Netflix began phasing in the “skip intro” button in March of 2017. As its name implies, the skip intro button allows Netflix users to fast forward through the title sequences of all of their favorite shows, saving them from the relentlessly tiring task of watching a minute-long clip set to music. Social media and my immediate friend group lead me to believe that this initiative has been well-received. In my anecdotal experience, people do not care about the humble title sequence. The titles are boring, repetitive, and cliche, especially when you are trying to peacefully binge. May they forever be skipped.
I would counter that the title sequence is integral to television, and it arose with the advent of visual media itself. Starting with the first silent films made at the turn of the 20th century and lasting until around the 1970s, the opening credits kicked off the start of a moving picture. Important information on who-did-what was set to dramatic music to be seen before the story began. These films would end with either a short slide recapitulating the main actors and their roles, or, even more commonly, just a simple “The End” before the screen went black. Of course, eventually the film industry switched to the endless crawl we see today, but not before filmmakers got clever with the delivery of their opening credits. Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944) sets the tone in its opening credits, which play over the unsettling image of a shadowy man on crutches creeping ever closer. Orson Welles famously and masterfully played on audience suspense in the Touch of Evil credits by following a car outfitted with a bomb, until the bomb detonates and sends the car, and its oblivious passengers, up in flames. These two filmmakers and countless others successfully made otherwise boring exposition integral to their film’s moods and worlds.
Yet the title sequence carries over to television, in part because it must do the same expository work of who-did-what-when, and in part because television, too, needs to introduce (or reintroduce) viewers to its world.
Try to imagine Parks and Recreation without also hearing its theme song in your head. For me, the task is nearly impossible. The same is true for Michael Shur’s other late, great sitcom: The Office. The title sequences to these shows are fairly boilerplate–we see the names of the major actors underneath a short clip of their respective characters doing something representative of their personality. The goal of these title sequences is not to generate suspense or narrative movement like in Touch of Evil, but instead to give us a crash course on Leslie’s unstoppable optimism in Parks and Rec or the mindless patter of corporate life in The Office. The Parks and Rec title sequence eases us back into Leslie’s goofy, bright, and kind world and takes our attention away from whatever we were doing before we turned on Netflix.
Despite the vast differences in the surrounding stories and themes, the Double Indemnity and Parks and Rec intros are geared towards establishing tone and ambience. Even title sequences that are not stunning examples of the form, such as Breaking Bad’s green, smoky, and boring opener, fulfill the purpose of bringing us from our own world into the world of the show with visual and auditory cues. In essence, they train us to engage with the show’s world. Indeed, one of my least favorite parts of the skip-intro button is the way that the sound skips from the very beginning of the theme song to the very end, reminding me that I am watching a show and preventing me from fully immersing myself in the world.
Unlike Touch of Evil, TV shows cannot use a plot point as their title sequence, unless they want to change it every episode. However, many shows have title sequences that are explicitly intended to convey information about the show. Game of Thrones, for instance, literally introduces its audience to Westeros in the title sequence by playing the credits over a huge, animated map. A fantasy show with its own dense mythology and filled to the brim with interconnected characters, Game of Thrones smartly uses the map to orient the audience so that it can spend less time wondering about Westeros’s geography and more time on the drama and characters. My personal favorites, however, are the TV shows that use their title sequences as a kind of thesis statement, introducing us not only to the world of the show but also to the themes that the show seeks to articulate. Exemplary in this category are Mad Men and Bojack Horseman, two shows that, coincidentally, are two of the greatest depictions of depression ever seen on the small screen.
Mad Men’s title sequence shows a man, most likely the protagonist Don Draper, arriving at his office as everything begins to melt away. He’s falling, falling lost amid the cheery, manipulative advertisements he designs for a living. Taking place in the early 1960s, a time of immense social change, the show deals with themes about both the transition from the old to the new and continuous, sustained self-destruction. Don Draper’s fall works as a visualization of falling behind the times, the inability to differentiate authenticity from presentation, and Don’s own suicidal impulses.
Where Don falls, Bojack floats, as the eponymous horseman wakes up and drifts through his day with the aid of coffee and copious amounts of alcohol. A wild saxophone plays behind the sequence, telegraphing the distress underneath Bojack’s detached demeanor. Throughout the show’s run, the title sequence gets updated. The spaces Bojack glides through and the people populating them switch out and interchange; no matter, the dissociative floating continues. Bojack has made a successful melodrama over the feelings of a depressed horseman as he sort-of tries to be a better person and usually fails. It’s all right there in the title sequence: old habits die hard and a change of environment will not change who you are as a person.
Of course, when you go on a binge watch you don’t necessarily need to be re-introduced to the world and you don’t necessarily need the show’s thesis statement when you’re trying to watch the equivalent of a body paragraph. Admittedly, these functions were more important for grabbing a viewer’s attention when people watched TV as it aired. With the advent of streaming services, customers cherry-pick their show off of a menu and rarely gain exposure to any other series. As a consequence, a catchy theme song is less likely to win over new viewers. Nonetheless, the title sequence will always be one of the first parts of a TV show that any audience member will ever see, even if they only watch it once. Netflix’s GLOW understood this, creating a beautiful title sequence that was used once in the pilot and then shortened for all of the remaining episodes. Audiences were introduced to a unique world and vibe on their first viewing, and then plowed through episodes with an unobtrusive title card taking the place of the sequence. It is a savvy business move. Customers get to their content faster without having to explicitly skip anything. Yet, I can’t say that I look forward to this short sequence world. Regardless if they watch it once or watch it every time, the titles are viewers’ introduction to what may be their new favorite TV show or a return to an old favorite. In either case, Netflix better hope audiences like what they see.