How the Title Sequence Can Become the Single Best Ad for Any TV Show

A moment's invitation into a whole universe

Headshot of Angela Natividad

What makes a good TV title sequence?

YouTuber Ryan Hollinger of Screen Smart explores that question in a video of nearly seven minutes, using the starting sequences of American Horror Story, Twin Peaks, Stranger Things, The Sopranos, Mad Men, Game of Thrones and many more. What you'll learn here, though, can apply to any title sequence you watch—and will definitely up your geek cred at future binge-watching fests.

"The title sequence is the greatest source of identity for any television show," he begins. It's "the warm-up for the main act at a concert."

Most title sequences today start with a cold opening to hook viewers right away, but great sequences have invisible triggers that bind you emotionally to what the show's about.

Stranger Things invokes nostalgia with its music and typography; the letters progressively come together as if in a puzzle. Narcos uses newsy footage to emphasize its connection to real-life events. Meanwhile, The X Files used haunting music, coupled with enigmatic imagery, to put us in a mystery-solving mood. 

"Sometimes you're more likely to have vivid memories of the music than you have the actual contents of the show," Hollinger says. 

Title sequences, at their best, act as communication devices to convey information about the world you're about to enter, or about the character. Game of Thrones' epic gameboard sequence, with worlds rising and falling, emphasizes the constant evolution of its world and its stories. Twin Peaks' tranquil imagery establishes the friendly, small-town locality that beats at the heart of the show—but, laced with the weird music and bright green typography, you also feel elements of the surreal.

Mad Men's opening speaks to the sophistication of the 1960s and the era's pop-art playfulness. But it also revolves around Don Draper, whose world literally crumbles around him—and who, himself, begins to fall through its artifice. 

The Dexter title sequence is another masterful example of an intro that revolves around a main character. The music is mischievous, and Dexter's morning routine is highlighted in extreme closeups, which makes them feel strangely alien and sinister. Hollinger calls it "a master class in taking a simple activity completely out of context" to highlight the character's secret darkness. 

"You don't actually have to watch these shows or read their synopsis to understand what they're about," says Hollinger. 

In a way, a strong title sequence is a reflection of advertising at its best—it's instantaneous, orienting, and has to keep fresh with repeated watches. More than just a memento of a beloved show, "it's a mesmerizing blend of storytelling, technical proficiency and artistry that goes beyond merely drawing us in, but instead transcends into a unique spectacle that makes us feel emotionally connected and individually provoked by the entertainment that we love," Hollinger concludes.

He leaves us with a question that works just as well for title sequences as it does for the next campaign you'll proffer for a client: How does the title invite me into its world?

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@luckthelady Angela Natividad is a frequent contributor to Adweek's creativity blog, AdFreak. She is also the author of Generation Creation and co-founder of Hurrah, an esports agency. She lives in Paris and when she isn't writing, she can be found picking food off your plate.