There was a while there when we thought TV opening credits were dead and gone. In favor of more commercial time, the networks were content to give you a few seconds of “previously on,” an opening scene and then a title. But then came quality cable series, and along with movie stars, explicit sex and a lot of gore, they brought fancy fonts, theme songs and computer animation that elevated the opening titles to the kind of art form we love to geek out over (and, of course, parody). We thought about just listing our favorites here ( the Breaking Bad sequence and all those chemistry symbols! Orange Is the New Black’s Regina Spektor song!), but that’s been done. Instead, here are the ones that make a knot form in our stomach in anticipation of the coming hour’s drama.
No, neither the show nor its theme music are particularly creepy — especially thanks to Benedict Cumberbatch’s and Martin Freeman’s affable takes on Holmes and Watson. But the diorama illusion effect on the London crowd scenes in the opening credits make you feel like you’re watching the world through Sherlock’s probably sociopathic eyes: Humans are just mechanical parts buzzing through the larger machine; murders are merely puzzles to be solved. The thought just sends shivers down your spine.
9. Mad Men
It’s quite heavy handed in its symbolism — a Don Draper stand-in falls from a building, and instead of watching his life pass before his eyes, he watches the false-feeling glossy ads he’s helped to create. But the falling notes of the music, plus the fact that we never see him hit the ground, makes us feel like this downward trajectory will never end.
This looong opening sequence (1:19 minutes!) has been panned almost as much as the show has been praised, but you can’t deny that the dissonant jazz — and the girl in the maze with the lion head! — makes you squirm in your seat like you’re about to be interrogated by the CIA.
7. The Americans
This is basically the Homeland opener, but better, because these images from the Cold War are old enough that they no longer seem cliche (unlike the post-9/11 imagery of Homeland). It’s all a blur of information, driving home the point that all these decades later, we have no idea what the CIA and the KGB were really up to. Or if there could still be spies living next door to you today. That Russian-tinged theme song is nominated for an Emmy this year, BTW.
6. Da Vinci’s Demons
I only know about this one because it’s also nominated for two Emmys (theme song and title sequence). But, wow, the orchestral score paired with Da Vinci’s drawings brought to life really make us feel like we’re inside the not-completely-sane-but-beautiful mind of the quintessential renaissance genius. Which, is exactly what the Starz drama is all about.
Is that wine or blood forming the shape of a human head? We are not supposed to know.
4. Pretty Little Liars
The heightened colors, the perfect lipstick and manicure, the strange lilting song, “Secret,” the dead girl and her four beautiful friends, one of whom is staring straight at the camera — all the jarring juxtapositions here perfectly illustrates how this may be an ABC Family show, but it’s about vicious murder and blackmail all the way.
3. American Horror Story: Asylum and Original Flavor
OK, the fetuses in a jar from Original Flavor alone would push this show into #1 rank. But taken as a whole, the two series’ openers are a bit obvious and too much like every trailer for a horror movie we’ve ever seen.
2. The Walking Dead (Season 3)
Both here and in the opening sequence from the first two seasons, we see the remains of a destroyed civilization, and &%$# is it scary and lonely and something is definitely going to pop up from behind that gravestone. Also, now there’s the added scare of that zombie eyeball and the pocket watch. I hear these violins in my nightmares, people.
Is there anything so shudder-inducing as the sight of that knife going into fleshy ham? Oh, yeah, the cold look in Dexter’s eyes after he’s finished getting ready for his day. This one hits all the right notes: almost happy music, mundane objects manipulated to make your skin crawl, blood. It’s almost so unsettling, we don’t want to watch. But then we do anyway.
[Photos: AMC, Showtime, Starz, ABC Family]