Dave Does HBO! (but don’t worry, they consented)

Posted on 08/05/2011

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Allow me to be candid: I’m not a massive telly watcher.

Couple of reasons for that. Primarily, it’s because I’ve never had cable TV, and every series I’ve ever enjoyed has been mercilessly jerked around by commercial networks (*cough* Damages *cough*).
Secondly, I prefer the self-enclosed experience of watching a film. Films are totally submersible units of storytelling that can be sufficiently explored in 90 minutes or so, whereas – a few years ago – if I wanted to know what the monster was on Lost, I’d have to “tune in next week”.

That used to shit me, so I sort of went off TV.

But then along comes DVD, and whaddayaknow, I’m back into TV again! I can marathon this shit! Now I can sufficiently whet my appetite for foul language by watching a few episodes of Deadwood back to back. This is awesome! I can keep watching Larry David be an awkward douchebag for hours on end if I chuck on a few episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm or see find out whether or not the Fisher brothers will get bought out in Six Feet Under. I can finally treat TV the same way as I do film: a few hours at a time, totally submersed, completely satisfied at the conclusion.

So if the title hasn’t already given it away, I’d like to do HBO this week (in a completely legal way, mind you), but not necessarily the series themselves. Rather, I’d just like to look at their opening titles.  And so, good friends, began an odyssey through the best of HBO (in my opinion) to determine how and why these kinds of long, rambling, often highly indulgent sequences make me tick.

And now, a brief faux-history…

A still from the opening of 'The Honeymooners'

Since as early as the beginning of the 50s – indeed, almost since the advent of television – the opening title sequence has been a staple of television and particularly the sitcom. Like a trumpet tarrah-ing across the field of war, the combination of music and image is a call to duty of sorts; the first indication we get that our favourite show is starting, and signaling the beginning of a new episode, a new week and a new adventure. What shenanigans will the Fonz get up to this week? Will M*A*S*H* be funny or serious this week? Will Maxwell Smart and Agent 99 hook up this week? Who knows…

Opening credits/title sequences were often the first means by which new viewers discovered who was in a show, where it was set and (in the case of shows such as The Honeymooners) who sponsored it. The mood of the piece was immediately established through this kind of sequence (something like M*A*S*H* is a good example of this), as was a sense of time and place.  Furthermore, theme songs were a crucial means of recognition for all of the aforementioned, as a catchy, hummable/whistleable tune was a means by which a show could  immediately entice you even before a single word of dialogue had been spoken.

A still from 'The Simpsons' opening credits

Thankfully, the opening title sequences lives on through such shows as The Simpsons, Family Guy and two of my least favourite shows of all time, Two and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory. Immediately familiar, curiously cerebral sequences, they are almost comforting in some ways; like that meal mum cooks often that you love. I often remember coming home from school or work feeling like utter crap, turning on the TV and hearing The Simpsons theme and almost immediately feeling better. It was my brain saying to me “Okay, Simpsons is starting. Let’s get ready to laugh”, and for the next 30 minutes, I was in – hooked.

Quite the testament to the power of a mere 20 seconds of programming, no?

But, arguably, nobody does the opening title sequence better than American cable network HBO, with California based company Digital Kitchen being behind any number of their series’ openings, from True Blood to Six Feet Under. Often indulgently long, shamelessly beautiful and accompanied by some amazing music choices, HBO programming grabs you before you even know the show with these sequences. Even if you don’t know Deadwood, you can still admire and enjoy just that isolated moment of film making for what it is.

Now, I know no other way to approach this other than to work through my own personal favourites from HBO, so here goes nothing, really…

MOOD

SIX FEET UNDER (2001 – 2005)

Let me tell you a story: I’m about ten, my mum’s a massive fan of a show I’m not allowed to watch about a family of people who work in the “business of funerals”. I’m lying in bed at about 9:30 at night, with the door open, just beginning to drift off to sleep, and all of a sudden from the lounge room I hear that opening chord, and I’m immediately awake again, and unable to sleep for probably another hour or so, just because the music freaked me out so intensely.

That’s my first recollection of Six Feet Under, and a testament to the power of this sequence. The combination of Thomas Newman’s score – which is so frightening and chilling, but also quite beautiful – and the images, all shot with that uncanny sense of sparsity and coldness, that combine to give you an immediate sense of the mood of the piece.

TIME AND PLACE

DEADWOOD (2004 – 2006)

Arguably one of the best TV series ever made, Deadwood is – if you’ve never seen it – freakin’ awesome! In fact, Mark said something on Friday that struck quite a chord with me, and that is that Deadwood is, in many ways, Shakespearean: half some of the most florid, inspired, poetic speeches ever committed to the screen, and half cock jokes. Easily one of the most inspired shows ever created, with some of the best writing and acting from an ensemble cast ever.

But we’re not here to have a wank over Deadwood, we’re here to do title sequences, and whilst this isn’t my favourite HBO title sequence, it’s still an excellent example of how time and place is immediately revealed. We understand the period the show is set in, through a combination of music, image, costumes and so forth. We understand what is done in the show (much drinking, mining for gold, gambling and debauchery) and these elements, unto themselves, immediately tell us whether we’ll like the show or not.

SUBJECT

OZ (1997 – 2003)

As we alluded to in Deadwood, these self-contained sequences do, in many instances, detract as many viewers from a show as they attract. I think Oz is a fine TV show, that deals with it’s subject matter very honestly and frankly. But, having said that, let’s look at what some of the predominant images in this sequence are. A brawl in the visitation room at about :22 seconds. Somebody shooting up at :40 seconds. An electrocution beginning at about 1:02. Yeah, we kind of get, right from the outset, what this show’s gunna be, and it ain’t gunna be pretty.

Oz, in that sense, is kind of warning you before you’ve even started watching the show. All of the major themes of the show – violence, religion, sexuality, race, drugs – are all dealt with in this 1 minute 30. So, if I were put off by any of this, I could immediately tune off and go elsewhere. But, y’know, I’m paying a fortune for HBO, so I’ll hang around and watch the interracial rape.

STYLE

TRUE BLOOD (2008 – PRESENT)

I’m not a massive fan of True Blood, to be frank. From what I’ve seen of it, it seems a series cashing in on the success of the vampire-as-a-fetish-rather-than-a-monster trend, and an exercise in style and sex rather than anything else. But, having said that, I do love this opening title sequence. Once again a creation of Digital Kitchen, time, place and subject matter are all dealt with, but what this has an extra dollop of is style.

The use of colour in this is excellent, juxtaposing really quite vivid, vibrant reds with blues and greens. The use of music is also outstanding; not only does it immediately tell us where the show is set, but it also tells us what the show is most concerned with: sex. The combination of filmed footage and stock footage of things like the frog being eaten and the fox decomposing in quick time all add to the period, grotty feel of the sequence.

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Posted in: Semester 1