To directly contradict the popular adage, I do judge a television series by its opening credits sequence. (I’m pretty sure that’s how the proverb goes.) Forget such meager criteria as quality writing and acting — if a show has a stinker of an opening credits sequence, it might as well not exist (or should air on the CW, which is essentially the same thing).
It’s a true art form, finding the perfect combination of enthralling visuals and an audio accompaniment to represent a show for its entire run, which can last a few episodes to several seasons. Casts constantly change, quality ebbs and flows, but other than the title (sorry, “Cougar Town”) opening credits are one of the things that stick to a show forever.
Kicking off a show with an identical sequence, set to an unforgettable song, is a convention imbued into our minds as tykes. Give a great big hug to Mom and Dad, appreciating their zen-like patience as you think about the grating sing-a-long openings of “Sesame Street” and “Barney.”
But it’s the next wave of programming that establishes the opening credits to have both memorable music and a taste of what to expect from the show’s content. Recall the thunderously riveting opening for “The Real Adventures of Jonny Quest,” swirling down a rabbit hole peppered with glimpses of Jonny and Hadji’s greatest hits — with a color scheme completely later ripped off by “The Matrix” — and the haunting, doom-and-gloom orchestration that foreshadows the tragic genius of “Dexter’s Laboratory.”
So by the time we’re all grown up, some semblance of an opening credit sequence is a necessary convention for every television show. The expertise with which the show’s creators adopt or even subvert this convention is a beautiful thing to see, and it’s often a barometer of the show’s creative aptitude.
Sitcoms have it the easiest, as they can get away with slapping together a montage of the cast doing wacky things, setting it to a jaunty score and calling it a day (see “How I Met Your Mother,” “30 Rock,” “Parks and Recreation”). But comedies also have the lowest margin for error, as shown by the shoddy sequence of “The Big Bang Theory,” a series of flashing images apparently cobbled together by an eighth grader learning PowerPoint for the first time, set to an repulsively unmelodic tune — though, it does serve as a nice prelude to the show’s general repulsiveness.
Drama series are where the real magic happens, as they’ve recently realized the importance of enchanting opening credits and have started to one-up each other, resulting in a Golden Age of opening sequences. The dazzling, dizzying credits of “Mad Men,” played with RJD2’s amped-up lounge music, set the show’s thermostat at absolute zero even before the supernaturally suave Don Draper showed his face. “Justified” strategically quickdraws its credits after a comically timed cold open, accompanying a twangy bluegrass-rap melody with shots of a Kentucky town in shambles, the specter of its savior, Raylan Givens, dotting the scenery.
But as always, HBO turns it up to 11, featuring opening credits sequences that are mini-works of art in themselves. “The Sopranos” set this precedent, giving the uninitiated a view of the industrial wasteland Tony Soprano festers in (New Jersey), and continued with the splendor of the “Deadwood” opening, showing the American West in a gorgeous, idyllic light — a sharp contrast to the actual content of the show, which stress the vulgarity and vileness of the Wild West.
The brilliance is upheld in HBO’s current offerings: The opening sequence for “Boardwalk Empire,” cranking The Brian Jonestown Massacre’s “Straight Up and Down” as Nucky Thompson gazes upon a sea of liquor, is arguably more mesmerizing than the series itself. And as the best show on television, “Game of Thrones,” accordingly has the best opening credits sequence, hovering over a three-dimensional map of Westeros while a stirring score makes you want to rally your Dothraki army and decapitate some Lannisters.
In terms of ingenuity, few are as impressive as “The Simpsons,” which has featured a different opening sequence for each of its 488 episodes (and counting) — changing Bart’s chalkboard text and the famous “couch gag” each time, even featuring an entire extended sequence directed by Banksy last season (who says “The Simpsons” isn’t relevant?).
As stupendous as “Lost” is, it started the unfortunate trend of abandoning a full opening sequence for a simple title card. (Boo, “Terra Nova,” “Breaking Bad” and “Pan Am.” Boo.) It’s an unfortunate development because as television continues to evolve into the digital frontier, the art of the opening credits sequence should be preserved.