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The best opening credits on TV

If a show doesn't have great credits, we aren't watching it. Here are the five that are impossible to skip

A still from the opening credits of ‘Feud: Bette And Joan’.
A still from the opening credits of ‘Feud: Bette And Joan’.

So no one told you television was going to start this way…

In the beginning, there were theme songs. These would mean a montage accompanied by names that would play with familiar ease as we fetched dinner, squirmed into the preferred sofa position, turned off the lights, got the volume right. These still exist, of course, though in an age when most television is watched obsessively back to back—all of us reduced to those unable to stop at one potato chip—there is less room and patience to bear it again. Most of the better shows today have cold opens and increasingly brief title cards before leaping into the action, with perhaps a snatch of a trademark tune for flourish.

Netflix, meanwhile, adds a “Skip Intro" button to the opening credits of its shows, which shaves off a minute or so of bingeing time but also, alas, too closely resembles the buttons we use to skip advertisements on YouTube videos. This is demeaning to the shows themselves, which, when good, have thoughtfully crafted opening sequences of some import. Also, I prefer another burst of opening credits, if only as a reminder that I’m plunging recklessly into yet another episode—a little speed bump of guilt, if you will—so that there is still the option of turning back before things truly begin.

Sometimes, in this age of artful and technically proficient television, they are plain terrific, setting the stage perfectly or clearing the table between courses, depending on appetite. This is a list you may (and should) argue with, but do check out my selections, each available on YouTube, first. Here are the five opening credits I loved the most this year:

5. The sexy: American Gods

Neon and nightmares abound in the hyper-stylized opening credits of Bryan Fuller’s adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s novel. Set to Brian Reitzell’s significantly Trent Reznor-like music, it’s a riot of religious imagery and mysterious visual hints. This sequence—which managed to throw shots of a radically lit Lord Ganesha idol into the mix without bothering enough Hindu zealots—is a thing of beauty. Trippy, aggressive beauty, certainly, but beauty without a doubt.

Watch the video here

4. The shallow: BoJack Horseman

The thing about this opening is that it gets more profoundly depressing each time you watch it or hear those zingy opening notes. We see BoJack glide through life without a care in the world as it unfolds around him: his house, the store, a dimly lit party, a swimming pool, friends forming a supporting cast as he frowns apathetically through it all. It’s glamorous, colourful, frothy. It is only as the show grips us that we realize having nothing at all to care about is too sad to bear.

Also, coming at the heels of the gorgeous, nutty I’m More Man Than Horse song of the closing credits, this opening feels doubly devastating.

Watch the video here

3. The stark: Stranger Things

The best thing about Netflix’s nostalgia-soaked drama comes up in the haunting 53 seconds before the show starts, where the red lettering of the title comes slowly and ominously into view. The synthesizer is attacked with such ferocity and such intentional cheesiness that it is the most 1980s’ sound on television right now, a sound that—were it a person—would have a mullet and wear jean jackets. Like other Netflix openings of identical length, this is a perfectly sized sequence that efficiently and eerily lets you, the addict, gear up for the bizarreness that will unfold soon.

Watch the video here

2. The stylish: The Young Pope

This is something else. We see Jude Law glide into the frame, his white papal robe swishing softly as he walks past works of chronologically arranged Christian art while the names of the cast flicker on in lightning blue neon lower on the screen. Paolo Sorrentino’s gloriously weird show borrows the riff from Jimi Hendrix’s version of All Along The Watchtower as we watch Law head to the right of our screens. He might be walking but this is, in fact, a brilliant homage to the unforgettable conveyor belt opening from Mike Nichols’ The Graduate. Here too, this ridiculous young Pope is, in a way, coming of age. Then, 1 minute into the opening, the camera goes close and Law turns to us and winks—as if to say we have no idea what we’re in for. You better believe him.

Watch the video here

1. The sublime: Feud: Bette And Joan

Ryan Murphy’s wonderfully performed show about two grand old Hollywood dames—played by dames just as grand—was a treat right from the second the opening titles shone their headlights on us. Inspired by legendary graphic designer Saul Bass, the credits present us with something deeply macabre and disturbing, but do so with silhouettes and cutouts in breathtaking style. A woman is trapped, a woman is felled, two women fight—and turn out then to be puppets. A heart is sliced, a frightening meal is served, a Hitchcock film is saluted…and this is all in just the first 30 seconds. From music to mood, this is the most exquisite credit sequence on television.

Watch the video here

Stream Of Stories is a column on what to watch online.

He tweets at @rajasen

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