Tuned In

When Bad Title Sequences Happen to Good Shows (and Vice Versa)

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I’m really enjoying ABC family’s Bunheads this summer, but to appreciate it, you have to get past the beginning. I don’t mean the pilot or the premise (though more on those in a second); I mean the opening title sequence.

First, there’s the show’s title itself—a slang term for ballet dancers—which is a trifecta of badness. It’s poorly descriptive to someone who hasn’t yet watched the series (is it a reality-competition show about bakers?). It’s slightly misleading if you have watched the show (it suggests the show is mainly about the ballet students, who have a large but supporting role). And also: well, it’s “Bunheads.”

All that’s underlined by the title sequence, scored to a variation on “The Nutcracker” (so it’s a Christmas story about bakers?), a soft-focus opening that doesn’t get across the sharp wit that’s the show’s trademark (and which more than one commenter has likened to a tampon commercial). Again, the sequence gives more screen time to the teenage dancers, ignoring that the show’s central relationship (so far anyway) is between Michelle and her mother-in-law Fanny. (We do get Michelle, who closes out the credits being illuminated by a ribbon of color thrown at her by the dancers, as if she’s the leader of a really friendly afterschool witches’ coven.)

That may be a lot of picking to do on a 20-odd second sequence, but you have to sit through this every damn time the show airs. And it also puts front and center some of the weaknesses of this disarming, sweet, funny show. There’s conflict, for instance, between its telling the story of two mature women and its brand duties as a series on a channel that specializes in girls and young women. And it reflects some of the tonal issues the show has, putting a dissonantly sugary face on what, you remember every now and then, is a dramedy about a young widow and a mother mourning the recent death of her only son.

None of which will keep me from watching the show, but it is the prime example right now of the TV series with a jarring quality gap between the show itself and its titles. Before Bunheads, my top candidate was Nurse Jackie, with its way-too-literal drugs flying through the air and its dated late-’80s-sounding theme music:

The other night on Twitter, I put out a call for other examples of Title-Show Disequilibrium, and several people suggested the opening credits of The Newsroom. The “disequilibrium” depends on how well you like the series. But they’re terrible credits: sappy, hamhanded and literal in a way that makes you wonder how they ever got on HBO (which you could say is actually fitting for a show that really has more in common with broadcast-network drama than most of HBO’s subtext-heavy dramas):

But it especially stood out to me that so many people cited The Newsroom, because HBO is usually the network you can count on for the opposite kind of disequilibrium. Even its most disappointing shows usually have knockout credits. How to Make It in America was a hit-and-miss show, but its title sequence was one of the best minutes of video/photocollage on television. It’s not just the visuals, not just the killer Aloe Blacc song, but the way the two work together. The images themselves—and the way they’re patterned and syncopated on the screen—have rhythm:

And while True Blood’s ratings show that plenty of people disagree with me, I got bored a long time ago with its love pentangles, hyperventilating melodrama and softcore sexyblood. But I’ve said it before: if anybody ever made the kind of drama that True Blood’s titles implied–lurid, sultry, haunted with passion and supernatural ecstasy–I would watch the hell out of that show. (You’ll notice, by the way, that there are a lot of cable examples here, because the broadcast networks have largely eviscerated their opening titles to make room for ads.)

The champ of title-show disequilibrium for me, though, remains John from Cincinnati. The series itself had some incredible high points and confounding, meandering lows. But the titles, free of the responsibility to make literal sense, are simply a poem, and they still give me a chill (RIP, Joe Strummer):

I’m sure there are plenty of examples I’ve missed, so I want to hear yours. When does the wrapping not match the present?