So Friday’s blog post was not a List of Giant Things entry in the sense that I’ve usually been doing them, but it was a collection of quotes on an issue that’s closely related to that list. The quotes deserve a little additional commentary, which I was going to do yesterday, but Treme interfered. For now, then, back to Charles Dickens, Father of TV.
As I indicated in a comment on that post, one of the most important things to think about that little collection is how many of those quotes misread Dickens, or use him in an extremely limited way. I have a list here that covers some of the primary contexts in which Dickens appears when related to television, but there’s a lot about his work that does not have much impact on the commentary. (For instance: his frustratingly narrow depiction of most of his female characters, his astonishing prolificacy, his presence as a public performer, his role as an editor, his impact on social reform, etc. etc.)
This ended up being sort of absurdly long, so it’s going after a break. Join me for some TV-pertinent iterations of Charles Dickens:
HBO’s new Band of Brothers-inspired miniseries The Pacific premiered last night, and although I will be watching it, I probably won’t be blogging about it until the end. (This, by the way, is one of the biggest differences between the miniseries and standard American television productions: miniseries are written with an end in mind, and usually, the whole thing is produced at once. Writing about it without seeing the whole thing is like writing a paper about the first half of a novel. In contrast, television series are a piecemeal business, and the final episode mostly likely isn’t even written by the time the first episode is filmed. They’re built over a very long period of time, often with no definite end in sight, so writing about them while in progress makes much more sense.)
Phew, where did that come from? In any event, although I’m pretty sure The Pacific is going to be amazing and make me weep and cover my eyes, I don’t want to think about it critically until the end. I do want to talk a little about its opening credits, though. (Note: this is the director’s cut version, so it is slightly longer than the one on the air. Only slightly, though.)
They’re gorgeous. The dominating images are super close-up sequences of someone drawing with charcoal – so zoomed in that the dust from the charcoal piles up like dirt, and the textures of the pencil, the paper, and the charcoal lines resemble a rocky, uneven landscape. The lines are stark, but occasionally zoom out into soft, shaded images of soldiers’ pensive faces, and restrained red tinting illustrates violence with more emotional nuance than actual gore. As the pencil moves across paper, fragmenting pieces of dust and charcoal are visually linked to images of battle, so that debris from a drawing looks much like shrapnel. It’s a lovely, persuasive sequence.
There’ve been two diverging trends in opening title sequences. For many network shows, they’ve all but disappeared, led no doubt by the influence of shows like Lost, with its minimalist, two second long, slowly spinning black and white title. The once longer version of the Grey’s Anatomy title sequence has been reduced to a clean, brief appearance of the title, and newer shows like The Good Wife , FlashForward, and Castle never even had a longer versions of their very short opening sequences. 24 has always had its succinct timer BEEP….BEEP… title, and even some sitcoms, once the bastion of the TV theme song, have abandoned traditional opening credits for an abbreviated animation and a creator credit (How I Met Your Mother, Community).
The reverse has also been true, largely for high-brow cable and premium cable programming. Over the past decade, it’s become the norm for HBO shows to come stamped with trademark artsy title sequences, sometimes nearly two minutes long. The best of these are completely gorgeous little films that tap into the show’s thematic content and organizing aesthetics – Deadwood, Six Feet Under, Rome and True Blood all have powerful opening sequences that go a long way toward establishing the shows’ tone. True Blood in particular has an opening sequence that does an immense amount of atmospheric work. Those ninety seconds build an entire fantasy world, connect it with the politics, racial history, and cultural battles of our real world, and then anchor it all in a detailed, distinct American South. (The best embedded version I could find has an HBO watermark on it.) Showtime’s Dexter also must go on this list: never, ever have I seen creepier footage of food, and a jaunty, devil-may-care music that accompanies images of coffee beans being pulverized, a knife cutting into a runny egg yolk, and fingers clenched to pull shoelaces tight sells the show’s juxtaposition of quotidian horror as effectively as Michael C. Hall’s performance.
Oddly, these opposing methods of building framing devices for television shows are seeking to address the same realities of TV viewership. The supershort title credit builds a show’s brand while also making it far too short to skip – there’s no point in reaching for the fast-forward button on the TiVo if you know it’ll only be five seconds long. You may not get a whole lot of establishing information about the cast, characters, or tone, but at least you can’t skip over what little there is. On Community, for example, the thirty second sequence often gets clipped into a pithy title bit that blasts you with a brief melodic phrase, one line of a song, and a nice animation of a cootie catcher with funny doodles in it. The word “Community” appears in block, collegiate text, annnnnnd we’re done. You get a hefty dose of COLLEGE, a whiff of snark, and you’re launched into the episode. Conversely, the ultralong HBO-style credits open themselves up to skipping because they are so long, but if you do sit through them, you’re rewarded with a surprisingly rich little meditation on what you’re about to watch.
The ultralong title sequence also serves an important purpose for weekly viewing – certainly this is not always the case, but over the past decade, the cable shows with super long credits have often also been narratively complex, multi-plotted shows. Sitting down to a new episode of The Sopranos a week later, a minute and a half of Tony driving through the Holland tunnel may not remind you of precisely what was happening in the episode last week, but it helps pull your mind back into the show’s aesthetic, its tone, its atmosphere. It also establishes the episode as an event, something that requires some introduction and unpacking. It’s cinematic – this hour of your life is a separate experience, encapsulated from whatever you were just doing, and you need this title sequence as a bridge between the two spaces. Conversely, the long credits have the opposite effect in DVD viewing. I am much more likely to skip one of those long title sequences when watching several episodes at a time (which, ahem, happens not infrequently), because they interrupt the rhythm and immersion of the storytelling. I don’t need a ninety second reminder of what the show’s like if the thing I was doing two minutes ago was watching the show.
Don’t get me wrong, I love a good title sequence. But I wonder if their presence at the beginning of every episode in the DVD format makes the rhythms of the show a little too pat, and the endings and beginnings of each segment super conscious reminders of time passing. A title song that’s familiar quickly becomes canned, and then annoying, and then it breaks you out of the duration of the show when you hit fast forward – the equivalent of skipping that one paragraph that’s repeated in every Nancy Drew novel (oh Bess, you always were a little plump). If nothing else, the title sequences are enduring markers of one way television will always be different than a novel, even when it’s at its most literary. The methods of production are much closer to the surface.