Friday marks the 10-year anniversary of the premiere of Showtime's suburban comedy Weeds . Not only did the series, starring Mary-Louise Parker as pot-dealing soccer mom Nancy Botwin, prove to be an iconic and long-running success for the premium channel, but it also affected the television landscape in one other crucial way: by making the long-dormant art of opening title sequences cool again.
There was a time when television audiences expected a 90-second sequence to ease them into the world of the show they were about to watch. Back in those days, the opening credits tended to be an expository affair, whether they were singing about shipwrecks ( Gilligan's Island ), introducing various family members ( The Brady Bunch ), or literally explaining the entire concept of the show beat-by-beat ( The Odd Couple ). This practice seemed to dry up for several decades, with networks perhaps preferring to devote more time to storytelling than to catchy theme songs — or more likely, preferring to devote more time to precious ad space.
The resurgence of the opening title sequence didn't really begin in earnest until HBO started to become a powerhouse in original programming, with early shows like Oz, The Sopranos, and Sex And The City paving the way in the late '90s. Now it seems like every series is expected to have an elaborate credits sequence as meticulously crafted as the 55 minutes that come afterwards. Of course, sometimes these sequences miss the mark. The pun-filled opening for Showtime's Masters Of Sex is such a poor match for the series' somber tone it's like getting whiplash. Homeland 's opening so badly wants to convey the scattered mind of its lead character but falls so woefully short. Orange Is The New Black 's opening to that damn Regina Spektor song is so divisive that various think pieces have been written about its merits or lack thereof.
Thankfully, there are far more good examples than bad one. Here, in my humble opinion, are the 14 best opening title sequences of the 21st century:
Falling last on this list due mostly to its brevity, the opening for Hannibal is as strikingly artistic as the rest of the series. The off-kilter visuals (is that wine or blood?), the distinctive soundtrack, the clever subtleties (it may take you a few viewings to notice that the blood is actually forming the heads of its three main leads, Mads Mikkelsen, Hugh Dancy, and Laurence Fishburne)... it all fits so perfectly into Hannibal's distinctive aesthetic. The opening of Netflix's Daredevil owes more than a little to this sequence.
13. The Walking Dead
The coolest thing about TWD's opener is the way the familiar strains of the haunting theme always begin several seconds before the sequence actually starts, while an actual scene is still ongoing. This makes for a seamless transition and helps get the blood pumping for the action still to come.
12. Mad Men
Elegant. Glamorous yet surprisingly bleak. The adjectives one might use to describe the opening credits of AMC's flagship show could also be used to describe the series itself — and that makes for a perfect marriage between show and title sequence. Is there a single image more iconic of 21st century television than the so-called "Falling Man"? You know you've got an instant classic on your hands when people are decoding your credits for clues.
11. Les Revenants
A lullaby-like tune. Some drowned goats. A couple necking on the grass next to a grave. A hand wiping a fogged-up window. This could only be the introduction for the delightfully weird French series Les Revenants. (You can just ignore A&E's English-language remake The Returned.) The sequence plays neat tricks with perception, like the ghosts glimpsed in the puddle and the shot where the real mountain is on the bottom of the screen and its reflection is on the top.
10. Sleepy Hollow
Even in the Golden Age of title sequences, they remain almost exclusively the domain of cable and subscription networks. Broadcast channels still tend to prefer devoting the air time to advertisements rather than artsy short films... which is why this sequence for FOX's Sleepy Hollow was such a pleasant surprise when the show premiered in 2013. If you show me a fan of the series who claims they don't raise their arms into the air along with Katrina at the beginning of the sequence, I'll show you a bald-faced liar.
Sure, this sequence owes a lot to The X-Files — and that show's sequence already owed a lot to The Twilight Zone — but Fringe's opening stands on its own merits. The bizarre images that had viewers searching for Easter eggs, the list of paranormal phenomenon, the beautifully eerie tune penned by creator J.J. Abrams himself... it all combines to form the perfect introduction into the weird world of Fringe. When you heard that melody kick in, you knew you were about to see some creepy stuff go down. And the way the sequence would change color or animation style to reflect each week's episode was nothing short of brilliant.
Ah, those "Little Boxes." Premiering in 2005, Weeds is one of the earliest shows on this list and is a large part of the reason why the rest of them are here. Even now, opening sequences tend to be more prevalent in hour-long dramas than half-hour comedies, given the latter's already depleted runtime. Sitcoms more often start with zippy montages of their casts' faces (think Modern Family, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Parks And Recreation, or even New Girl 's awful revamped opening). That's why the opening sequence for Weeds felt so subversive at the time. And, to solve the dreaded fast-forwarding problem, Showtime cleverly started changing up its theme song in Season 2, showcasing a different cover every week by the likes of Death Cab For Cutie, Regina Spektor, Randy Newman, Ben Folds, and many more.
7. American Horror Story
Unlike most shows on this list, FX's horror show has to come up with a brand new sequence every year, thanks to its anthology format. They're always so expertly crafted, all four existing openings could have landed on this list individually — but that hardly seems fair. Whether the sequences are focused on creepy basements, possessed nuns, levitating witches, or carnival freaks, they're always rife with terrifying imagery... made all the worse by that jarring soundtrack. Season 4's Freak Show introduced stop-motion animation into the sequence for the first time; it will be interesting to see what they come up with when Hotel premieres in October.
6. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
The only comedy on this list other than Weeds comes from Netflix, whose credit sequences don't always hit the mark. (See: the aforementioned Orange Is The New Black, the derivative Daredevil, the boring House Of Cards montage.) But not only does this sequence introduce an earworm that is likely to stay stuck inside your head for days afterwards, but its candy colors and its clever riff on viral videos accurately represent the tone and themes of the show itself.
5. True Detective
The next three entries on this list are so similar in style, it's almost impossible to rank them separately. Detective lands the lowest simply because it's the most recent, and therefore owes a lot of its inspiration to the entires still to come. The hallucinatory mishmash of human bodies and urban imagery, set to the strains of "Far From Any Road" by The Handsome Family succinctly evoke the Southern gothic mood of the season. (Sadly, like most of Detective Season 2, the anthology series' second opening sequence pales in comparison to the first.)
Premiering the year after Weeds, Showtime's serial killer drama is often seen as paving the way for pretty much every acclaimed title sequence to follow. (In fact, the way had already been paved five years earlier, but more on that in a bit.) The mosquito. The blood orange. The ham and eggs. The shoelaces. Every image in this sequence is now iconic after eight (uneven) seasons. The best thing about it is the way it subverts the tropes of the "getting ready" montage by highlighting the little acts of violence that we all commit in our daily lives.
3. True Blood
Alan Ball's HBO vampire drama took Dexter's formula and perfected it. What True Blood's title sequence lacks in coherent narrative, it more than makes up for in a veritable orgy of sex, violence, nature, and religion — a perfect way to describe the show itself, come to think of it. "I want to do bad things with you," the sequence confidently croons at us from our TV screens. The feeling is mutual, True Blood.
2. Six Feet Under
None of those previous three entries — heck, none of this list, perhaps — would have existed without this sequence... ironically from another show created by Alan Ball. A mere two years before Six Feet Under premiered, HBO had debuted The Sopranosand its opening sequence of Tony driving down the Jersey Turnpike: still a classic but admittedly a bit dull by today's standards. Six Feet Under's opening must have seemed revolutionary by comparison. Beauty and death are so startlingly juxtaposed here, with roses and trees existing right alongside corpses and gravestones, all underscored by Thomas Newman's oddly whimsical theme. This was the first sequence to elevate opening credits to an art form, and our current fascination with the phenomenon can be traced directly back to the June 2001 premiere of this acclaimed drama.
1. Game Of Thrones
Of course, the art form reached its pinnacle five years ago when HBO subscribers were first blown away by the sheer grandiosity of this sequence. According to Thrones producer Greg Spence, the concept of the sequence came about when the writers realized they needed a way to lay out the geography of the show's fictional world. They originally intended on using an "Indiana Jones-style traveling camera kind of thing," but landed on the now-infamous opening instead. (Thank goodness.) The complex animation of the clockwork buildings and the bombastic score cleverly work to disguise what would otherwise be a massive info dump. At this point, the Game Of Thrones theme song has to be among the most recognizable in all of television history, along with the likes of Mission: Impossible, Hawaii Five-0, and The Addams Family.