This Friday sees the return of one of the most sublime of all TV works of art, as a new season of Dexter begins on FX. I don't mean Dexter itself – sly, morally perplexing and highly original take on the crime series that it is – but its brilliantly conceived opening credits,in which Michael C Hall's serial-killing police bloodstain pattern analyst goes about his morning routine and such activities as frying bacon and cutting one's self while shaving are imbued with menace and dark double meaning.
Made by the design company Digital Kitchen, the nearly two-minute credit sequence to Dexter, entitled "Killer Breakfast", is a hugely clever introduction to the show's dark themes. That morning routine – cooking an egg, eating, getting dressed – becomes deeply sinister. Is he pulling on a shirt or being smothered? Tying a shoelace or being garroted? According to the chief designer of the sequence, Eric Anderson, it also illustrates "the sociopath's ability to focus on the little things".
Anderson got his idea from crime-scene photography. "As a kid I loved looking through my grandfather's True Detective magazine collection," he says. "Crime-scene photographs contextualise mundane things, giving those mundane things overwhelming and sinister importance. Along with this process of photographic evidence gathering comes an edgy anti-aesthetic, factually lit, mundanely framed rawness. This proved to be a very important point for this piece."
Dexter is part of a flowering in American television – far more so than in the movies – of the long-neglected art of the credit sequence, a craft that has lain dormant thanks to the demands of advertisers and ratings number-crunchers. What's more, this renaissance seems to be crossing the Atlantic – judging, at least, by the credit sequence of the Channel 4, Bafta-winning adaptation of William Boyd's Any Human Heart. Featuring the cut-out silhouette of a man opening some enormous doors and clambering up a staircase to a vista of a big city, before taking a train and climbing a hill, the titles for Any Human Heart seemed to be the first such sequence to have been inspired by the most famous opening credits of the age, the "Falling Man" of Mad Men, in which a cut-out of the advertising executive Don Draper descends past Manhattan skyscrapers, on whose sides are projected the dreams that he sells.
These 36 seconds that tell you that Draper's life is not all that it seems were created by Mark Gardner and Steve Fuller, of the design and production studio Imaginary Forces. Gardner remembers his first telephone conversation with the creator of Mad Men, Matthew Weiner.
"He said, 'I don't want to be like this but this is how the show could start: a faceless guy who gets up, gets breakfast with his perfect family. Puts on his coat, leaves, goes to work. He goes into the elevator, rides up to the office, opens the window and jumps out. All seen from behind... but not that.'"
Gardner and Fuller's first idea was to put their ad man inside classic adverts, and have them turn on him – "like the classic VW ad and changing it so the car is chasing the man". Then they came up with the fall. "Such a great metaphor... and also something people can relate to in dreams, when you're jolted out of sleep, that feeling of falling." Gardner and Fuller say their influences from the cinema include Saul Bass's work on Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo and Martin Scorsese's Casino, as well as Kyle Cooper's work on David Fincher's Se7en. "Anyone working in this business now owes a lot to Cooper for making it an art form again," says Fuller.
Bass, a legend of graphic design, provided Hitchcock and Otto Preminger with many of their iconic title sequences – including the former's Psycho – and worked throughout the golden age, certainly in Britain, of the television titles sequence – the mid-Sixties to the mid-Seventies. In those years, shows like The Avengers, The Prisoner, The Persuaders and The Sweeney produced a flowering of the form. Nic Benns of Momoco, who designed the credits for E4's Misfits, BBC1's Luther and films including An Education, says: "They were so respected that the title designer's credits would actually be in the opening. They were often little short stories or films in themselves."
American TV, on the other hand, has preferred to jump straight into the story – "opening cold" as it's known – and to dole out credits casually. "It has been like that for years," says the writer Peter Lenkov, whose new Hawaii Five-0 uses credits that echo the 1970s originals."Maybe going back as far as Seinfeld, but certainly with 24 (on which Lenkov also worked) and Lost, which simply flashed the title of the show on screen. I have no idea why the title sequence faded as an art form."
The stand-alone title sequence, however, has come roaring back into existence, largely thanks to American, commercial-free cable stations such as HBO. Shows such as Desperate Housewives, The Sopranos, Dexter, Mad Men and True Blood have created a new golden age.
"Cable wants it not to just work as a title sequence but also as branding," says Benns, "something that's quite iconic and memorable. A show that gets quoted to us quite a lot by producers, whenever we get a brief, is True Blood; they say they admire titles like that. And recently they've been saying Dexter as well. Once upon a time it was Desperate Housewives and before that it was Se7en, as in the movie. When Se7en came along in 1996, that really rejuvenated the industry."
Behind it all, there is Mad Men, which probably has the most successful title sequence of the modern era – if, admittedly, one that borrows, evidently, from the work of the legendary Bass. "Bass is still admired by pretty much everybody," says Benns. "I think that's a reference point for a lot of producers."
The Mad Men title sequence has been spoofed, memorably, by The Simpsons, with Homer falling from the skyscrapers. The only other title sequence to be so honoured by Matt Groening is that of The Sopranos, in which, instead of Tony Soprano driving the New Jersey turnpike on his way back to his suburban home, Fat Tony drove into Springfield to the strains of the Alabama 3 song "Woke Up This Morning".
Don't, however, expect mainstream American television to follow cable's example. For a start, all those annoying but necessary ad-breaks would make unworkable an extended title sequence like the one employed by Dexter – which runs for nearly two minutes. And then, says Benns, there are all the producer's demands. "In recent years," he says, "because there are so many legal attachments to titles, I think that producers find it a simpler process just to have the credits at the end of the film and to get the audience into the film straight away. The lawyers always want to have this actor up front, and their credit has to be a certain size... if everyone's credits are at the end of the film then it's a much easier process."
'Dexter', season five, starts on FX at 10pm on FridayReuse content