Deconstructing Procedurals

Deconstructing Procedurals: Opening Credits

[Yes, I know. I promised this post weeks ago. I did, in all confidence, expect to have this up a week after I wrote that first post but that never happened. I could tell you it was studying, worrying and taking final exams. And that is part of it. But mostly I’ve just been putting off typing anything lately. I’ve been in a lull and just wanted to step away from anything that needed time and work to get done. This post was one of those things.]

In the last post, I covered how the openings of procedurals break down into two different types. In this post, I am going to talk about the next thing in order: opening credits.

After the audience is shown whatever the monster, crime or mystery that is going to be main challenge to the protagonist, the opening credits roll. This is, in my opinion, a remnant of the play and musical heritage of television.

Some of the earliest television shows had both actors and crew that came from work on theater productions. Some of the very first works were those that were retooled from the stage for work on film. The best known example of this is the classic three act structure of both stage and television shows. There exists a lesser known layover however that all of these things share: a Dramatis Personæ.

Look at the program for any play or musical and you see a listing of the principal actors and their roles. This is the Dramatis Personæ. This is the the “masks of the drama.” It details which people will wear which “masks” or will be acting in a certain role. In television shows, this is the opening credits.

The opening credits serve to show each role and each actor. They help to teach the viewers who the principals actors are and how they relate to the show. Who is the technician? Which role is a serious one? Which role will we expect to laugh at? The opening credits answers these questions. It helps, more than anything else, to jumpstart the viewer into the fiction of the show. Yes, a list of role and names is shown but the visual style is reconfirmed as well.

Television is mostly a visual medium. That may be something obvious to note but it is important to the styling of the fiction shown. Cop shows often take place in formal settings. The audience may see a court room, an office or a crime scene. These provide a visual shorthand. The opening credits of a show confirm this. While the opening may be confusing to a new audience, the opening credits will ground the viewers in the show’s fiction.

Opening credits can, generally, be broken down into four main categories:

The Blatant

Shows in this category have opening credits that list what the show is about. Generally they will have words that describe both what the show is about and the theme of any one episode.

The X-Files is about paranormal activity
The X-Files is about paranormal activity
Fringe is about all of these things
Fringe is about all of these things

The Montage

Shows in this category rely on important or dramatic moments in previous or upcoming episodes in order to populate the opening credits. Intermixed with these clips will often be other images that will remind the viewer what they are watching.  Most cop shows use this method.

CSI is all about science
CSI is all about science
NCIS is all about investigating... with force.
NCIS is all about investigating... with force.
Law and Order uses real photos to establish their more serious nature.
Law and Order uses real photos to establish their more serious nature.

The Abstract

This method has fallen out of favor almost complete. Most shows will not use it because it is jarring and requires some thought on the part of the audience. Images are shown which have meaning in context of the show or actor’s role. The show House is one of the very few remaining shows which use it.

House (Hugh Laurie) is the brains of the show
House (Hugh Laurie) is the "brains" of the show
Dr. Robert Chase (Jesse Spencer) is the backbone of the show
Dr. Robert Chase (Jesse Spencer) is the "backbone" of the show

The Title

Many shows in recent years have forgone the entire opening credits as a separate segment and use one single shot of the title. Although an emerging trend only a few procedurals use it, most notably The Closer and Castle.

This shot is the entirety of the opening credits
This shot is the entirety of the opening credits

The next series of posts will be on various tropes that procedurals share. The reasoning for this is simple. The elements of a show can be mixed and when looking across genres the order of events can be changed. They all share common things but they may not occur at the same time in any one episode.