In defence of the title sequence

Posted by Patrick Robertshaw on
I love Netflix.

However one of their most recent features damages the (inherently visual and creative) product they sell me and - as a visual creative professional - this makes me sad.

I've been on a rapid escape trajectory from the old "watch it when we show it" model of telly since my flatmate bought a first generation TiVo way back in 2000. Honestly I've never looked back. In 2010 I shut off the last vestiges of broadcast in my flat and not long after took out a Netflix subscription. I'm a fan.

Last month I noticed the new Skip Intro button starting to intrude on the bottom left corner of the credit sequences of my shows. Unlike almost every new feature they've introduced over the years this one feels like a step back, or a step that's at least missing a sub-feature of its own. With one exception (which I'll come back to) this irksome little white box has been marring the start of my shows for the past month and so I was astonished to read Stuart Heritage at the Guardian praising it as "Destruction of the most satisfying kind".

Not that I didn't thoroughly enjoy his article (I did) or that there's anything astonishing in finding someone has a different view to my own (there is not). In fact that second is one of the fundamental underpinnings of the human condition, not to mention one of the things that makes being human so much fun! I'm fond of saying that it'd be a dull old world if we all thought the same and I mean it... what astonished me I suppose was the form of the praise - destruction's rarely satisfying for me (perhaps that's a creative thing?) and destruction of art actively upsets me.

Yes. I said art. And - by way of explanation - this is as good a point as any to come back to that exception I mentioned. My present guilty pleasure TV being (late to the party) Gilmore Girls, suddenly there's an intro I relish the ability to skip. For me at any rate, and as much as I'll admit to loving the comfy-conflict of the show itself, the sepia montage to a weirdly unrelated and cringe inducing song that is the intro of Gilmore Girls ... well it ain't art.

Stuart's prime example in praise of credit sequence destruction is a bit more current, he cites Star Trek Discovery's opening sequence:


If you've read the Guardian piece I'd now like to go on record as a: very much not a masochist and b: someone who never skips this intro. In my opinion far from being "a monument to codswallop" this - to my mind - is  a gorgeous example of a credit sequence doing its job. 

Stuart calls it "toweringly self-important" and that's telling I think, because I'd argue self-important is exactly what an intro sequence should be. Think of the titles as setting the mood for what follows, priming the audience for the new and (hopefully) original creative space of the story in which they're about to immerse themselves. The same way that the swelling chords of a practicing orchestra - building to their inevitable cut-off as the conductor enters and the symphony begins - allow an audience to warm-up and tune-in along with the performers, the TV intro creates a space for us to get ready for the particular story we've picked. 

A good intro invites us into the imaginative space of the show, to settle in and prepare to be entertained. At it's best that's what an intro sequence is for, and Discovery's intro (speaking as a fan) nails that. Speaking as a professional it's also both technically and conceptually beautiful, and original in a way I wouldn't have imagined that a seventh Star Trek TV series' intro could possibly have been. 

Art is subjective though and often the more complex or niche a work is the more polarised the subjective appreciation (or dislike) of it will become. 

Stuart singles out the Good Place's simple green starting card as a paragon of intro sequences. By coincidence that's another show he and I share. I'd agree it's a beautiful and simple intro, and a demonstration that an intro needn't be long or complex if that fits the show. I'd admit it also isn't unduly affected by the Skip Intro box. It does however lead neatly on into the best example of this annoying little white box's damage to a good credit sequence - Black Mirror:


Short, clean, simple and mesmerisingly on-message. Black Mirror's credit sequence is a work of art which perfectly primes its audience for the imaginative space they're about to enter. Here our own screen morphs into the titular black mirror, and we're propelled by typography and sound into the near future of the story. It's so perfect I could weep. And by dint of its simplicity and brevity it's also utterly ruined by the intrusion of Skip Intro feature as I discovered on my most recent revisit to San Junipero.  

Hopefully the feature will evolve and enable users to opt entire series in or out of intro skipping - I'd like that. For one thing it would stop me hitting the button a fraction of a second too soon and getting a freeze frame sepia of Stars Hollow! More importantly it would recognise the artistry in a good title sequence and allow those of us who enjoy them to enjoy them uninterrupted. When I suggested as much to Netflix they spectacularly missed the point but I live in hope. Meanwhile I may have to invest in some black tape for the bottom left of my TV screen before series four of Black Mirror starts...

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