TV Titles: The Long and the Short of It
Recently I’ve been very much enjoying Homeland. Don’t worry; you haven’t defaulted to the 2011 archive. There simply aren’t enough hours in the year to watch all the US TV I’d like to at the time of transmission. For some shows, then, I’m forced to take the quasi-paedophilic Sound of Music route of waiting a couple years for them to mature (by which time I’ll be a Nazi!). Anyway, back to Homeland. What struck me about the series, apart from the regularity with which characters say ‘Abu fucken’ Nazir’, was chiefly the title sequence. Thankfully, this isn’t a news blog!
Homeland takes on the conventions of the title sequence, offering viewers a succession of images, sounds, clips and quotations instead of the usual illustrated theme tune. It’s partly there to provide a synopsis of the Pilot episode, presumably so the early-adopter viewer you’re watching it with doesn’t have to, and partly to tell the biographical backstory of main character Carrie Matheson (Claire Danes), which the rest of the programme-to its credit-doesn’t want to waste its time with. The imagery is a cocktail of jazz and anti-terrorism, which are Carrie’s favourite hobbies, and extracts from America’s Greatest Foreign Policy Bloopers showreel.
In the past decade, US TV title sequences have been pushed to extremes of utter gratuity and blink-length banality. Cable networks like HBO and AMC made title sequences seem like an art form on the back of triumphs like the tripodless New Jersey tourist board film that opens The Sopranos or the credits to Mad Men which features an advertising executive falling through Roy Lichtenstein’s mind. But the fashion for elaborate, extended titles was a curse too, compelling producers to artificially inflate sequences without enough content to back it up. Hence Boardwalk Empire’s beachcombing set to fret-wanking session musician travesty.
The flipside of that coin was network shows which opted out of doing title sequences altogether. Perhaps intimidated by the 3-minute masterpieces coming out of cable TV, or maybe just testing how low they could set the bar on introducing the programme, there were a spate of series in which the title sequence was the title. Better examples of this included the pushed-down-too-hard-on-the-screen digital watch effect in 24 which drew suspense and chaos out of a minimalist graphic. But then there was Lost which merely moved the title around like a mid-90s PC screensaver or Acorn Antiques without the irony.
Amazingly, Homeland’s title sequence manages to be both. Like other cable greats, it stands as a piece in its own right while introducing and summarising the programme effectively. It’s terribly self-indulgent (especially as there’s another couple of minutes re-cap directly afterwards introduced by what sounds like the ghost of Bill O’Reilly) but it complements the jazz motif and prevailing sense that the war on terror is endless. However, each season premiere and finale eschews the sequence for a lone title screen. Fortunately, it’s one of the good ones, with the words of the title scrambled and redacted like military intelligence.
Not only is the title sequence of Homeland reaching into parts of the show’s fictional world untouched by the episodes themselves, it is rich with a history and a life before and beyond the show. Footage of national TV addresses about terrorism made by US Presidents from Reagan onwards-excluding, critically, George W. Bush-drifts in and out of view and sight. Boldly, moving images of the Twin Towers attacks are interwoven into the fictional fabric of the sequence, a seed of truth from which a ludicrous plant will grow. The American legacy of big band jazz offsets the background of fear.
Homeland wasn’t the first US TV title sequence that asked us to think about images and sounds outside the musical diegesis of the theme tune. The opening credits of Elizabethan theatre-meets-Dragnet police procedural NYPD Blue features an ongoing percussive sound that drives the sequence along like the speeding L-train which visually bookends the titles. The penultimate image is of a traditional Chinese drummer in the middle of a New-Year ceremony pounding on his instrument with rolling-pin sized sticks. It takes us out of the world created by the score and into the reality of New York life; kinetic, diverse and relentless.
I always think of verbal exposition in US TV title sequences as something found more in comedy than drama. There is, of course, the A-Team but that might be a case of the exception being the rule in disguise. This could be because comedies don’t mind being seen as on-the-nose as much as dramas or simply because having that burden of exposition in the episodes might be detrimental to the comedy. In fairness, Homeland doesn’t have a contextualising song or voiceover but instead plucks lines of dialogue from the Pilot episode and these are more character tensions than Facebook profiles.
Title sequences are promises that whether fulfilled or neglected by the rest of the programme remain pleasurable on their own terms. Homeland may well already be a shadow of its former self at close of Season 2 play but somehow it’s impossible to entirely dismiss a programme which begins so beautifully. There’s enough to dig around in during those first few minutes to keep worries about underdeveloped sub-plots and writers’ knowledge of their dramatic endgame at bay. The producers might want you to wonder what Carrie and Brody will do next. I’m still questioning why Obama is upside down.