Hard as it may be to believe, title sequences have come a long way since the finger-snapping “Addams Family” opener, which included these enduring lines: “Their house is a museum/ Where people come to see ’em.” And how could TV’s creative minds ever improve on a bunch of “Friends” in white and black dancing like fools in a public water fountain? So totally kooky.
TV title sequences have gotten remarkably sophisticated in the past decade or so. They’ve evolved from cheesy, functional introductions with ear-wormy songs into compelling, suggestive music videos that don’t just announce the beginning of the show; they establish its tone. They boil the mood and emotion of the story down to their essence for us. Because the sequences are created for weekly consumption, they’re layered and dense enough to conjure new facets with each viewing. They’ve got raw imagery designed to rouse, songs written to haunt, and edits and fades and flashes added to provoke.
The titles renaissance has been loud and clear since “The Sopranos” clocked Tony’s journey from New York to New Jersey and “Six Feet Under” delivered its elegant, wry paean to life and death, sky and earth, black and white. But the unnerving opener of “American Horror Story: Coven” serves as a reminder of how prevalent these fantastic little pieces have become. I watched the minute-long “Coven” sequence and realized just how many other shows start with equally masterful shorts. Particularly on cable, the evocative has become the norm.
The “Coven” piece is unsettling, which is what you want from a horror series that, this season, will be about witches in New Orleans. The visuals — hooded figures, the forest at night, voodoo dolls, flames, the nightmarish, leaden typography — are creepy enough, but it’s the music that truly disturbs. The song is a blend of white noise and industrial sounds set to an unnervingly logy beat, finishing off with the snapping of burning wood. This clip, designed by Kyle Cooper of Prologue — which is also responsible for the wonderful portrait of a Mousetrap-like contraption that opens “Elementary” — could not open anything but a horror show.
“True Blood” is also a supernatural drama set in New Orleans, but its title sequence makes quite a different statement. “Coven” says scary; “True Blood” says fear and desire, life and afterlife, at the same time. The piece is one of TV’s best ever openings, a dizzying tour of gothic Louisiana. Created by Digital Kitchen, which also made the “Six Feet Under” intro, it’s edited with a tension-and-release rhythm to the song “Bad Things” by Jace Everett. The visceral string of images — rotting carcasses, ecstatic prayers, a swamp alligator — is as riveting as it is repugnant.
The new breed of title sequence doesn’t pander to viewers; these pieces definitely aren’t commercials for their shows simply tacked onto the front end. The “Homeland” opener, from TCG Studio, is not pleasant or inviting in any way, as it re-creates what it must be like inside Carrie’s brain when she’s off her meds — or inside America’s collective thought process since 9/11. The clip doesn’t inspire enthusiasm for the show so much as a sense of general anxiety. There are news reports of war, presidents from Reagan to Obama addressing the nation, a huge maze of hedges, all set to dissonant sounds that evolve into a sad jazz piece. The whole thing is a kind of re-creation of the evening news having a seizure.
Also in the premier grouping of complex sequences from the past few years: “Treme,” “The Americans,” “Game of Thrones,” “Dexter,” “Fringe,” “Bored to Death,” “Carnivale,” and “Nip/Tuck,” with its montage of mannequins. “Mad Men” has become a classic, a not-very-comic comic strip. But simple can be just as powerful, as the opening of “Lost” proved every week for years. The quick “Lost” sequence is as direct as the show itself was convoluted. The word “Lost” comes at you from out of the dark, while the theme music, a kind of spaceship sound, gets louder. The allusions — to a Magic 8 Ball fortune teller, to the opening of “The Twilight Zone” — don’t compromise the power of the impact.
The opening of “Girls” and “Nashville” have a similar punch to the “Lost” clip. They are both short, like bumpers. The “Girls” logo is a straight-ahead shot of the title in sans serif type, with different colors every week. The statement, as I read it, is that this show is called “Girls,” but it isn’t about the more familiar femininity of, say, “Sex and the City,” with Sarah Jessica Parker in a fashionable tutu. Likewise, “Nashville” cuts to the chase, makes its point, and departs immediately. It gives us the image of a guitar — old Nashville — and then that disappears amid blinking-light commercial flashiness. All in a few seconds, the city of music becomes a garish marquee.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.