Why Nurse Jackie has the Worst Credits Sequence in Television
January 3rd, 2010
When you write about television as much as I do, there are always ideas for posts floating around in your head – you get to the point where you can’t watch something without constructing a post around it, which can be somewhat daunting when you watch as much television as I do. However, through episode reviews and Twitter, most of those ideas get to the surface, which is usually enough to satiate my critical appetite enough to keep them from overpowering the rest of my life.
However, I don’t think I’ve ever quite said enough about one particular subject, because every time I think about it my blood figuratively boils. And so when Daniel Fienberg and Alan Sepinwall prompted a discussion on Twitter this afternoon about opening credits sequences (in particular the apparently quite good opening to FOX’s Human Target, debuting later this month), I knew it was finally the chance to discuss in further detail the degree to which I despise and loathe the opening credits sequence to Showtime’s Nurse Jackie.
And how, while I understand why Alan would lament the loss of the credits sequence to both supposed audience impatience and shorter running times, there are some shows where all the opening credits do is hearken back to an identity that the show is either no longer associated with or, worse yet, was never associated with to begin with.
Before I get to why Nurse Jackie’s opening credits are so categorically awful, I want to give you my criteria for a good title sequence. In my mind, opening credits should do one of three things (and, preferably, as many as possible within reason).
- Set Mood or Tone
- Provide a glimpse into the show’s world
- Introduce characters
Now, it’s important to acknowledge that this is not an exact science where you need to do all three of these things in order to be successful – after all, some opening sequences (like Alias, for example) do none of these things but have such a catchy theme song that they become part of the show’s identity. Six Feet Under’s award-winning title sequence didn’t introduce a single character, but it so embodied the show’s dark and sombre world of death and dying that it remains imminently watchable as a chance for the viewer to prepare themselves emotionally for the episode that will follow.
Credits Sequence: Six Feet Under
Alan Ball is particularly strong with opening credits sequences, as the opening for True Blood (a great analysis of which went up late last year at Flow TV) sells its world so well that I desperately want him to abandon the characters he currently has and make a show that sticks more closely to the credits’ journey through the rise of vampires in the American South.
Credits Sequence: True Blood
There are no characters in the credits directly, but the credits so define the overall character of the show and its world that they become part of the text in and of themselves – Weeds is another example of this, where in its first three seasons the various covers of “Little Boxes” and the images of Suburbia became part of the show’s cultural phenomenon (although more on that in a bit).
Credits are, of course, capable of introducing characters. I think United States of Tara is an example of a credits sequence which, in its depiction of a pop-up version of Tara’s various personalities, manages to capture both each individual character which Toni Colette plays along with the sort of psychological examination that the show often focuses on (with the final shot being Tara returning to herself and waking up from what seems like a dream).
Credits Sequence: United States of Tara
It says a lot about who Tara is as a character, and what the show is interested in investigating. Similarly, Dexter has perhaps the most memorable credits sequence of the past five years, managing to set the mood and tone of the series while perfectly capturing Dexter’s character by finding the bloody and visceral in everyday rituals.
Credits Sequence: Dexter
But when we look at Nurse Jackie’s opening credits sequence, we see none of these things.
Credits Sequence: Nurse Jackie
You could technically argue that Nurse Jackie’s credits are almost identical to United States of Tara’s – they focus on the position of the show’s lead character, capturing Edie Falco’s Jackie as a woman who works as a nurse, who’s addicted to painkillers, who has a weird relationship with religion, and who is an adulteress. However, the problem is that the show is actually at its worst when it is about pretty much any of these things. The show is at its best when it finds the humanity beneath the adultery, or when it probes her addiction to painkillers more carefully. As opposed to showing any of those moments, the opening goes for blatant iconography: “Wedding Ring! Religious Paraphernalia! Pills!” And all the while, Edie Falco stands there looking bemused, lacking any sort of emotional connection with the symbols of her character’s most basic qualities floating around her.
The worst thing a credits sequence can do is feel like a plot reminder, as if it exists purely for the purpose of exposition. Once you’ve seen this introduction once, there is nothing more to see: no nuances to pick out, no emotional connection to make, and no mood that defines the show. Before watching the show’s pilot, the introduction might work in terms of raising questions about who Jackie is and what defines her. However, after the pilot our image of Jackie goes far beyond flying pills and wedding rings, and yet the credits sequence remains as a basic, bland pigeon-holing of her character. And considering that Jackie contains a heavy procedural component in terms of patients of the week and a wide range of supporting characters, it seems odd to so heavily focus on a single character (whereas Tara, by comparison, investigates all of its characters in terms of how their lives have been directly or indirectly influenced by her condition).
It doesn’t help that the theme song, while technically proficient as a piece of music (if not quite my taste), is ludicrously inappropriate for the show. When it’s quiet and contemplative I think it could potentially capture the way Jackie often exists in her own head to escape the madness around her (often through the use of drugs, of course), but when it suddenly turns into 70s porn music I don’t know what they’re trying to portray. The jazzy sort of sound seems totally misplaced unless we choose to accept it as a meta-commentary on the show’s tonal inconsistencies (mostly caused by the slapstick of Anna Deavere Smith’s character), but I don’t think they were quite that self-aware going into things, and more importantly I think that’s something the show should be downplaying.
Nurse Jackie’s opening credits capture a single character at a single point in time, ignoring any further development that character might have and failing to place her traits into any sort of context both in terms of mood (ruined by the theme music) and world (ruined by the white void which she inhabits which is never physically connected to home or hospital despite those two locations being so easily connect). It implies that Nurse Jackie is, and always will be, a show about a nurse with a drug addiction and an adultery problem, which is so reductive that it makes me dislike the show more every time I see it. Admittedly, I don’t particularly care for parts of the show to begin with, but I truly believe that a great theme song that better defined the show’s world would go far to giving me some confidence that the writers/creators understand their own show.
According to critics who have seen the first episodes of Season Two, this opening remains part of the show, which is such a terrible idea that I don’t entirely know where to begin. Shows have changed opening credits in the past, both for very complex reasons (like The Wire’s unique credit sequences for each season with different versions of the theme song and different images that would gain relevance as the season progressed – Andrew Dignan wrote a great analysis of those at The House Next Door) and for very practical reasons (like Weeds abandoning its Suburban credits when it, you know, left the suburbs). It’s one thing to seem like a plot reminder, but it’s another to seem like a plot reminder of parts of the show which have been moved past in the subsequent episodes. I feel as if Nurse Jackie should be past “drug-addicted adulterer” by this point, and yet the credits will continue to exist as a boring, unappealing reminder of a logline used to sell the network on the series but which fails to represent the series itself.
Not every opening title sequence needs to be complex. Mad Men’s credits sequence is a stylistic evocation of 1960s art and advertising depicting Don Draper falling into the cultural chaos that defined the decade, and it is both visually arresting and compelling; meanwhile, sitcoms like The Big Bang Theory and How I Met Your Mother have short theme song/image combinations which capture the basic premise of the show (Nerdy Sitcom and Friends Hanging Out Sitcom, respectively). And there are some sequences which have some of Nurse Jackie’s problems (I think Big Love’s is similarly a bit too “on the nose,” and I got lots of Twitter responses of people who have issues with Sex and the City, Entourage, and a few others), so I’m not suggesting that it’s the only opening credits sequence which needs some help.
However, I think it might be the only opening title sequence that I wish didn’t exist at all, and that I believe actively damages the show’s reputation every time I see it. I don’t think it’s a problem with the visual effects (according to the Youtube page, they shot the effects practically which is pretty cool) or the theme song composers themselves (who created something wrong, not something terrible, and likely based on what the producers wanted), but rather the producers who thought that it was ever a good idea to saddle a show that has the potential to offer a complex investigation of the human condition with an opening credits sequence without a hint of non-technical complexity.
- It didn’t really fit into the focus of the piece, but the lack of credits (for the most part) on networks – where title cards are king – is always intriguing. As Alan pointed out on Twitter, Grey’s Anatomy used to have a full theme song and title credits, but it’s since evolved to a title card largely based on time restrictions (which don’t exist to the same extent on cable). The question is whether these sequences are part of what defines cable as “different” now when compared to networks, one component of a growing gap of quality in the eyes of many viewers. There’s a certain prestige to be found in a lengthy opening sequence, I think, and networks are missing that.
- Entourage’s credits are thematically fine (a trip through L.A.’s night life), but their age is getting to the point of ridiculous: every time I see the billboard promoting the upcoming release of The Killer’s Hot Fuss, I have to wonder why they haven’t taken the time to reshoot them (considering the show is a big success and all, as much as that pains me).
- It’s worth remarking that HBO, with its enormously long credits sequences, almost always places a chapter break after the opening on their DVDs, which indicates that they’re aware how often those sequences are skipped. And yet, despite this, I usually ended up watching the Six Feet Under openings when I went through on DVD, and the same goes for The Wire.
- The Emmys actually have a category for this (Main Title Design), and past winners include United States of Tara, Mad Men, Dexter, and Six Feet Under – yet another Emmy The Wire should have won at some point.
- As Noel points out on Twitter, other genres outside of comedy and drama (in particular anime) often switch up their titles more often to reflect more substantial changes. The same goes for reality series – Survivor uses different templates each and every season in order to keep fresh, while The Amazing Race changes up only the teams while keeping its imminently danceable theme song to inspire rewatches.
- As always, I’m very curious to know your thoughts, so if you have any opinions regarding Nurse Jackie’s titles, or any other show’s titles (good or bad), please level them below!
Edit: As always, you forget some things with pieces like this, and multiple people (including Noel below) have pointed out how great Chuck’s credits are. Catchy Cake song, great cartoon version of James Bond scenarios – what’s not to love?
Opening Credits: Chuck