HBO’s newest cult hit delivers more than mystery and entertainment. Try symbolic genius.

Technology Evolves, Audiences Follow

Technologically, the film and television industries are advancing at breakneck speeds. While networks struggle to accommodate the demands of 1080 HD downloads, filmmakers have already begun shooting in 4K UHD—capturing four times the pixel resolution in every graphic.

Cable and Internet networks might be evolving at slower rates (unless, of course, you’re living in an area unshackled by Google Fiber), but audiences are not.

Rather, as the technology of film and television continues to grow more and more sophisticated in approach of 4K and beyond, so too do audiences. The burden of proof? The design trends behind today’s opening sequence.

Why HBO Opted to Show, Not Tell

You might not have been alive when Gilligan’s Island originally aired between 1964 and 1967, but the fact that you’re reading a geeky article on premium network symbolism and cinematic design indicates the odds are decent you’ve at least seen or heard its intro:

[…] So join us here each week my friends,
You’re sure to get a smile,
From seven stranded castaways
Here on Gilligan’s Isle!

While the above verse has potential to trigger nostalgia for viewers of the late TV show, it’s likely to also trigger a lot of grunts among today’s audiences, aspiring filmmakers, and millennial critics. No knocks against the Isle. It’s a classic and no doubt shaped the design of film and television (disclaimer: perhaps not all of it), but it was broadcast during television’s infancy—and audiences and directors have since evolved alongside their medium, whether they’re watching in 4K UHD or not.

On the simplest of levels, an opening sequence is a contract with an audience. Its design: to preview the scope of the content to follow. That hasn’t changed since 1967. What has changed is the reality that audiences no longer rely upon expository explanations to put a show into context.

They rely, instead, upon subtext—and the sophistication of this subtext has come a long, long way.

Looking Closer: Fire and Brimstone

The high water mark of sophisticated openings, True Detective’s title sequence doesn’t use a jingle to describe the plot and its characters. However, a lot of the tricks it does employ are still quite close to the surface.

It features, to start with, an awful lot of crosses and men overlaid with fire.

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You don’t have to be a professor of religious iconography to come away from this with a suspicion things are going to get a tad darker than they were aboard the S.S. Minnow—and that the program you’re about to watch is going to feature a good bit of graphic suffering, evil, and perhaps some sin.

Getting Heavier: The Tao of Cops and Philosophy

Enough low-hanging fruit. I promised evolvement and sophistication and depth, did I not? Let’s look at a few more graphics from the show’s ninety-second intro. Below and to the left we’ve got a study of lightness and darkness, which translates again to good and evil, but what’s going on to the right?

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Notice the lighter top-right quadrant centered with dark text and the darker low-left quadrant centered with light text? That, my friend, is not just great typography but an allegory of several-thousand-year-old Chinese philosophy—i.e., the symbol of yin and yang.

You know, contrary forces bringing chaos into balance. Sort of like the concept of two detectives trying to restore civility in a post-hurricane Louisiana, no . . . ?

Who needs expository theme songs with giveaways like this?

HBO Went Pretty Darn Deep, Honestly

The metaphor is getting fairly thick down here. What’s with all the smokestacks and sad-looking grass and silhouettes and upside-down stuff?

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Here’s a hint: In the pilot episode, Matthew McConaughey’s character, Detective Rust Cohle, goes on a little rant about the fall of man. You know, the biblical loss of innocence at the hand of temptation à la Adam and Eve and forbidden fruit and the like?

For better or worse, things like snakes and apples remain a bit cliché in the modern arena of film and television (thanks, Shakespeare, for saturating the market). So instead, the folks behind True Detective used industrialism as an allusion to man’s inherited greed and fall from grace. See that muddy grass? It was probably more pristine and “garden-like” before we drove trucks through it and bordered it with smoke stacks, no? As far as symbols go, that’s a pretty strong metaphor for humans behaving badly. No typography needed.

So the opening title sequence has so far told us the show is about good and evil—and the need for good people (i.e., detectives) to balance out the actions of bad people, right?

But there’s more to it. This isn’t a simple show about good guys and bad guys, and there’s no white knight or evil sorcerer. The theme of True Detective, instead, is that every man is evil. (If this depresses you, blame them and not me. I’m just translating.)

In the world of detectives Cohle and Hart, everyone is a little greedy and a little flawed because these are traits that are inside all of us (just look inside our silhouettes; it’s there by design). Their world (or the world of their fathers-in-law if you caught the dialogue in episode two) used to be perfect and happy, but then man bit off too much and filled it with indecency and pollution and murder.

And as a result, the world is now upside-down. Just like that upside-down spherical water tower in the graphic above.

So that’s what the show is about—and that’s what we learn in the first ninety or so seconds of watching it, regardless of whether or not we consciously realize it.

The teachers who told you television rots your brain might have been right when referring to its lowest offerings, but I’d argue television can make us pretty darn smart if we pay attention to its design (even though, in this case, it might also depress us).

Still, I’m on the fence as to what the jellyfish (or closely-related aquatic creatures) symbolize—but I haven’t made it past episode two yet, so don’t be too hard on me.

(Shows progress rather slowly when you keep reviewing their opening sequence over and over again.)

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