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The Opening Credits: Ranking the 15 best—Part 1

With the rise of the “prestige television” era, a show’s opening credit sequences have become a major production unto themselves. Some have the grandiosity and the budget of an independent film. Others are understated and beautiful in their simplicity.

I’ve done some critical scrutiny to determine the ones that deserve the most praise. In choosing these top 15, I did set some boundaries for eligibility—otherwise, the choices would be almost infinite. These were selected from hourlong drama or comedy/drama shows that aired on a premium cable network or streaming service since 1999 (which marked the debut of The Sopranos, the unofficial start of the modern prestige era.)

My criteria was twofold. My choices were based on the extent to which these credits (1) were visually and aurally appealing, and (2) reflected the time, place, mood, and essence of the show. Credits should put the viewer in anticipation of what it to be seen.

Without further ado, here are the bottom eight of the top 15 modern TV opening credit sequences!

15. Six Feet Under, HBO, 2000–2005

One of the earliest premium cable drama series, and still one of the best, uses the original, tried-and-true formula of object imagery paired with mood-inducing music. The credits featured funeral-home equipment along with images of death. However, the music could be interpreted as upbeat, making the music and imagery incongruous, which, for those that have watched the show, could also explain the experience of the Fisher family. Six Feet Under was so much more than a family running a funeral home, but it’s a perfect theme for the credits.

14. Homeland, Showtime, 2011–present

Confession: I find these credits irritating, so it might seem odd that I would include it in a best-of list. However, I believe that is the intended reaction. The atonality of the jazz music paired with the disorienting, black-and-white imagery of past terrorist attacks—and lead character Carrie growing up and experiencing these attacks—creates uneasiness The disorientation is not unlike Carrie’s experience: driven to protect the country from terrorism at all costs while dealing with a debilitating mental illness. Perhaps these credits are meant to give us a quick glance into what Carrie’s mind is like. Besides, no one should go into watching Homeland expecting a feel-good show, right?

13. Queer as Folk, Showtime, 2000–2005

Remember this show? The quick, jarring images of silhouettes of go-go boys grinding over a background of psychedelic color bursts opened this show for the first few seasons. Of course, these images are meant to present shallow stereotypes of gay men. (In later seasons, the opening credits were changed to a sequence where the characters were featured.) But back in 2000, a show featuring all gay characters was a breakthrough in television, and a cable network was the only place to take a chance on it. The jolt of music and color was a like an energy shot to the senses—and, honestly, it was a ton of fun.

12. The Affair, Showtime, 2014–present

The Fiona Apple song “Container” is enough to carry this opening sequence, with the lyrics “I have only one thing to do and that’s/To be the wave that I am and then/Sink back into the ocean” over a sequence showing—no surprise—ocean waves. It’s a jarring song that indicates the show is about more than just two people and their affair.

11. Hung, HBO, 2009–2011

The opening credits to Hung, a show about a Detroit teacher moonlighting as a male prostitute, sees Thomas Jane, in the lead role, gradually removing the various parts of his business suit as he walks through downtown Detroit. He eventually arrives fully nude at a dock and dives into the body of water. It’s so simple, yet so perfect. I am sure no one minded watching Thomas Jayne disrobe before each episode (and often during the series).

10. The Sopranos, HBO, 1999–2007

The Sopranos began the modern era of prestige television, and its opening credits also lead by example. The viewer is put in the POV of a car driver (Tony Soprano) on the seemingly endless New Jersey Turnpike, passing New Jersey hallmarks. The contrast between the socioeconomic statuses of the different location, along with the hip-hop influenced “Woke Up this Morning” by Alabama Three, does not contain the extensive visual design of the others on this list. Yet it establishes the location and mood perfectly.

9. Masters of Sex, Showtime, 2013–present

The montage of visual sexual innuendos—a coin being placed in a slot, a train entering a tunnel, a phallic cucumber—is almost eye-roll inducing. But how could we not expect to see sexual imagery in the credits for a show about the study of human sexuality? On top of all that, the vibrant images are excellent in creating a retro feel, which is fitting, considering this is one of two beloved current shows that take place in the 1960s.

8. Treme, HBO, 2010–2013

These mark another opening credit sequence that may not specifically introduce any characters, but excels in setting the place, time, and mood of the show. Imagery depicting the music, people, history, and culture of New Orleans is mixed with imagery from the devastation left by Hurricane Katrina. The positive imagery mixed with the hurricane footage, along with an upbeat, memorable song, makes the viewer not just understand the hurricane’s devastation, but feel hope that the culture, people, and history will endure through it. (The images in the credits also changed with each season to match the show’s progress.)

I’ll share my top seven spots in a later post. Which shows do you hope to see in the top seven?