Lee Goldberg at A Writers Life has been posting an assortment of main titles for the past year or so. He gives a short assessment of what a title sequence should do, and distills it down to this...
Main titles are created to introduce the audience to the show they are about to see. But for the writer, there is much more information to be gleaned. It is a chance to read the mind of the executive producer. How does he perceive the show? How does he perceive the characters? How does he perceives the tone? What kinds of stories does he want to tell?
Most main title sequences will answer all those questions and more.
There are basically three different kinds of main title sequences: Format sequences, that actually tell you in narration and in writing what the show is about; Mood sequences that convey the type of feeling and tone they are going for; and Character sequences, which delineate who the characters are and how they interact.
Many main titles are combinations of these three sequences.
Interesting. Though lately the movement has been toward short and sweet, a la Heroes, Lost, and Studio 60.
Those aren't title sequences where I come from, they're bumpers. But I will generally take them over some of the lonnng intros of days gone by...see Highway To Heaven or Knots Landing or BJ and the Bear or Baywatch (over 2:00!!) if you want to be reminded.
So how do shows get you to enjoy their 'sequences', whichever model they choose?
Some shows hooked you with some memorable theme music, like Hawaii Five-O, Mission Impossible, Hill Street Blues, Miami Vice, St Elsewhere, Magnum P.I., and The Rockford Files...
And others used a familiar or catchy song, like Dawson's Creek, CSI: Miami, Fame, Gilmore Girls, Ally McBeal, Smallville, Charmed, or Greatest American Hero...
Most of the intros listed above seem to be either Mood Sequences or Character sequences. But the title sequence using narration or voiceover (or Format sequence apparently) seems pretty old school. In fact, I could find hardly any current shows that utilize it (Life On Mars being the exception). But I kept digging and kept finding some old golden nuggets and it got me thinking....
Were they really so bad?
I mean, at first I cringed...but the more I thought about it, I felt myself coming around. Seriously. At the end of the day the title sequence should establish genre/style, and introduce stars/characters, but most importantly it needs to set you as the viewer up for what kind of show you'll be watching (or clicking away from).
That's where the VO title sequence excels. Sexy images and cool music may create a mood and help determine genre...and if you've got some stars the network's gonna want the viewers to see them, but take all the above and place some narration over top to clearly set up the show and even establish intent and objective of the episodes and the characters, and I say you've hit a home run.
Now, I can already hear many of you whining --- but that's soooo uncool.
It's not about being cool, my friends...it's about taking advantage of the 30 seconds to a minute you have to set up and clearly define your show. And I might be setting the bar a little low, but I sometimes think TV series today spend waaaayy too much time and money and energy 'designing' an opening titles sequence (blame the movie Se7en).
But I'm sure some are wondering how one couldn't be mesmerized by the artistic majesty of the opening titles for such contemporary tv series as The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, Big Love, and Dexter! I mean, how can we even compare?
I'm sure some are also thinking even regular network shows excel these days...the cool cold feel of Nip/Tuck, the sombre subtlety of House, the bombastic energy of CSI: Vegas, and the juicy juxtaposition of Greys Anatomy.
But let's face it, some of today's popular show intros, albeit shorter, feel waaayyy too artsy for their own good...not to mention not really informing the viewer about the series. Try watching the opening titles for Desperate Housewives or Medium or The 4400 and tell me you have any idea what the show is actually about? Not too mention there seems to be some smug 'look at us, aren't we cool and clever' going on.
Nope, if I had my druthers, I'd make that first pass at a title sequence be a voiceover one...get that one right, then make it more complicated from there if so desired.
But that's just me.
So, for your viewing/debating pleasure, I present my 10 Best (Worst?) TV Title Sequences With Voiceover:
Beauty And The Beast - is it a love story? Wasn't sure before, now I am.
The Incredible Hulk - confused about what's going to happen? Not after watching this...
Early Edition - simple, clean, perfect.
The Six Million Dollar Man - okay, it's not exactly a voiceover narration, but it's close enough for rock n'roll in my book. Classic.
Star Trek - the 'original' Format sequence
The A-Team - it's so all there, you can't miss it.
Sliders - almost too much information, if such a thing was even possible.
Hart To Hart - I was befuddled by this title, but not anymore.
The first season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer actually had this little pre-intro to help set up the show before evolving into one of the best title sequences ever...
And finally, the piece de resistance...Charlie's Angels - the all-time tell-all title sequence
Okay, seriously for a moment...that's all I got, and these are just the ones I came across at TV Intros and Retro Junk. I'm sure there are plenty more that I missed or aren't posted online yet.
But I leave you with this question: can we love a show but hate the title sequence? Or will we always enjoy the title sequence from a show that we love?