It's a Symbolic Opening, Get It? Get It??

Myles McNutt has a great post about why Nurse Jackie has the worst main title sequence in television today. In short, it tells us very little about why we should find the character interesting or why we should want to watch the show; instead it throws a bunch of images at us that are supposed to symbolize the show’s major issues.

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This is a problem that a lot of cable shows have. The idea of using the main title to sum up the themes of the show, rather than run a bunch of clips or show us pictures of the characters doing fun things, was a reaction against what network shows used to do. It’s also a way of announcing that a show has greater ambitions than the average show: instead of just telling you who the people are or what the premise is, the opening tells you, symbolically, what themes are going to be tackled.

The Dexter opening is a famous and effective example. It doesn’t say who Dexter is, doesn’t tell us about his world or his friends, but it announces that violence and bloodshed are all around us, in the little things we do but never think about. Hung is a more traditional opening because it’s basically a guy walking down the streets of his home town, a la Bob Newhart, but it is still a symbolic vignette; here’s a guy surrounded by a crumbling city and reminders of the only gift he has, and the only way he can deal with it all is by stripping. Or something like that.

The thing is that this type of opening has become the new TV cliche, since (as I’ve noted previously) cable shows are just about the only ones that still have time for a full-length opening, and they all seem to open the same way. One of the shows that made me think that this was getting out of hand was Carnivale; it seemed almost like HBO self-parody, what with its over-arching symbol (tarot cards), historical newsreel clips and deliberately boring theme music.

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There are two dangers with this type of opening: one, that it won’t tell you anything about the show, and two, that it will seem like it’s hitting you over the head with the show’s themes. And sometimes, as with Nurse Jackie, these problems both happen at the same time; we don’t know what’s going on but we know that it’s straining too hard to tell us that there are lots of themes n’ symbols coming at us.

Compare that to the king of pay-cable intros, The Sopranos. That intro does not strain to incorporate all the elements of the show: no psychoanalysis imagery, not even anything specific to the mafia. It’s a guy driving home from (presumably) work, listening to music. The song, the pictures and the character suggest themes that the show will deal with (an old-fashioned gangster trying to balance work, family and modern life without going nuts), but it doesn’t rely on fantasy, special effects or heavy-handed symbolism to make the points, and it’s okay with leaving out some things: not everything has to be dealt with in the opening, as long as it gets us interested in the show.

The need to do too much in an opening is an old curse. For traditional openings it’s the need to show all the characters in all their moods. For modern cable openings, it’s the compulsion to find images that tell us everything about what the show is trying to do. But sometimes it works better to leave us with a vague feeling of what the show will be like. A network example is the intro to Taxi. Co-creator and title designer Dave Davis (who also directed the Bob Newhart opening and the revised opening for Mary Tyler Moore) took the whole cast to New York and shot them all in little character vignettes, trying to do a sort of cinema-verite opening about the lives of cabbies in the city. When he was editing, he decided this wasn’t working, so he salvaged just one shot: a cab driving across the bridge. You couldn’t see the driver (Tony Danza) and nothing happened except that the camera panned from the skyline to the cab and back again. But combined with the music, it told us something about the unspoken feeling of the show, the mood underneath all the broad laughs that would follow in the episode. That’s all they really needed.

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