The importance of art direction in tv show intros

Jon Benson

A central part of great storytelling is effectively setting the stage and establishing how the audience should feel going into your story. TV shows accomplish this with their intros. “Game of Thrones” fans hum emphatically along to the theme music as the camera flies across the world’s gameboard map, stopping at places the episode will visit, preparing the audience for the ride ahead. “Mad Men” viewers tumble and fall endlessly with Don Draper, reminding us of his inner freefall, while ending with his silhouette seated, outwardly cool and collected. One of my favorite show intros is the first season of “True Detective” on HBO, which won an Emmy for Outstanding Main Title Design. Its accomplishment lies in taking a show with so many layers and themes and concisely touching on many of them with carefully chosen, provocative imagery. The intro splices characters, iconic scenes, and objects together in a beautiful yet dark and haunting way that I believe deserves analysis.

The show follows two detectives caught up in a murder mystery, set in the swamplands of Louisiana. The audience finds themselves wherever the investigation must go, often driving from lead to lead across long stretches of industrial development with oil refineries towering in the near distance. Matthew McConaughey's character, Rust Cohle, remarks early on about the feeling he gets from the place, “I get a bad taste in my mouth out here... aluminum... ash... like you can smell a psychosphere.” Fire (and things burned intentionally) exist subtly, from the story’s beginning with a cane field set ablaze, to a central character’s half-burned face, to the dull glow of Cohle’s lit cigarette. Philosophy, ranging from nihilism to the occult and evangelical Christianity, plays a very central, albeit pessimistic, role. These themes are extremely palpable and important to the show’s tone, and a collage of central characters, industrial imagery, oil refineries, vacant playgrounds, dismal trailer parks, truck stop strip clubs, and neon-lit crosses are intentionally layered in controversial ways. The color palette is drained and dominated by a desaturated sepia tone, a slight sickly Matrix-green tint, contrasted with pops of glowing red flames and orangish sparks. Any movement is slowed down to a tenth its normal speed so everything is at a frustrating, dreamy speed, like trying to run in a nightmare.

Equally important, and arguably more lasting in memory, is the intro’s music. The song that was chosen for the first season of “True Detective” is “Far From Any Road," an alternative country song originally composed by The Handsome Family for their 2003 album “Singing Bones”. does an excellent job of examining the metaphor shared between the show and the song’s lyrics. The subject of the song is a rare desert cactus that causes people who look upon it to go insane, and despite knowing this, people continue to do so nonetheless. In the show, the killer has generated a cultish mythos around himself, calling himself “The Yellow King” and his lair “Carcosa,” all of which are references to an early-20th-century horror series called “The King In Yellow”. This series influenced H.P. Lovecraft in his fiction about horrors, similar to the cactus, where simply looking at them caused insanity and/or death. The song’s instrumental music has a gunslinger, western feel that matches the show’s heroes’ grit and determination while the lyrics are foreboding and predatory, a warning for the dangers ahead.

This brief examination is in no way comprehensive but it at least begins to touch on the level of intimate attention to detail that’s necessary to craft an award-winning show intro (that only gets the ball rolling for an also award-winning fantastic season). I cannot recommend the first season of “True Detective” enough, BUT if you take anything from this short article, DON’T waste your time with season two. It’s a real dumpster fire.