Remember the Main… Title Design

Clarence Moye: So, one day last week, some friends and I were having a conversation over sushi when my cell phone rang. Naturally, being obsessed with HBO’s Game of Thrones, my ring tone blasted the music that plays over the opening credits. I need not defend my choice as all of my friends are equally obsessed with the show and praised not only the music but also the imaginative opening credits, a kind of time-lapsed Legos on steroids. This conversation started me thinking about opening credits in general, and, especially appropriate given the Emmy season in play, was there even an opening credit category.

Turns out, there is. Here are this year’s nominees:


I did a little more digging and discovered that, yes indeed, Game of Thrones won the Emmy for Outstanding Main Title Design in 2011. It’s stiffest competition was really sister show Boardwalk Empire for its rock-themed liquor bottles washing onto the Jersey shore.

Of this year’s crop, though, I have to say, as much as I love Masters of Sex, I really hate the opening credits.

Craig Kennedy: First of all, screw IMDb for a lot of things, but right at this moment screw it for not including all the Emmy categories. I had to go to the Emmy website to find the nominees for Outstanding Main Title Design. I guess it’s not a big deal, but screw you anyway IMDb. Second of all, screw the Emmys themselves for their weird rules about the eligibility of Main Title Design. Apparently you only get to be nominated for a show once… but not always. Different incarnations of American Horror Story have been nominated which makes sense since they’re technically different shows and the openings are different. The Newsroom appeared on the official ballot this year (it was not nominated) even though it had been nominated in 2013.

Moye: Hmm. I thought once you’d been nominated you couldn’t be nominated again. I understand an anthology like AHS since it’s basically considered a different show season to season, but if The Newsroom was eligible two years in a row, then why hasn’t Game of Thrones been nominated every friggin’ year?

Kennedy: Visually, The Newsroom was a completely different opening so maybe that’s what determines whether a sequence is eligible or not. If it’s different enough from before, it’s eligible for another nomination. Anyway, whatever the rule is, it’s dumb. True Blood has a very good and oft-copied opening that lost in 2009 to the also excellent United States of Tara. That’s fine, but now True Blood has been left high and dry.

(I’d have loved to embed a comparison between the two seasons of Newsroom, but embedding is disabled embedding. Check it out here)

Moye: Interesting you should mention True Blood. I literally cannot watch its opening credits. Well, not all of it. The sped up shot of the decaying, maggot-infested animal – while brilliantly filmed and conceived – greatly conflicts with my evening snack. I do love the “Bad Things” song and was shocked to see it wasn’t Chris Isaak (it’s Jace Everett instead). Still, I totally agree with the skill and editing prowess of the opening credits. Too bad none of that is on display in the show itself. Recently anyway.

Kennedy: Honestly, I hate the show and, five or six years later, the opening doesn’t seem all that special either, but the style has been used for a bunch of shows since – including, to a degree, this year’s excellent True Detective. Back to the stupid rule, it also means Boardwalk Empire will never have a chance since, as you noted, it already lost to Game of Thrones in 2011. Speaking of 2011, I’d also offer Rubicon as a strong contender that year, but then I only know 2 people who watched that show and I’m one of them.

Anyway, enough category bitching from me. You’re right that Masters of Sex is the ugly standout this year in a pretty strong field. Part of the problem I suspect is that the credit sequences are submitted without context. On its own, Masters of Sex has a smirky, winky tone that is sort of funny if you’re 12 years old and have never had sex before. That’s fine, but it’s a dishonest introduction to a show that (thankfully) got that smirking out of its system by the end of the first episode. A truly terrific opening should set the tone for what’s to follow. True Detective and Cosmos both do a terrific job of that and I hope one of them wins. Black Sails is a handsome opening, but I have to admit I’ve never watched the show because it’s on Starz and nothing good ever comes from that. Silicon Valley lasts all of 10 seconds, but I guess it does its job. Of the eligible nominees this year, I’d have rather seen Orange is the New Black or even Sleepy Hollow over the childish Masters of Sex.

Moye: I also fast-forward through Orange is the New Black. It’s not binge-worthy, and I grow tired of the eyes and the song by Regina Spektor, “You’ve Got Time.” My vote this year would go to either Cosmos or True Detective, trending more toward Cosmos. I initially suspected True Detective will win based on the overall popularity of the show, but, looking back over recent history in this category, overall love for the show has little influence here.

Kennedy: Unlike Masters, I think at least Orange is the New Black sets the right tone for the show. I find myself speeding through it too, but that’s only after hearing it 20 times in a row. Anyway, unless you have more to say about this year’s crop (or even if you do), maybe we should talk about some of the best and worst sequences from years past whether or not they ever got Emmy love.

Moye: One thing I’ve noticed recently is that credits are trending more toward stark imagery and iconography over the actor-centric credits of the previous decades. I’m thinking 70s and 80s-era shows like Dukes of Hazzard, Happy Days, Dallas, Dynasty, or The Cosby Show all prominently featured their actors and catchy theme music. We still have the catchy theme music (looking at you GOT), but the most popular or accomplished opening credits, particularly for dramas, all focus on thematic images. The whiskey bottles in Boardwalk Empire. The castles and locales in GOT. The Christianity, blood, and assorted gore in True Blood. The wink-wink-nudge-nudge erotic imagery of Masters of Sex. Speaking of GOT (again), did you ever imagine what it would look like as an 80s show? Ironically, one of my favorite all-time opening credits comes from an 80s-era series and features none of its cast: the opening credits of Cheers. That’s mostly due to my undying love of the opening song “Where Everybody Knows Your Name.”

Kennedy: Shows today are more about establishing a tone than regaling you with star power which I guess makes sense considering the relatively higher level of sophistication of the best shows, but I miss the openings built around solid theme songs especially. Songs like the ones you mentioned would summon you in from another room when they came on. The Cheers theme has to be one of the all time classics and I could listen to it any time. Then again, I’ve been known to listen to Christopher Cross’s “Arthur’s Theme (The Best that You Can Do)” of a cold dark night and I’d really rather not talk about it. Cheers at least won the Emmy for its opening titles in 1983 which is more than you can say for the great Hill Street Blues which is another theme/opening from around the same time as Cheers. That opening kills, but it didn’t even get a nomination. Composer Mike Post was sort of the John Williams of TV theme songs through the 70s and 80s: L.A. Law, Hunter, A-Team, Baa Baa Black Sheep, CHiPs, Greatest American Hero, Magnum PI, and best of all, The Rockford Files the opening and theme of which might be my all-time absolute favorite if you held a gun to my head and made me pick one. I wonder if Rockford was the first show to use a different opening gimmick each week (with the changing voice message) the way The Simpsons would later do 15 years later.

Moye: Oh, when I was a kid, I burned up my 45 of “Believe It or Not.” It’s good that you mentioned The Simpsons because, for my generation, that was the first really memorable opening credit sequence because you had to pay attention as they would shake things up a little here and there with the different chalkboard scribble and the amusing couch gags. It’s been the best part of the show in later years. I’m sure there are hundreds of other great opening credit examples, so I’d love to hear our readers weigh in on the topic. This isn’t one of the categories we would normally cover, so I’m glad we gave it some due here.

Kennedy: Before we go, I want to tip my hat to a) Miami Vice and b) Twin Peaks because in their own way, I think both opening sequences helped usher in a new era of television. Plus, both themes are terrific.

Kennedy: Also, we should probably take a minute to say which of the 5 shows should and will win in this category on the 25th. I’m predicting True Detective will win and I believe it should. Unlike Masters of Sex, it really sets the perfect tone for the show, from the haunting imagery to the Far From Any Road song by The Handsome Family. Great stuff.

Moye: I would agree. True Detective seems to be poised for a huge Emmy night, and I’m a little surprised by that. I thought its wind would die down a little, but they have wisely maintained momentum with the carefully orchestrated Season Two announcements. I don’t know if it will win Best Drama, but I can see enthusiasm for the show drifting down to the craft categories. This feels like an easy win for the TD team.

Kennedy: Love that show. I hope the bogus plagiarism claims don’t sink its chances.

That’s all from Clarence and me. Feel free to weigh in below with the titles you love or hate among this year’s crop and throughout history.


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