The Theme Song Lives: 2009-10’s Emmy Contenders for “Main Title Design”

The Theme Song Lives: “Main Title Design” in 2009-10

April 19th, 2010

There’s a lot of news posts out there today which are viewing the elimination of the “Outstanding Main Title Theme Music” Emmy Award as a long overdue decision, a logical move to reflect the “death” of the theme song in modern television. I understand this impulse, and certainly think that there is an element of lament and loss to this particular development.

However, my immediate thought upon hearing this news was that it was perfectly logical: however, it is perfectly logical not because the theme song is irrelevant, but rather because the theme song is no longer a distinct element of a show’s identity. Just look at the winners over the past three years: two went to theme songs to anthology series (Masters of Horror in 2007 and Great Performances in 2009), and the other went to CBS’ Pirate Master (which was a complete and total bomb). The fact of the matter is that these are probably very impressive compositions which have had absolutely no staying power as pieces of music due to their lack of connection with the role of the Main Titles, as I discussed in earnest a few months back.

Really, the award for “Main Title Theme Music” is now wrapped up in the “Outstanding Main Title Design” category – I would personally consider theme song to be part of the opening credits design, and I’m presuming that a good theme has played a role in past winners like Six Feet Under, United States of Tara and Dexter taking the award. While I don’t know if the Academy would go so far as to include composers within this category as a way to honour them for their work (for the record, I support such a motion), I do hope that the role of the theme song within these openings becomes more important. It’s always one of my favourites to predict in each given year, and I think that this almost makes that category more interesting as we see whether a quality theme song plays an even more substantial role in this year’s winners and nominees.

And so out of respect to the composers who continue to write main title themes, and due to my love for both main title sequences and Emmy predictions, I figured I’d run down the contenders for this year’s Emmy for Outstanding Main Title Design (all of which feature effective use of music, albeit some using pre-existing musical soundtrack).

Predicted Nominees

HBO’s Hung

By cleverly combining the most buzz-worthy (the sex) and the most subtle (post-recession America) qualities of the series into a single set of images, the opening very clearly lays out both the tone and the premise of the show in an iconic fashion.

HBO’s The Pacific

I will be honest: I’m not a huge fan of this credits sequence. As impressive as the style of the piece is, and as strong as the theme may be in its own right, I think it’s honestly too long and has absolutely no sense of narrative or function beyond the stylistic flourishes of the charcoal. They’re guaranteed a nomination based on the strong technical work, but I haven’t watched them since the premiere.

FOX’s Human Target

While these credits deserve to be here stylistically, I think that the thematic value of these credits is perhaps their most important role: they very clearly place the series within the area of James Bond through the aesthetic choices, and the great main theme song from Bear McCreary informs us that this will in some ways be a throwback to something familiar and that some would consider to be old-fashioned. It really captures the tone of the series, which is something that any Main Title should strive towards.

HBO’s Treme

While there isn’t anything particularly inventive about the idea of using documentary images in order to capture post-Katrina New Orleans in David Simon and Eric Overmeyer’s new series, the theme song does a lot to remind us that the show is about the culture threatened by the mould and the floods rather than the floods themselves. The opening scale shot, showing the entire storm and then the carnage of the flooding, nicely fades into more of a cultural retrospective, the focus on photos reminding us of the history in danger of being lost in Katrina’s wake.

HBO’s How to Make it in America

Perfect length, perfect theme song, perfect focus – this is, perhaps, one of the greatest main title sequences ever created. Aloe Blacc’s “I Need a Dollar” is completely infectious, but it also breathes life into already stunning images which capture a sort of “real” New York that gives the show a sense of authenticity which it used to its advantage. I seriously do not believe there is enough hyperbole to emphasize just how perfect this sequence is, and how much it contributed to my desire to keep watching the merely average series.

Other Contenders:

HBO’s Bored to Death

I would probably put this in over The Pacific if you were asking me for five selections: it’s just a really well-designed sequence, and from a technical standpoint it is certainly one of the most inventive of the year while not becoming too enamored with its techniques.

AMC’s The Prisoner

The miniseries itself was a mess, but I thought the credits did a better job of making it seem interesting, so perhaps the Emmys could take a liking to the Miniseries despite what is ultimately not that impressive a sequence.

HBO’s Big Love

I don’t know if HBO is able to resubmit for this award (no show has successfully done so, although Monk did win the Main Title Theme award twice), but I think they’ve got a decent shot here – while the thematic value of the original opening was unquestionable, this is one visually stunning piece of filmmaking.

FOX’s (Retro Credits for) Fringe

I don’t know if enormously clever one-off credits are eligible, as I’d have to look it up, but these are certainly masterfully designed.

SyFy’s Caprica

I’m not a huge fan of this intro, but I felt like I needed both another example that wasn’t from HBO and another opportunity to point out that Bear McCreary has yet to win an Emmy, and this is another layered, intriguing opening theme with great resonance throughout the series. Also: that last shot is a doozie.

Showtime’s Nurse Jackie

Because the Emmys might just hate me that much.

Cultural Observations

  • The spinoff of this category is that it’s being replaced by “Music Composition for a Non-Fiction series,” which will hopefully clear some room for Bear McCreary and Michael Giacchino in the other Music Composition category. Yes, that is my only priority.
  • I don’t know if I’m missing any other potential credit sequences, but be sure to let me know if I’ve forgotten one (remember that they need to have premiered since last June).
  • Semi-relevant observation: Nurse Jackie is going to have to choose between Season 1 and Season 2 episodes to submit for the Emmys, as both would have aired during the eligibility period – I wonder if this has happened before.
  • In related news: I need a dollar, dollar, dollar that’s what I need (I said!). That is all.


Filed under Emmy Awards

14 responses to “The Theme Song Lives: 2009-10’s Emmy Contenders for “Main Title Design”

  1. Six Feet Under actually pulled a nomination when its first two seasons were eligible in the same period of time.

    • tabernacle

      As someone who eventually ends up skipping past most credit sequences, no matter how great, I found 6FU’s very rewatchable. And contrary to some others which, though good, seem to have nothing to do with the show itself, this one helped set the tone, I think.

  2. renton

    Funny that you posted this today. I was just thinking about this very topic last night, wondering if The Pacific’s opening was about as safe of an Emmy bet as it gets.

    You make some good points about it and yes, it’s very long. But I watch the show on DVR and NEVER skip through the opening. If some country needs a new national anthem, I’d suggest adopting this one.

  3. The theme song for Human Target is good, but very poorly matched to the rest of the design. Sorry for the self-promo, Myles, but I wrote about it here.

    And while admittedly you’re looking at new shows, I’d still nominate CSI: Miami as an excellent opening credit sequence

    • Self-promotion is all well and good, Jonathan, but being wrong isn’t quite so forgivable. 😛

      I kid, mostly – I understand where you’re coming from, and there is certainly a nostalgic nod to classic action adventure in the theme song which is largely absent from the style of the design, but I think the show is very much about the slickness of modern action films mixed with this more classic notion of heroism. I think there are parts of the design which perhaps indulge too greatly in the more stylized, graphic novel-esque world it seems to want to portray, but I think the theme song sort of grounds the introduction in a way which captures the dynamics of the show pretty effectively.

      I’m also a sucker for a main theme which recurs as a thematic marker within the score of the series itself, so I’ll admit that my appreciation for the theme (and the intro, which is just the right length to become rewatchable) has only grown as the series has moved forward.

  4. The Emmys have never really known how to handle theme songs anyway; they never even awarded any until the early 1990s (when they could be bothered – this is the group that nominated “The Simpsons” and “Twin Peaks” and decided that neither of them was worthy of getting an Emmy!).

  5. pinkiering

    Just mentioning that you do not have the complete title sequence for Treme linked into this post – and wondering if you have seen the entire piece. It opens with B&W footage of a 2nd line, an important aspect of New Orleans culture, then sequences into the storms eye. You’re missing several seconds of the sequence – and perhaps some of the story. Check out other links at Youtube for the complete version.

  6. Sam

    i like how the photo technique from the how to make it sequence is continued in the actual show (esp. in the pilot, but occasionally later on in the season, too). just cool how it introduces not only the setting, but an actual narrative technique for the series.

    and, true, it’s a likeable but not amazing program, but the stories’ scale are sort of snapshot sized. kind of small, more interesting as moments than as an overarching narrative. the title sequence just does a good job setting up expectations for that sort of storytelling.

    plus, that song is just great.

  7. It’s interesting to compare Treme‘s main titles to older ones that featured New Orleans, like Frank’s Place. I personally think Treme‘s are a little bit too on the nose.

    Bear McCreary and Michael Giacchino deserved an Emmy just for existing.

  8. Conrado

    As for your question about ‘Nurse Jackie’ submitting episodes from two seasons, I believe this happened to ‘Six Feet Under’ in 2003, when its second and third seasons both aired during the eligibility period.

  9. That’s a great list. Cable intros are a huge deal to me. I hate it when shows that I love have terrible intros. I don’t know why it bothers me so much, they’re quite easy to skip. Oh well.
    You’re completely right about all the HBO intros. Hung’s intro is completely appropriate, The Pacific’s is stylish but too long and useless, How to Make it In America’s intro is significantly better than the show (I didn’t actually hate the show), and Bored to Death’s is perfectly goofy. I love the effort that they put into the retro Fringe intro. It was completely unnecessary, but I love that they did it. That Caprica intro always gets me. I can’t not watch it. Sure it’s melodramatic and corny, but it’s very emotional and it does a great job of reminding you of the dynamic in the cast.

  10. How about Dollhouse? I thought season 2’s credit sequence was much better than the first…

    Then there’s that crazy number on Tru Blood…

  11. pinkiering

    The link to the main title sequence for Treme seems to be missing from this blog….

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