With every minute of running time becoming more and more crucial to television’s greatest storytellers, the art of title sequences — those minute-long sequences that set the scene and introduce audiences to those both in front of the camera and behind it who make the show possible — has largely fallen by the wayside. I mean, Grey’s Anatomy fans still miss the clinical-turned-sexual sequence set to Psapp’s “Cosy in the Rocket” that was traded early on in the series’ run for a two-second title card.
But this year, title sequences saw somewhat of a resurgence, with many of 2013’s best new series also bringing some fantastic new openers. From the beautiful animation utilized for Top of the Lake to that perfectly cheeky montage for Masters of Sex, below are the 15 best new title sequences that surfaced on television this year.
15. The Goldbergs
The opening theme song — “Rewind” by I Fight Dragons — may be kind of cheesy, but it harkens back to those themes that dominated the ’80s, the decade in which this Adam Goldberg family comedy is set. The sequence, by Shine, is absolutely on point. Each week, the final frame of the cold open freezes, cuts to a granular “Pause” screen, zooms out on a perfectly ’80s TV set and VCR, and then zooms in on a VHS tape, complete with the classic white dotted label. Then, a hand pushes the cassette back in and the action resumes. But perhaps even better than The Goldberg’s opening credits are the show’s closing ones, which include a scene from the show side-by-side with footage from Goldberg’s personal collection. Your heart will be warmed and your eyes will be burning from the horribly fluorescent fashion.
14. Sleepy Hollow
Fox’s surprise hit of the season came in the shape of Sleepy Hollow, which unsurprisingly centers on a modern-day Ichabod Crane (played by newly minted heartthrob Tom Mison) who rises from the dead and finds himself adjusting to life in 2013 with the Headless Horseman still after him. The series has gained a cult following in the first half of its debut season, and its title sequence sets up the premise of this mysterious and gothic tale quite nicely. A mysterious woman transports the audience to the titular town, which has gone from tree-filled to pavement-covered, and we see hints a Colonial romance, danger in a horse’s red eye, and Crane’s grave rising from the water. (We’ll just ignore the tired, traditional moving head shots of the main cast members looking scared, seductive, and/or stoic — whichever befits their character — and just focus on the artful elements.)
13. Pretty Little Liars Season 4 Halloween Special
The Pretty Little Liars Halloween special has become one of the most highly anticipated TV events of the year for fans of this hit teen (and err, twentysomething and thirtysomething) series. And this year’s installment (“Grave New World”) brought an extra special treat: an appropriately bloody revamped version of the title sequence the show has been using since it debuted in 2010, complete with a creepy cat eye and some threatening thunderstorms. It got audiences in the perfect mood to watch their favorite episode of PLL for the year.
12. Ja’mie: Private School Girl
This spin-off of Chris Lilley’s cult comedy Summer Heights High sets the pitch-perfect tone from the second the title sequence begins. In what feels like a 45-second mockery of MTV’s My Super Sweet Sixteen opener, the audience sees high school queen bee Ja’mie in all of her lip-glossing, perfume-spraying, bra-adjusting, sister-shoving glory. Everything sparkles and shines and the music sounds like it’s straight out of a Disney fairy tale, but Ja’mie is still exposed for the gloriously evil young woman she is.
11. The Fosters
ABC Family’s drama centers on an interracial lesbian couple, Lena Adams (Sherri Saum) and Stef Foster (Teri Polo), with two adopted children and another from Stef’s former marriage, who unexpectedly find themselves taking in a teenage foster child (Maia Mitchell). The opening credits feature beautiful close-ups from the Adams-Foster home — scoops of cereal, photos on the refrigerator, dirty dishes, pencil markings on the wall of the kids’ heights, syrup-soaked pancakes, rubber duckies — as well as a few more telling items, like Stef’s police badge, eldest son Brandon’s sheet music, and Stef and Lena’s hands embracing amongst wrinkled sheets, all while Kari Kimmel’s heartfelt lyrics to “Where You Belong” croon in the background. It’s a simple title sequence, but a beautiful one that subtlety sends the message that the Adams-Foster brood is no different than anyone else’s.
The credits for Bryan Fuller’s new NBC series might make you grossed out, but also thirsty, an impressive feat the show itself also manages to achieve. While first watching this title sequence by Momoco, you think you’re looking at wine; soon, the burgundy liquid starts to form the heads of Hannibal stars Mads Mikkelsen, Hugh Dancy, and Laurence Fishburne, clearly signifying blood. It’s the perfect setup for a show that makes you squirm with its grotesque scenes but also salivate with its elaborate dinner spreads. Mm mm good.
9. The Americans
FX’s new Cold War drama about U.S.-stationed KGB agents Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys), living in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., brought high stakes and even higher mom jeans. The series’ title sequence is by Elastic, and you can see the similarities between The Americans’ opener and one of the company’s other works for Masters of Sex (below): Picturesque ’80s Americana imagery like hula-hooping, home-run-hitting, and Jazzercizing is juxtaposed against quick shots of KGB propaganda, false documentation, and massive explosions, perfectly depicting the double-sided lives of the Jennings.
The tension-building tune of Fever Ray’s “If I Had a Heart” plays in the background of the Vikings title sequence that is equal parts American Horror Story, Game of Thrones, and The Returned. The sequence, from creative director Rama Allen, consists of a stream of twisted evocative images — a slowly drowning body and indeterminable pieces of flesh — that will haunt your dreams. Allen, who’s also behind the True Blood opening credits, said the sequence was inspired by a folktale about the nine goddesses of the waves who would “pluck Viking explorers from their ships and pull them to a sensual, dark, watery grave.” Not only does the Vikings title sequence perfectly evoke the themes of this series about Norse heroes who first raided England, but the fact that it was partially shot on the beaches of a pre-Hurricane Sandy Jersey Shore only adds to its somber vibe.
7. Clear History
This HBO movie — directed by, written by, and starring Larry David (alongside Jon Hamm) — centered on a disgraced former Silicon Valley electric car exec (David) who disguised himself in order to exact revenge upon his former boss (Hamm), who made bank from the company they started together. And the credits from Aaron Becker live up to the title, depicting the process of someone clearing his online history, as David’s character attempted to do metaphorically in the film. Attention to detail, like hovering over a T-shirt in the toolbar for the costume designer’s credit, make this title sequence all the better as does Chicago’s “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is.”
6. Orange Is the New Black
Though the theme song Regina Spektor composed especially for Orange Is the New Black wasn’t as unanimously praised as the series, the visual imagery of the opening sequence for Netflix’s breakout hit itself is truly beautiful. The montage of female faces of all different races, ages, shapes, and sizes was created by Thomas Cobb Group, which is also behind Homeland’s title sequence. They were designed, at the request of OITNB creator Jenji Kohan, to send the message that the show wasn’t just about the privileged, white, tall, and slim lead character Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling); Gary Bryman, TCG’s executive producer, told FastCompany.com that Kohan wasn’t a fan of their initial concept for the title sequence (“images from Piper’s point of view that would starkly contrast the hard, cold reality of her new imprisoned life against the imagined luxuries of her previous life”). Ultimately, they filmed previously incarcerated and gang-involved real-life women for the sequence, including Piper Kerman, whose memoir provides the basis for the series. The women were told to visualize three things while the camera rolled — a peaceful place, a person who makes you laugh, and something that you want to forget. And the result is heart-warming, depressing, and eye-opening — everything this fantastic series is.
5. American Horror Story: Coven
FX’s horrifying anthology series reinvents itself — and its opening credits — every year. In 2013, we saw Asylum’s eerie and gory mental institution-set sequence (complete with an Exorcist walk up the stairs), and the sequence for the show’s third season, Coven, which was released early to build excitement, is really AHS’ best yet. The voodoo dolls and burning at the stake — all in black-and-white and sepia tones — manage to make more sense as the season unfolds. Viewers will notice something different each time they tune in for AHS: Coven, though they probably each have a favorite bit (that fabulous studded mask) and shudder-inducing second (whatever that creature with the blue eyes is).
3. The Returned
French thriller The Returned has quietly become a critical favorite, and the opening credits for the series, which airs on the Sundance Channel (where you can catch a marathon of all eight episodes of Season 1 on Sunday, Dec. 22, beginning at 12 p.m. ET), beautifully set the scene for the chilling show that straddles the worlds of the dead and the living. As haunting music chimes in the sequence, those words are juxtaposed against one another — a young couple embraces next to a gravesite, and children play near a puddle of black water. The credits also establish some of the mysteries the season goes on to answer: Why are there dead mountain goats in the water? And why is the water black? The final image of the ghost of a young woman in a fogged-up window, one that a girl (who viewers later learn is her sister) wipes away, will give you goose bumps.
2. Masters of Sex
Showtime’s series about pioneering sexuality researchers Dr. William Masters and Virginia Johnson addresses both the trite facade of late-’50s life and what really went on behind closed doors (even beyond the bedroom). Its opening credits, made by Elastic (which is also behind Game of Thrones’ title sequence), reflect just that: The sequence follows a cartoonish teenaged Dick and Jane-esque couple meeting, flirting, and fucking, interspersed with imagery of sexual euphemisms (think cucumbers and exploding volcanos) and close-ups of curled toes and fists clenching sheets from Masters and Johnson’s research. The music that accompanies the title sequence is perfection, and the fact that the young woman puffs on a cigarette in the final seconds is the proverbial cherry on top. (I’ll even overlook that gag-worthy growing fungus at the 0:13 second mark.)
1. Top of the Lake
The opening titles from Jane Campion and Gerard Lee’s critically acclaimed Sundance Channel miniseries master the art of setting the mood. The sequence from Leonie Savvides opens with an image of the titular lake that’s based on a painting by Séraphine Pick. With a technique akin to stop-motion animation, the camera pans down as the beautifully dirtied water oozes into the depths of the lake. The stag’s head that slowly moves to the forefront of the screen and eventually turns black and disappears, as well as the fetus that glows in the final moments of the sequence, both become more meaningful as this mystery-crime series (starring Elisabeth Moss and Holly Hunter) went on. What Savvides achieved in a mere 30 seconds is truly remarkable.
OOPS: This post has been updated to reflect that Bryan Fuller, not Singer, created “Hannibal.” Apologies to both talented Bryans. Also, this post has been corrected to state that I Fight Dragons, not I Heart Dragons, penned and performed the theme song for “The Goldbergs.” We’re just lovers, not fighters.
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