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  • James Kunovski

The Best of Television’s Title Sequences

Title sequences have been crucial to shows’ identities and legacies since the dawn of television. They are the segues into your favourite slot, and pivotal marks when recognising shows. Originally conceived as general theme-setters, a song or voiceover would summarise each show’s content. With the '80s came cheesier displays; actors intermittently laughing and striking a gaze while their names popped up. An emergence of software in the '90s and the hand of premium cable spawned a new phase of sequences. The common title sequences we see today are ambitious state-of-the-art showcases. Still, some are stripped back and offer us a more subdued scope. Here are the best that TV’s title sequences have to offer:

The Twilight Zone, 1959-1964

An effective example of contextual narration and backstory, Rod Serling helms this unnerving descent into the unknown. For viewers in the late 1950s through the early '60s, it would have served as a striking diversion and portal away from the nostalgic ideals of their present.


The Mary Tyler Moore Show, 1970-1977

Sonny Curtis’ lyrics would change as this show about a career-oriented news producer progressed. What started as "how will you make it on your own?”, evolved into "you're gonna make it after all.” The title cards vivaciously beat to a '70s drum as we see Mary going about life in her true fashion. It blissfully ends with that famous cap toss.


Saturday Night Live, 1975-present

To incorporate new ensemble members and stylistic trends, the opening sequence of this long-running late-night sketch show has changed almost every season. In its later incarnations, SNL would embody its setting, New York City, and its pulsating nightlife against a flamboyant jazz score. Its consistent placement, after the cold open and before the host’s monologue, makes it a joy to anticipate.


Cheers, 1982-1993

Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name, and such is the case at the Cheers bar in Boston, where a group of multifarious locals bond and socialise over drinks. It also represented a shift away from stock footage sequences through its hand-tinting of archival illustrations and photographs.


The Simpsons, 1989-present

Probably one of the most recognisable openings in television, Springfield’s bustling sequential life is boosted by Danny Elfman’s equally iconic theme and those all-famous couch gags.


Twin Peaks, 1990-1991

Like all great intros, the music is just as important as the visuals. Twin Peaks is no exception. Without the dreamlike and comforting guitar plucks of "Falling", composed by Angelo Badalamenti, we would only witness a snippet of rural life. Clocking in at two-and-a-half minutes, it is one of television’s longest opening sequences. Time is hardly of the essence in this town. As the plot unfolds, this feeling will take on a more surreal turn, but the opening’s masterclass of ambience will continue throughout.


The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, 1990-1996

The beauty of Fresh Prince’s opening sequence is how well it succeeds as a standalone work. Effectively a music video with an ineffable '90s presence, it summarises Will’s backstory and his assimilation into perky Bel-Air life. The concept was conceived from DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince’s 1988 “Parents Just Don’t Understand.” It straddled the line between television and pop culture in a way only Fresh Prince could. It is also a refreshing contrast to the openings of other '90s sitcoms.


The X-Files, 1993-2002

Series creator Chris Carter intended to create an “impactful opening” with his show about FBI agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully’s dabbling with paranormal and unexplained events. Taking on a cool blue and grey wash, notable shots include a mirrored seed germinating, (took me a while to figure that out), a UFO sighting, its eager onlooker, and an ambiguous warped face. We also see the agents’ FBI badges, a sign that all missions are attached to their identities in ways that will aid and torment their efforts. This culminates into that irresistible tagline: “the truth is out there”.


Sex and the City, 1998-2004

When it comes to embodying a show’s feeling without overt mentions from songs or voiceovers, Sex and the City hits the nail on the head. It is giddy, cheeky and chic, or as chic as strolling around Manhattan in a tutu can be. New York City and its electric presence have often been credited as the show’s fifth character. The tongue-in-cheek ending of Carrie being splashed by her own ad is the cherry on top this perfect setup.


The Sopranos, 1999-2007

In many ways, the fly-on-the-wall perspective inhibited here is similar to Carrie’s immersion of New York in Sex and the City. We follow our elusive lead Tony Soprano on a drive through New Jersey, as he exits the Lincoln Tunnel with Lower Manhattan in his rearview, through the turnpike and the industrial smokestacks. He spends most of the sequence guised behind his cigarette smoke and we only see him in full view when he arrives at his suburban home. He is completely grounded in status and place.


Dexter, 2006-2013

A morning routine takes most unusual shape in this duality-fuelled series that follows a Miami-based forensic analyst who shifts into a perpetrator-hunting killer at night. Seemingly mundane tasks like flossing your teeth, shaving, and cooking breakfast are given sinister tones with the sequence’s minute attention, and fixation on everyday items. It is chilling, gets under your skin and all-the-more impactful by that final everyman shot of Dexter.


Mad Men, 2007-2015

Our shadowed protagonist enters his Madison Avenue office and seemingly everything gives way. He falls past the idealised façades of advertising: glamorous women and foreboding images of the perfect family. The chaos has no defined end, instead, he lands serenely on a couch with a cigarette in hand. As the electronically jazzy score of RJD2’s “A Beautiful Mine” subsides into a melancholic flourish, it speaks to our protagonist’s deeply disguised broken humanity that will underpin this incredible series.


Game of Thrones, 2011-2019

Many consider this television’s greatest title sequence. A fiery astrolabe orbits around the Seven Kingdoms, serving as a guide to the show’s vast universe. The locations are born through rising mechanical gears and cogs that are reminiscent of Leonard daVinci’s inventions. The impressive visuals and sweeping reign are supported by Ramin Djawadi’s iconic theme.


American Horror Story, 2011-present

For each of its nine deliciously campy instalments, the team behind American Horror Story redesigned their opening sequences to match every new plot and era. Running to the same theme, albeit with thematic adjustments, they are as impressive as they are terrifying. For its first season, titled "Murder House", the stillness of vintage photos are interlocked with impalpable imagery. Its latest season, "1984", twists the period's nostalgia with a VHS-tainted sequence that stirs the idealism of Reagan-era America into bloody outcomes.


True Detective, 2014-present

The premiere season of True Detective’s Emmy-winning title design immediately enveloped viewers in the clashing symbolism of the deep-South. In a land where religious fanatics roam, and industry poisons the land, two broken detectives catch on to a sacrificial murder. The images are superimposed on each other, (in what has become an instantly identifiable style), and play out in a slowed ominous motion. The analogous lyrics of The Handsome Family’s "Far From Any Road" ignites the flame of mistrust and deceit that runs rampant.


Daredevil, 2015-2018

The team at Elastic Studios paint the town red in this compelling announcement of blind lawyer and masked vigilante Matt Murdoch’s world. Murdoch claims that, as a child, he wanted to get as far from Hell’s Kitchen as possible but came to the realisation that the city was a part of his blood. The city he speaks of, a fundamental jigsaw piece for this opening, oozes a liquid that runs like hot wax until it forms our horned figure, built by the city’s evil but determined to take it down.


Jessica Jones, 2015-2019

The parallels between private eye and voyeurism blend in this eclectic and frantic portrait of troubled superhero turned private investigator as she haunts the tenants of Hell’s Kitchen. Inspired by the covers of the Alias comic books, the designers wove paint strokes into the creative process. Our lead’s motives, or at least our spying impression of them, warp spectacularly when composer Sean Callery’s theme shifts from sleazy jazz into a chaotic spell of rock. Amidst the explosion of mood, Jones continues to peer.


Stranger Things, 2016-present

Along with other entries on this list, the pulsating intro to Netflix’s supernatural mega-hit has become a recognisable brand. Designed by the Imaginary Forces studio, it is clever for its creative decision to avert away from modern juggernaut technicality. It could have easily turned its restrained '80s style into more predictable kitsch - think GLOW. Instead, it contains a suspenseful and intriguing atmosphere all the way to its final beats while upholding genre and era through its abundant inspirations. Now, petition for Netflix to delete its skip intro button?


Westworld, 2016-present

It’s fitting that a series of so many things, one, technological power has such a tour-de-force sequence. Filled to the brim with easter eggs, relevant themes and mesmerising imagery, it represents a pillar for the clash between mankind and machinery. Certain moments take on deeper meaning as the show evolves. In the second season, when the hosts progress into more defiant and independent roles, the mechanical skeletal hands playing the pianola smoothen into a more humanistic, deliberate flow.


The Crown, 2016-present

These notes of complexion are regal and majestic but are perpetuated by the underlying angst that comes with power. The sequence itself is simple; we witness the assembly of a crown through its many components. Take the Queen’s crown for show, which is made up of 2800 diamonds. As its frame and jewels come together, so does the threshold of the Commonwealth. Plagued in a rich noir-ish tone, and with stark platinum abound, the absence of any royal figures speaks to the presence of an historic institution and the duty they fight to uphold.


Big Little Lies, 2017-2019

Big Little Lies’ opening resists the urge of fancy animation, rather relying on artfully composed establishing shots and a killer track from Michael Kiwanuka to form the perfect setup. Birthed in a greenish-blue ocean tinge, and interspersed with our leads’ out-of-reach lives, the forewarning comfort of crashing waves bookends this dangerously promising invite into façade life. At first glance, the lifestyle seems desirable but those recurring images of guns, lost footprints and the deceiving lyrics of "Cold Little Heart" beckon that something itches beneath the surface.


Feud: Bette and Joan, 2017

Ryan Murphy’s Feud sought to chronicle Hollywood history and honour the stars and films of that golden age. Its title sequence homages the stylistically jagged trademark of legendary graphic designer Saul Bass. Most notably referenced are Bass’ work in Psycho, Vertigo, North by Northwest and The Man With the Golden Arm. It is a smart decision that makes the show’s attention to 1960s pop culture admirable.


American Gods, 2017-present

A notable example of the capability these modern design studios have at their disposal. This adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s fantasy novel is hypnotising in its vibrant and bold depiction of power through religious symbolism. Brian Reitzell’s theme works in tandem with the imagery (electric horns drive charges of neon), constructing each piece towards the final note and that towering totem pole.


Succession, 2018-present

Money is power and with that responsibility comes conniving, heartlessness and all-round bad behaviour in HBO’s latest classic about the brutal lacework of the media mogul Roy family. Played to the gritty and booming beats of Nicholas Britell’s transcendent Emmy-prizing theme, the designers blend appropriately balanced establishing shots of the Manhattan skyline with revealing faux-documentary ‘archives’ of the Roy family’s luxurious but painfully disconnected livelihood. In several noteworthy shots, the family members are either constantly separated or walking away from each other. It reminds us all that beneath the cold yet beautifully clever insults, roaring skyscrapers and blinding news bulletins, lies a broken family.


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