Some of the best TV series of the last two decades have been brought to us by HBO: home to The Sopranos, Girls, Barry and many other stellar shows that have – and will – form an important part of our pop culture narratives. Many of them are introduced to eagerly expecting viewers by ways of memorable title sequences, some of which will stay with us forever thanks to unique combinations of music and visual art. Let’s look at the title sequences of four HBO classics and how they inform the themes and tone of their respective shows.
Six Feet Under, Alan Ball (HBO 2001-2005)
If ever there was a family-drama that resonated with seemingly everyone on some level or another, it was Alan Ball’s deeply sarcastic, at times disturbing and altogether brilliant HBO series, Six Feet Under. When it first aired in 2001, few of us could have ever imagined just how enthralled we would become by the story of the Fishers and their lives in the family’s funeral home. The show’s main protagonists are portrayed in all their ugly, beautiful, complex human glory thanks to the incredible talent of Peter Krause, Michael C. Hall, Francis Conroy, Rachel Griffiths and Lauren Ambrose. A warning to those yet unfamiliar with Six Feet Under: you will mourn the end of this heartfelt show and its layered characters, more than any other TV series before.
The series intro, designed by Danny Yount to Thomas Newman’s musical score, highlights a day in the life of a mortician and the people (in)directly affected by their work, by ways of carefully selected, metaphoric imagery. Opening to a crow flying across a grey, blue sky the camera slowly moves downward to reveal a lone tree on top of a grass hill. From close-up, we see two clasped hands parting in front of the tree, signifying loss and the process of letting go. These binding images are merged with the cold, technical props a mortician uses to prepare cadavers for their final journeys – embalming liquid, a gurney rolling down a clinically, brightly lit corridor, the soft make-up brush gently contouring the eyelids of the deceased – before finally resting on a bouquet of lilies blossoming as fast as they are decaying.
As the intro sequence reaches its final destination – the graveyard – the back doors of the hearse are opened and we see the natural light spilling in from the POV of the coffin, before panning over framed images of people long gone but not forgotten. Focusing on surrounding tombstones and the Poe-esque crow for a beat, the camera finally finds relief and tranquility in the sky and, ultimately, the series’ logo – a lush, lone tree with deep roots that will continue the cycle of life and death.
True Detective, Season One, Nic Pizzolatto (HBO 2012 – Present)
Although HBO’s True Detective is still running, with its third season having aired in January this year, the first season of the anthology series was the most captivating and visually mesmerizing so far. Starring Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson in the lead roles as homicide detectives Rust Cohle and Marty Hart, respectively, the series took a deep dive into the American south with its distinctive backdrop. Pizzolatto was fascinated by the “contradictory nature to the place and a sort of quality beneath it all,” which feeds into the storyline of True Detective’s first season. True Detective challenges the usual crime-case narrative by adding more depth to the characters’ relationships – in and outside of the work force – and their profound manner of self-reflection and perspective on their surroundings, particularly Rust.
The series’ title sequence is a true work of art created by Elastic director, Patrick Clair, who refers to the Six Feet Under and True Blood opening titles as “legendary”. He was determined to capture the south’s industrial plants and the Gulf Coast as a way to inform not only the deterioration of the landscape but the characters’ emotional household. Influenced by double exposure photography, Clair partnered with American landscape photographer, Richard Misrach, whose book on Petrochemical America, served as an inspiration for the digital overlay the creative team behind True Detective was looking to achieve.
The choice of title song by The Handsome Family, was no coincidence. The husband-and-wife duo are renowned for their macabre style of bluegrass-murder ballads and do not shy from macabre topics. Their track, Far From Any Road, sets the tone of True Detective’s murder mystery and geographical position perfectly. Gritty, textured grey and yellow-fading images of power plants and industrial complexes seep into the titular characters’ interiors, blurring their faces and filling their broken bodies and psyches with the environment that has shaped them.
The Wire, David Simon (HBO 2002 -2008)
The Wire celebrated its 17th anniversary this year and still, it remains on the minds of many. We continue to see references to the show from the broadest of sources – from pop culture pieces to university theses. The latter is not at all surprising, considering the series was created and primarily written by former Baltimore Sun police reporter, David Simon. This authenticity transmits, not only in the depiction of its characters – both civilians and law enforcement officers – but the city of Baltimore itself which acts as its own character. The city has its very own culture and politics many American’s outside of the state of Maryland where unaware of prior to the airing of The Wire. While the series is, technically fiction, and we view it as such, there’s an undeniable, harsh truth visible between the lines.
No one voices anguish and the tortured human existence quite like Tom Waits, so naturally it is his track, Way Down in the Hole, that accompanies the foreboding glimpses into each season’s story line. Though the song is only performed by the man himself in season two’s intro. The first was recorded by The Blind Boys of Alabama, the third by The Neville Brothers, the fifth by Steve Earle, who portrayed Walon on the show. For the fourth season, Baltimore teenagers Markel Steele, Tariq Al-Sabir, Avery Bargasse, Ivan Ashford and Cameron Brown – aka DoMaJe – had the honours of serenading their city, adding another sweet touch of realness.
Focusing each season of the series on a different part of Baltimore’s killing-streets, the politics fueling them, and the people on either side of the law, was a risky choice that worked out in TV’s favour. It introduced a new form of storytelling that in enhanced the all-encompassing and unsurprisingly educative viewing experience. The title sequences of each season – like the songs – offer a different perspective on the city and its inhabitants by ways of visual cues served with the same randomness as police evidence, the same intensity as Walon’s darkest high. But the city’s backdrop always stays the same.
The Leftovers, Damon Lindelof & Tom Perrotta (HBO 2014-2017)
Based on the success of the mind-boggling sci-fi/mystery series, Lost, we already know co-creator, Damon Lindelof, has a knack for exploring grief and how it manifests differently from person to person. And yet, there’s nothing that could have prepared us for the gut-wrenchingly beautiful exploration of it in his adaptation of co-creator Tom Perrotta’s novel, The Leftovers. Following the inexplicable, global and simultaneous “Sudden Departure” of 140 million people who literally seemed to disappear into thin air three years prior, the series deals with a group of people and their individual reactions to their trauma. As infuriating and grossly insensitive these responses of grief often are, they also point to our vulnerability and susceptibility as humans.
In it’s first season, Max Richter’s score and the renaissance-like vignettes painted and designed by Jon Foster and yU+co, respectively, hit viewers to the core – even absent of the story ahead. It depicts a father, angrily raising his hand at a teen he’s about to lose forever; a devastated mother crying as her baby disappears heavenwards while the father consoles her, lost in his own grief. These are all scenarios capturing those very moments we are unable to let go of when we lose a loved one. This epic intro was replaced by softer visuals with a heavier story in the second season: pictures of ordinary people doing ordinary things, only there’s always one person missing (i.e. only their hazy silhouette is visible). These images – so familiar and humanizing – pierce your soul while Iris DeMent urges the mind to just Let the Mystery Be.
Doing what Lindelof does best, namely, tease his viewers, the third season opened to season two’s visual sequence and no score at all. Episod featured Nothing’s Gonna Stop me Now as its theme song – and those who have watched the show closely know this is definitely no coincidence. The following episodes all feature their own title soundtrack with songs as diverse as Richard Cheese’s version of Personal Jesus (EP03) and the Gravediggaz’ 1-800 Suicide (EP06), with the series drawing to a close to Iris DeMent’s song of acceptance.
author Roxanne Sancto
Roxanne Sancto is a freelance writer specializing in pop culture, often with a feminist twist. She adopts a new pet every time she goes out on a walk. www.roxannesancto.com