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Archive for July, 2011

“You can’t judge a book by its cover” is an adage that I’ve never agreed with.  Once upon a time that was true, perhaps, but covers are purposefully designed to signal helpful information about the book. Here’s the NYT fiction and business bestsellers for the week:

These two differ slightly in tone, I feel.

To be sure, the book cover won’t tell you everything about what’s inside–and it may try to mislead you–but the cover is a quick and easy way to get a sense of what the book’s about.

The opening title sequences for TV show serve a similar function. In mere seconds a well-designed sequence can signal all sorts of important things about the show, like genre, style, tone, and production value. Many of these are even able to give users a sense of the show without resorting to cheesy character montages or “turn and smile” shots as parodied here:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

The received wisdom is that opening credits have gotten shorter on average over the years. Probably true, but hard to know for sure since the variability of lengths has gone way up.  Game of Thrones and Dexter’s opening credits each run over 1’40”, while Breaking Bad’s runs about 15 seconds. Many shows like Glee and Brothers & Sisters have a mere one-second flash of the title card.  These days, opening credits are like the proverbial box of chocolates.

Because title sequences have gone from perfunctory kitsch to an important stylized element, they’ve gotten a lot better. In the last post I gave you my TV watching background; here’s some of my favorite sequences from shows (not far) past and present:

  • LOST (ABC, 2004-2010)

It’s still remarkable to me how much this simple sequence accomplishes. I didn’t start watching until three seasons had aired, mostly because the I couldn’t see how a show about stranded plane wreck survivors could be compelling. When I finally gave the show a chance, this sequence quickly made me realize my preconception of the show was quite wrong. And there’s just three elements:  The show title in skinny gray letters coming into focus as they drift past on a sea of empty blackness, accompanied by an ominous musical cue (credited to JJ Abrams himself) that’s really more sound effect than music. Hardly big-budget (the producers say they created this in 15 minutes with After Effects and I believe it), but perfectly capturing the mood of the show. The splash of water in my tumbler of MacCutcheon is the oscillating whistling sound in the last few seconds. Perfect.

  • Mad Men (AMC, 2007-present)

No doubt about it: Mad Men is a cool show with cool opening titles. The style is distinctive and slick, and the imagery is unique and allows for some always welcome visual metaphor.

I don't get it.

But more than anything, it’s just cool. The music, “A Beautiful Mine” by RJD2, is modern electronica but works despite the show being set in the 1960s (for an example of modern music not working for a period show, see Boardwalk Empire).  And that final shot, all bass and drums with the silhouette of Don Draper casually slumped in a chair, head cocked in concentration, makes for one of the best title cards you’ll see on TV.

  • Weeds (Showtime, 2005 – present)

There’s nothing mind-shattering about this one (and I stopped watching the show several seasons ago), but I almost never skipped through this sequence. The song is catchy (and in later seasons, they do covers to mix it up a bit) and matches the imagery of suburban clones quite perfectly.

  • The Walking Dead (AMC, 2010-present)

Another great example of how credits can set tone and mood. Quick tracking shots, a bit of time lapse,  desaturated colors, weird filter effects. The main characters are introduced through scorched images of their pre-zombie life, nicely providing the star billing and a lil’ bit of character information. Last but not least there’s the great theme from Bear McCreary, whom I first discovered on Battlestar Galactica. You can watch him talk about composing The Walking Dead theme here, and to see a very cool fan-made opening titles of a different flavor, click here. Season 2 is filming all around me here in Atlanta as we speak, a fact that excites me more than I should admit.

  • Game of Thrones (HBO, 2011-present)

Watch this and marvel at the ability for what’s essentially a 100-second information dump to be visually arresting and reward multiple viewings with its stylized details. Game of Thrones has a complex storyline involving seven main factions spread across a vast world, so it’s inevitable a map is going to be involved at some point*. Instead of clunkily inserting maps with animated dotted lines into any episode that called for it, the show wisely chooses to give viewers a quick geography lesson at the top of each episode, and the locations visited on the map change depending on the episode. This saves flow and story, and having not read the books, the credits have helped me quite a bit as the show jumps from place to place. But looking at a map at the start of every episode would quickly become tiresome if not for some great animation, attention to detail, and a pounding score composed by Hans Zimmer protege Ramin Djawadi. I love the look of the map, which is made to look like a practical model (even the sun has its astrolabe), but is bent inside a sphere to give a better perspective as the viewer flies through Westeros and beyond. The way way the various kingdoms rise as cogs mesh and gears turn is  a fantastic way to depict the intricate interrelations between the characters. The details are wonderful too: the etchings on the astrolabe, the sigils on the main buildings of each kingdom and beside each credit, the rendering of the water (particularly at 1’20”), and my favorite detail, the  lenses flicking in and out when the camera zooms,  as if we were examining the world through a spyglass.

*The Pacific miniseries had a similar problem, so HBO decided they would do two-minute introductory history lessons voiced by Tom Hanks; even the producers didn’t think they worked. And while I’m at it, might as well mention that I thought the titles sequence was a bit overlong and grand, but I always have time to rewatch the Band of Brothers opening.

  • Dexter (Showtime, 2006-present)

How would you introduce a show about a guy who is by day a mild-mannered blood spatter analyst for the police and by night a serial killer who targets other murderers? If you answered anything other than: “a montage of his mundane morning routine,” then this sequence proves you were way past wrong. This is my favorite titles sequence (evah!) because it takes a straightforward but absolutely inspired concept and executes it (heh) beautifully. The cinematography is exhilarating, and the jaunty but slightly demented music by Rolfe Kent adds a a dark shade of humor and mischief. Like LOST, this is also an example of a sequence that turned on its head what I thought the show–really the character of Dexter–was going to be. Seeing the violence of breakfast is not only inherently fun, but deftly communicates important subtext about protagonist Dexter; he’s someone who has mostly learned to mimic the rhythms of a normal life,  but whose ‘dark passenger’ peeks out upon close inspection. Funny how dental floss resembles garrote wire in his hands…

About a week ago foremost TV critic Alan Sepinwall coined the TSORIS stat (Theme Song Over Remainder in Show), which attempts to capture how much of a show’s legacy is due to its theme song (Gilligan’s Island: 81%, Rockford Files: 44%).  Nothing on my list would get a very high score for Opening Credits Over Remainder in Show (OCORIS), and I’m hard-pressed to think of a titles sequence to a show I didn’t like, let alone one that would stick in my mind more than the show itself.

In any event, you’ve seen some of my picks, so what are yours? Any notably bad ones? Or how about good nominees for high OCORIS scores?

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I spent hours drooling in front of the TV as a kid, but mostly I channel-surfed and didn’t follow any particular show. It wasn’t until I was close to graduating college that I began watching TV with purpose. Speedy web browsing had largely replaced TV viewing by that point, but the internet had also exposed me to loads of info and critical opinion about good stuff on TV. Eventually enough of this info entered my brain that a synapse fired, causing a thought to occur that went something like this: “Hey, I might want to check some of this stuff out.” And so I did, and quickly discovered I was missing some great stuff.

A visualization of my childhood, where TV, chips, and socks were the order of the day.

First there was Rome, which had already ended its brief two-season run. Then came Arrested Development, whose three majestic seasons helped me get through my hastily written thesis. I stayed away away from new shows at first, instead focusing on successful shows that had aired for at least a season and often more. I watched the first three seasons of LOST, a show that quickly took hold of my heart, the summer before I left for Germany. While abroad I hit my stride, watching shows like Battlestar Galactica, Firefly, and Weeds in season-sized chunks

Young expats are wont to pack media-filled hard drives along with extra deodorant and favorite snacks, and I was no exception. When I left for my year in Rwanda, I had dozens of movies and several seasons of shows like Deadwood. There I realized that I’d much prefer watching two hours of a good TV show than most any movie. I binned my movie collection when I got home, never having watched most of it.

For a lot of people television is about reality shows, but for me it’s all about scripted hour-long drama: Fringe, Mad Men, Dexter, Justified, Breaking Bad, Boardwalk Empire, Game of Thrones, and the best show I’ve seen, The WireThis is not to say I don’t enjoy the more digestible half-hour stuff like Parks and Recreation, Archer, or the genre-dodging Louie, but they lack complex serialized storytelling, which is what TV does best. Long, skillful plotting takes viewers to deeper and unexpected places and gives characters time to fully fleshen. Payoffs can take years to realize, making them that much more delectable.

Not every show catches me, of course. Treme is usually well-done but often boring. Friday Night Lights was I’m sure good, but for some reason I stopped watching near the end of the first season and haven’t missed it. Sadder to me are the shows I quite liked but were canceled after one season. Terriers had a decent resolution at least, but Rubicon‘s de facto series finale was unfortunately pretty awful.

Not every AMC show is a success.

For all the shows I’ve listed and love (and there’s more),  I don’t spend anywhere close to the American average of five hours a day watching TV. I don’t watch sports, and I almost never watch live TV.  As the Nielsen data indicate (pdf), TV is the preferred timesuck for older folk, with teens watching half as much as retirees. I’m even worse than a Nielsen teen. I watch my few shows a week and I’m done, leaving my time be hoovered away by the internet. And honestly many shows don’t require a huge time commitment. If I adopted the 7-hour-a-day habit of African-Americans, I could clear out the first seasons of shows like Sherlock Holmes, Downton Abbey, and The Walking Dead at a rate of one per day, and most premium-channel shows would take less than two days per season. It doesn’t take long to see a lot of good shows.

Being abroad also gave me the habit of watching shows on my laptop, which I continue. Alan Sepinwall has written about being something of a TV-less TV critic. The internet has made sampling and following shows very easy, all while avoiding most commercials.  For me, it’s a great time to be watching television, even when it’s usually not on a television set.

Up Next: My favorite TV opening credits sequences, for which all of this was merely background.

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