Atlantic City (seen behind him in the final shot). The Prohibition issue is brought in here with the bottles that wash up around Nucky’s feet, and the show’s violence is hinted at when one smashes against the supports of the boardwalk. Most of all, though, there’s the impression that Nucky is lord of all he surveys, commanding skies and sea with equal ease. And he doesn’t even get his feet wet. King Canute was a loser.

brightcove.createExperiences();Focusing on a bunch of mathmos and brainiacs in a Washington think-tank may not have been a tactic that produced series longevity – Rubicon only lasted 13 episodes – but it did leave us this rather nifty title sequence, which runs through virtually every means of storing information in code. Bar and QR codes, maps, diagrams, graphs and crosswords: they’re all here. And maybe, just maybe, somewhere in the midst of it all is the secret to the global conspiracy that our hero, Will Travers (James Badge Dale), is trying to unravel. To the untrained eye, this may all look like a montage from A Beautiful Mind, but we’re going to have to trust that Travers can unravel it all before he starts hallucinating visions of Paul Bettany.

brightcove.createExperiences();It owes more than a little to its big brother, er, Band Of Brothers but The Pacific adds an artistic touch with pencil sketches that transform into slow-mo scenes from the series. There’s the same sort of mournful, vaguely martial trumpet theme as in Brothers, the same profoundly desaturated picture (to almost black-and-white levels here, but for a few flashes of red) and a similar crop of soulful GIs staring off into the middle distance. But that crumbling charcoal pencil somehow adds extra violence to the proceedings, its tip exploding as it drags along the page, the fragments flying about like shrapnel. It’s a great way to give a painterly, elegant touch to the sequence without detracting from the seriousness of the war effort or the casualties involved.

brightcove.createExperiences();This one’s a little tricky, since each season of this impeccably crafted social decay epic had a different performance of the same theme tune and a different montage sequence. Overall, however, we couldn’t pass it by, and that very adaptability is one reason why. Each title sequence reflects the focus of that season precisely; each new version of the same song (Tom Waits’ Way Down In The Hole) reminds us that this is a fresh perspective on the same story. Season One is our favourite, with the Blind Boys Of Alabama performing the track (Waits himself took season two duties) in a brilliantly old bluesy style. And it also packs the greatest punch, since that same version was used at the very end of the final episode of season five, as the wheel turned and the cycle began again with a fresh crop of lives. There’s never been a show like it – opening titles included.

brightcove.createExperiences();Each season of David Duchovny’s sex addiction comedy/drama has a slightly different title sequence, but there are some common threads that illuminate lead character Hank’s life. There’s the trendy light bleaching of the images – cause he’s such a hipster – and the Californian sunshine – because that’s where he lives – and references to writing – because that’s what he does. There are a few touches we’re pretty sure are metaphorical: if that oil derrick doesn’t symbolise shagging then…well, then we might need a cold shower and a new perspective on life. But we’re pretty sure that it does. And there’s Duchovny, looking carefree but a tad hapless and out of control as he goes about his day.

brightcove.createExperiences();A few elements of this may seem overfamiliar by now. That Joan Jett rendition of Reputation has been used in half the teen movies out there, and even the type-face feels familiar from a million indie movies. But both were fresher in 1999 when this was created, and the school photo parade still provides an effective way of introducing the characters, showcasing their insecurities and giving just a touch of their personalities. So James Franco’s don’t-give-a-fuck attitude contrasts nicely with John Francis Daley’s panic; Seth Rogen’s determined glare works against Sam Levine’s beaming smile. It’s relatable, at least for North Americans; it’s funny, and it’s still cool looking after all these years. You know, this cast and crew might be going places...

brightcove.createExperiences();There have been many gangster stories set in the big city, and more specifically in the Big Apple. But The Sopranos takes place in a world apart, a world that’s a way along the Jersey Turnpike and in a state with the most toxic waste sites in the US. This Alabama 3-accompanied sequence takes viewers out from New York into the wilds of Jersey, touching on thematically relevant sights. So we see Port Newark, which the Gambino crime family once virtually controlled, and the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, reflecting the ostensible religion of the show’s protagonists and the culture to which they belong. Well, when they’re not at the strip club. Or whacking somebody in the woods. Or seeing a psychotherapist. Or cheating on their wives. But, y’know, otherwise.

brightcove.createExperiences();Struggling writer turns unlicenced private investigator: what could work better than a noir novel that opens to reveal vignettes from the series and little animations explaining the relationships between the main characters? Sketchy little figures made out of text act out mini-escapades that are, somehow, less ridiculous than the plots of the show itself, wherein Jason Schwartzman’s writer undertakes such difficult tasks as recovering a lost skateboard and fighting a boxing match against GQ magazine. This is, in other words, a rare case where the title sequence is considerably cooler than the lead character.

brightcove.createExperiences();New Zealand's “fourth most popular digi-folk paradists” pin their surreal colours to the mast early with this inspired credit sequence, creating an off-kilter impression from the get-go. Oscar-winner Bret McKenzie and Men In Black III villain Jemaine Clement keep their expressions deadpan, wilfully ignoring the dancing park benches and flying killer whales that plague them as they navigate the mean streets of New York in their quest for international stardom (or whatever). Still, even they can’t help but bob their heads to the beat, and they won’t be the only ones. We’re still waiting for New Zealand’s top three digi-folk paradists to break out, because if they’re better than this pair they must be something really special.

brightcove.createExperiences();It starts off so innocently. Oh sure, the titles are formed from people’s tattoos and there’s clearly quite a bit of leather and cleavage, but with that American flag and guitar is a sense that this is just a story of American rebels. Then we spot the pump-action shotgun and switchblade and the bags of cash, and get that this may be a crime story after all. What’s impressive about this sequence, once you’ve watched even one episode, is how clearly this identifies all the main characters without ever showing their faces – whether you can tell by a scar, a weapon of choice or a favoured style of jacket. The music’s pretty rockin’ too – although the less said about season three’s Celtic remix, the better.

brightcove.createExperiences();Here are opening titles to make you profoundly regret this show’s cancellation – and the fact that hardly anyone in the UK got to see it in the first place. This gorgeous sequence flits between establishing shots of the 1930s, when the series is set, and tarot cards based on works of medieval and Renaissance art, establishing the wider themes of good vs. evil, free will vs. destiny. It’s hard to go too far wrong when you have Michelangelo’s The Last Judgment and the Hindenberg disaster to work with, and sure enough by the time this snippet finishes you will be ready for both the Dustbowl years and a visit to strange and magical circus folk. Once you’ve dissected every single symbol and double-meaning here, you might just be ready for the labyrinthine and melancholy show itself, one of the most complex and layered series you’ll ever see.

brightcove.createExperiences();OH GOD THE HORROR. If you can make it through this title sequence without cowering in terror and/or switching off the TV and hiding under a blanket clutching a teddy bear, you’re stronger than us. A veritable portmanteau of nightmare visions, this features olde worlde children’s portraits, bodies in jars of formaldehyde and a man cutting his own neck with shears. It will surprise you not-at-all that this ordeal is brought to you by Kyle Cooper, the man behind the Seven titles, with music from Cesar Davila-Irizarry and musician Charlie Clouser, who we can only assume are mad geniuses from this unsettling slice of score. Every image here relates to something in the show, so save yourself while you can and RUN AWAY FAST.

brightcove.createExperiences();If the premise of Dexter is that darkness lies behind the most ordinary of facades – and that’s as good a reading of the show as any – then it is perfectly communicated here, showing an average morning routine in such excruciating close-up that the violence of everyday activities becomes more shocking than anything on the show. From fly-swatting to shaving, this will make you wince – and if you’re not a little grossed out by that blood-orange-squeezing shot, you’re made of sterner stuff than we are. By the time you get to floss ligatures, shoelaces reminiscent of strangulation and a T-shirt that seems destined to suffocate someone, the end of the credits and beginning of the show’s serial killer plotlines will seem like a positive relief.

Winning plaudits for just about every element – leading men Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson seem destined to be in the Emmy conversation this year – True Detective didn’t disappoint in its title sequence, either. In keeping with the tradition of HBO series’ great intros, this sets hazy imagery of Louisiana landscapes and industrial sprawl within images of the main characters and others. And it’s perfectly scored by ‘Far From Any Road’ by The Handsome Family, which conjures up a dreamlike vision of grime, danger and death. It’s a world of degradation, with sex, sin and insanity in equal measure, all inspired from a pitch by show creator Nic Pizzolatto. And yes, it’s compelling with it. If time is a flat circle, we’re fine with watching this one again and again.

The Danish/Swedish TV series, one of the big successes of the current Scandi-Noir trend, features a haunting opening sequence that uses time-lapse and a sepia tone to set the mood. But instead of going for grisly images of the murders to come, it opts instead for what seems like every day activity, with cars scurrying back and forth on the titular bridge (the Øresund, which connects Copenhagen in Denmark with Malmö in Sweden). Musical accompaniment here is from Choir of Young Believers with their track ‘Hollow Talk’. There’s a particularly omniscient feel to the footage as you glide high above the bridge for the most part, separate from the crimes unfolding below, but still aware that something seems horribly wrong.

With each new incarnation of the main character, and even within some of the actors’ runs, the show’s credits have themselves regenerated. But the essential elements remain – some variation of the original, iconic theme originally created by Ron Grainger, Delia Derbyshire and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and a trip through time and space as represented by whatever effects each version of the show had to hand. Audiences who jumped aboard with Christopher Eccleston’s Ninth Doctor are used to big orchestral versions (via current composer Murray Gold) and sweeping CG trips with a buffeted TARDIS. But there’s something to be said for the pure, creepy simplicity of the William Hartnell era, which seemed to signal that anything could happen – and frequently did…

brightcove.createExperiences();As with the show itself, the opening credits to Chris Carter’s tale of two FBI agents investigating the weirder sides of the world comes loaded with supernatural and conspiracy imagery. UFOs, spectral auras, weird science… It was all dreamt up by Bruce Bryant and Carol Johnsen, who ended up part of their own title sequence thanks to requiring cheap labour to play figures, faces or hands on screen. The result is a hypnotic way into the show, introducing leading actors Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny and instantly keying in to what might follow. With the imagery complete, the titles were handed to composer Mark Snow, who crafted the memorable music that perfectly complements them. You can read more about the making of both the titles and the music in our X-Files celebration.

A title sequence so effecting it’s inspired a legion of mash-ups – from House Of Cards to Growing Pains – Walking Dead’s intro is enough to make even the most bloodthirsty zombie feel a bit on edge. The music was written by the amazingly-named (and very talented) Bear McCreary, who has this to say about the composition: “It repeats over and over. In the pilot episode, you start hearing it before the main title begins, and this is something that continues episode to episode. You hear the main title music before the main title begins, so you know it's coming. That, to me, was the little hook – that little thing that, whenever you hear it, it takes you to the series.” McCreary, incidentally, was the man behind the Emmy award-winning titles for Da Vinci's Demons too.