The Art of the Opening

It’s still Wednesday, barely, so let’s talk about openings, shall we? Specifically, opening credit sequences to TV shows. What makes a good opening?

The answer is that it could be a lot of things, depending on the show. The ideal for an opening is to prime the audience to enjoy the show, but what exactly that means is highly variable.

The most basic approach, but frequently the most effective, is to introduce the audience to the characters and premise of the series. The Simpsons opening, for example, does a marvelous job of introducing the viewer (assuming they are one of the three people left on Earth who don’t know the characters) to the essential natures of the characters and that this is a cartoonish family comedy.

Here’s another classic example of this “introduce the premise” approach, which more explicitly lays out the premise while leaving out the characters (unless, as I do, you think the main character of Star Trek has always been the Enterprise).

Probably because of Star Trek, this style of opening has become de rigeur for American science fiction series, and reaches its apotheosis at the same point as the Star Trek-style imperialist-liberal space opera, Babylon 5. (Note, all openings after the first in this video contain spoilers–the third in particular contains the only case I know of where the first line of the opening sequence completely recontextualizes the series to that point.)

Note that, for the first two seasons, the opening relies heavily on detailed description in the form of a very dry monologue, but in the second season shifts to show more of the characters, emphasizing them as much or more than the titular Big Artificial Thing in Space. The third season starts to move away from that approach, using a combination of music, images, and a much shorter monologue to provide the revised series premise, and places the characters over the Big Artificial Thing in Space, implying (correctly) that it is important as the place where these characters interact, not as a consequence of its Bigness, Artificiality, or location In Space. The fourth opening abandons any straightforward explanation of the premise, and relies instead on a sort of thematic expression, with different characters pronouncing different views on the events of the series, and finally the fifth opening expresses the premise by showing it rather than telling it, presenting the series as the future history it is.

That thematic, rather than literal, expression of the series that Babylon 5 Season 4 attempted is often done extremely well by anime. I like to point to the fifth opening of Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood as an example of this being done extremely well.

Here we have a song that is melancholic without being sad, juxtaposed with images of heroes and villains coming together in flames that dissolve them together (suggesting both the concept of the crucible and the alchemical stage of citrinitas), followed by a steady rain (the title of the song, incidentally) through which people nonetheless continue to strive, struggle and fight, though not without loss. In the end, the clouds part, and we see images of hope and love. Anyone who’s seen the final arc of the show to which this opening corresponds can see how relevant this is to the episodes in question, even though in terms of actual “spoiler” imagery it has a fairly light touch for an anime opener. (Which is to say, unacceptably heavy for a Western show.)

Another good anime example is the first-season opening to Higurashi no Naku Koro ni.

This is all about the song. I freaking love this song; it’s creepy, unsettling, and has a great beat. They even managed to use autotune well, which I didn’t think was possible! Image-wise, it’s pretty good, especially the beginning with the kaleidoscope and the flowers and, most importantly, the lamp with the butterfly. That image–a fragile, beautiful creature, drawn towards the light that will destroy it, but locked out by a cage–goes beyond intriguing and manages to be downright haunting.

Unfortunately, instead of sticking to its guns and depicting similarly haunting images, the opening instead shows all the main characters (with the notable exception of Keiichi, the only male character in the group) sad or in pain. It gives up on being the opening to a smart, highly original, and deeply creepy horror story and is instead the opening to a show about voyeuristically watching cute adolescent (and younger) girls suffer. Unfortunately, both of those are accurate descriptions of the brilliant but deeply problematic Higurashi no Naku Koro ni.

An opening doesn’t have to be particularly deep to be great. Some shows, you just need something to get you in the mood–say, some energetic 90s J-pop along with images of action-adventure shounen fantasy.

Returning to the West, there’s been a notable trend in American shows toward ever-shorter opening credits, so the question must be asked: Can a theme under 30 seconds accomplish anything more than announcing the name of the show and maybe one or two big names attached to it?

Yes, yes it can, as witness the theme that inspired this article.

Start with the visuals: a smoky green haze, the chemical formula for methamphetamine,* the periodic table, and then the title of the show, Breaking Bad. The periodic table is doubled over on itself, the right and left sides superimposed so that they can more easily dissolve into the title, evoking the overlapping dual nature of the protagonist, which must ultimately give way to reveal that, like everyone else, he’s a complex but singular entity. All of this imagery suggests a tale of science run amuck,which to an extent is true, but it is ultimately wiped away in smoke, leaving only the name of the show’s creator: this is also a complex and extended morality play, and the divine authorial hand will punish and wipe away the iniquity of those who “break bad.” Even the music adds extra layers, since it belongs quite firmly in the traditional scoring of Westerns, both recalling the New Mexico setting of the show and helping make the case that it belongs in the Western genre with which it shares so many thematic similarities and character archetypes (in particular, the series is highly reminiscent of the John Wayne vehicle The Searchers).

Finally, no discussion of openings could be complete without reference to my uncritical, irrational adoration of this final clip, the best version of the best opening theme in all of television. What can I say? I’m a child of the 80s, I have a nigh-Pavlovian response to cheesy synthesizers swelling hopefully.

*Which does NOT include lithium, whatever fans desperate to find alternate meanings for the title of the series finale might tell you: FeLiNa could be iron, lithium, salt, but that’s neither a stable compound nor some kind of code for “blood, meth, and tears”–there’s no lithium in meth.

Note: Because this article went up so late and is fairly lengthy, Thursday’s thought of the day will go up in the evening instead of noon.

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