Can you clap along to the “Friends” theme? Do you quote every opening line of iconic childhood Nickolodeon theme songs? Ever jam out to the intros from“The Office”? Just about drop dead from excitement when you hear the “Game of Thrones” opening theme? From dramas to sitcoms, sci-fi to documentaries, title sequences leave a big impression on the viewer.
The primary job of title sequences is to reintroduce the viewer to the show’s world, as well as to set the tone for the show. But how do elements of a title sequence effectively capture the viewer’s attention and perfectly re-enter him or her into the world of the show? To answer this question, the viewer should look to the HBO hit “Succession,” whose opening theme uses visuals and music to establish theme, relationship, focus and tone.
“Succession” is a drama that features Logan Roy, a fictional business tycoon who is the founder and owner of a media conglomerate that features a right-wing news unit similar to Fox and a theme park and cruise division. The show, however, mainly revolves around his children, Kendall Roy, Shioban “Shiv” Roy and Roman Roy. The show focuses on the dynamics of the highly influential and wealthy family as the children (now adults) vie for the position of company head and the power that comes with it. A whole separate article could be written about the show’s effective character development, scene composition, writing, acting, editing or directing, but for now, the relevant takeaway is this show is about power, wealth and family. To study how this particular title sequence excels, the reader must consider two categories: the visuals and the score.
The eighty-second opening credits establish theme with the contrast of old Super 8 film next to new digital video. The old clips depict scenes of the Roy children posing for family photos, playing tennis and walking ponies, all against the backdrop of an enormous estate, a show of traditional wealth. Clips of film movie cameras and the old New York skyline acknowledge the traditional media and location on which Logan built his empire. In the modern clips, wealth is translated into the sleek glass and steel skyscrapers, top-floor office views and jumbotrons of modern New York. Logan’s media conglomerate, ATN, has moved on to entertainment newspapers and channels that are snarkily based off of the über conservative news of the present day. This contrast of new and old money reveals one of the show’s main themes: traditional business versus new business and the power that comes with it. Completing the goal lesser series aim to reach over multiple episodes, the show already establishes the theme in the first ten seconds.
The intro also effectively establishes character relationships and backstory by using the “show, don’t tell” rule in its opening credits. One of the first tools of screenwriting is establishing setting, mood, scene and especially relationship through visuals, not dialogue. “Succession” executes this idea flawlessly by almost always showing the children looking at their father from afar. This choice allows the viewer to infer that Logan was a cold and distant father figure, an important relationship to know in order to understand why characters are acting in certain ways. The few times we do see Logan with his kids are once at the dinner table, once in the family photo. For the dinner shot, Logan’s back is facing the camera as he sits at the head of the table, where he is seemingly removed from his family in his seat of power. Then, after he poses for the family photo, he immediately leaves the frame as his children watch him walk away. The short scenes perfectly demonstrate the most crucial relationships of the show and ask the viewer to question how the relationship affects the character’s future decision-making.
The visuals adapt along with the show by focusing on one of the most important questions of the plot: Who is going to be Logan Roy’s successor? The second season’s intro differs from the first’s by focusing on Shiv Roy instead of Kendall. In the first season, Kendall is poised to be the next head of the company, but (without any spoilers) he loses his father’s confidence and his power by the end of the first season, his last claim to the throne eliminated in the fantastic season finale. As a result, in the season two intro, the clips of him are cut and replaced with clips of his sister, Shiv. Season two follows her as she becomes the new, promising successor, and the opening credits heavily reinforce that progression, with over six clips centering around her and only two focusing on Kendall. This choice shows the viewers whom to focus on, telling them to take careful note of his or her development.
Finally, “Succession” establishes the show through the intro music. The main theme of “Succession” is one of the most iconic elements of the show. Composed by Nicholas Britell, the music won an Emmy, “brought back” ringtones (according to “The Wall Street Journal”), and gained amusing parodies. The pop-cultural impact is an indicator of how effective it is. Its striking piano over a gritty beat and sharp strings is incredibly compelling and catchy. It sets the tone of the show by mixing classic instruments with modern production and building a soundscape that exudes a vibe of intrigue and intensity. I highly recommended listening to the song as it perfectly matches the show in every way and somehow primes the viewer for the study of power and moral philosophy ahead of him or her.
The intro of “Succession” has become the golden execution of what it takes to be a great intro through its use of visuals and music to establish theme, character, plot and tone. The show’s skill in scene-setting is strongly demonstrated not only in its episodes but also in its intro, where it immediately brings the viewer into the world of the show without a single line of dialogue. Its example will undoubtedly inspire future shows to try and achieve such a powerful show-opener. I hope readers will consider watching this series, compelled by the fact that they will never feel the urge to press the “skip intro” button again.
Other shows with fantastic intros:
“The Politician” (Netflix): The intro of “The Politician” is refreshingly interactive. The viewer is presented a series of objects, all of significance, encased in a hollow, wooden figure of a man. As the show progresses, the viewer begins to understand each of the object’s meaning. At the end of the intro (set to Sufjan Steven’s “Chicago”), the wooden figure is assembled to become the breathing figure of the show’s protagonist Payton, a student of a highly prestigious high school whose ambition is to become the president of first his high school and then of the United States. The show studies political philosophy and modern politics and asks the question: What makes a modern politician?
“The Good Place” (NBC): This intro consists of a simple frame of white text on a bright green background saying: “The Good Place, Created by Michael Schur” and then “Chapter [whatever episode it is]” set to whimsical music. In total, it lasts five seconds. It is well suited for this witty comedy that is clever and straight to the point while setting up a progressive and compelling story.
“Mindhunter” (Netflix): This intro is disturbing and well-executed, much like the show itself. The show takes place in the 1970s, when a pair of fictional FBI agents begin taking the first steps into criminal psychology by studying and interviewing real-life serial killers such as Ed Kemper and David Berkowitz. The intro itself plays close-up shots of the main character Holden, setting up the tape recorder he uses when interviewing killers, and mixes in flashes of graphic images of dead bodies. The sequence is set to eerie music with high-pitched sounds emitted every time a photo appears. The show’s main question is: What makes someone not only kill someone but also do it so hideously? The intro asks you it every time you see it.
“Succession Header Season 2.” HBO, HBO, 2019, www.hbo.com/content/dam/hbodata/series/succession/episodes/s2/succession-s2-ka-1920.jpg.
Kramer, Peter. Succession Shiv and Kendall Roy. HBO, 2019.