When “Peacemaker” premiered in January 2022, no one quite realized the power of John Cena’s hips. Yes, exuberant tweets were sent, explainers were written, and charts were topped. But the invigorating dance routine that introduced every episode of James Gunn’s HBO Max comedy wasn’t an isolated event. The addictive beat of Wig Wam’s “Do Ya Wanna Taste It?” set off a flurry of outstanding opening credits sequences. Suddenly, within a few short months, there were a number of unskippable main title treatments on the market, all vying for their place next to iconic TV starting points like “Cheers,” “Friends,” and “The X-Files,” as well as more recent breakthroughs like “Succession,” “BoJack Horseman,” and “Bob’s Burgers.”
These weren’t just the best credits of the year. They were some of the best credits ever seen.
And in a few more months, the Television Academy will have a chance to honor five of them. The category of Outstanding Main Title Design has become a favorite among Emmy prognosticators, enthusiasts, and TV fans. Each year, the nominees represent an eclectic mix of shows. Some are awards darlings that earn recognition across the Emmys’ expansive slate (like “The Queen’s Gambit” and “Watchmen”), while others may only hear their name called here, like last year’s winner, “The Good Lord Bird.” (But don’t get us started on Ethan Hawke’s snub.)
Such unpredictability can be enticing during an awards era where so many nominees and winners seem preordained, but this year’s legitimately outstanding crop of contenders demands four of the five slots be filled right now, two months ahead of nominations: “Peacemaker,” “Severance,” “Candy,” and, yes, “Pachinko” have all created main titles that stand head-over-heels above the rest of the TV landscape, pairing compelling music, movement, and imagery to create sequences audiences are eager to watch again and again. They do more than name the cast and crew; they set a tone and a standard for what’s to come, while inviting you to go back and watch the sequence one more time before continuing to the episode itself.
So, for your consideration, here’s why each of these fine programs deserves to be honored at this year’s Emmys. Voters, take heed. After all, we’re not asking you to watch full seasons of television — just a few minutes from each.
One of the marks of an iconic sequence is feeling its absence. The harrowing seventh episode of the Apple TV+ show’s opening season starts with a simple title card. Not that the hours surrounding it don’t have their share of tragedy and disappointment. But when that Episode 7 beginning goes by without one of the most vibrant, joyful titles in recent memory, it’s impossible not to retroactively realize the temporary release it offers elsewhere.
Much like the show overall finds a strong sense of connection between times and places that seem disconnected, the opening guitar twang of The Grass Roots’ “Let’s Live for Today” is an ideal pairing for the warm, wistful bath of color it’s playing behind. Creative directors Angus Wall and Nadia Tzuo take full advantage of the show’s electric pachinko parlor set, transforming it into a cross-generational dance floor where the central figures in this decades-spanning saga get to show themselves at their most fundamental.
As some of the cast members mentioned during the IndieWire For Your Consideration brunch, their day of filming their individual dances was an exuberant one on a project that has to contend with a whole host of conflicting emotions. Though everyone on set danced to different tunes, the one playing over all that individual glee cut together has some tempo changes, a big hint that the show following it is one that follows its own rhythm.
The effect of all this crystallizes in the “Pachinko” season finale, when a different version of “Let’s Live for Today” plays at the start. Series showrunner and creator Soo Hugh said that she worked with Korean pop band Leenalchi on their new spin on the 55-year-old tune, ultimately realizing that the best method was to try not to fit the song into any particular style or time period.
“When we’re doing our very first back and forth, I would give them songs with that 1960s mono feel, where the world just feels really close in on you. I didn’t want the sound to be expansive. But that’s not their sound. I was completely taking away what is amazing about Leenalchi. And then it was like, ‘You know what? Forget my notes,’” Hugh said. “Their music is this really unique blend of past and present where they use synth, and yet they incorporate that with traditional pansori Korean singing. I love their sound because they do exactly what the show does.”
The first time seeing the opening credits for “Severance,” you’d be forgiven for thinking of one thing and one thing only. Adam Scott. Clay-like figures. The dots connect themselves. But as the Apple TV+ drama continues, comparisons to the past drift away and an obsession with what’s happening to Scott’s “Severance” star, Mark Scout, grows. Like his animated counterpart in the absorbing title sequence, Mark’s curiosity leads to urgency which leads to action. He’s running through doors to nowhere, taking giant leaps that land him right back in the same cubicle, and pulling desperately on dark threads that release him into a familiar, unnerving cycle.
Created by Berlin artist Oliver Latta (aka Extraweg), who executive producer and director Ben Stiller discovered on Instagram, the title sequence satisfies so many of the series’ compulsive attributes. The tone is spot-on, aided by Theodore Shapiro’s score. There are Easter eggs for puzzle solvers, like the syringe used to insert the chips that sever a person’s work life from their personal life, or the black goo that spreads over Irving’s desk when he accidentally catches a few Z’s at the office. The design matches the eerie, austere, winter-y aesthetic of Mark’s world.
But perhaps what works best about the CGI main titles is their rhythm. Steady enough to let viewers appreciate each surreal image and transition, yet pressing in a way that reflects the significance of Mark’s journey, the credits perfectly embody the series’ balance between big ideas and concentrated action. “Severance” wants you to think about how Mark’s experience compares to your own work/life balance. What he and his Lumon colleagues go through is universal in its examination of corporations’ impact on individuals, as well as how individuals let their jobs shape who they become. But it’s also a batshit thriller, specifically tailored to these people fighting their way through this world. Latta’s opening credits capture a feeling specific to “Severance,” and that feeling keeps audiences coming back — only unlike Mark, they know the show’s pull is purely good.
Prior to clicking play, the barrier to entry for “Peacemaker” is rather high. The HBO Max original series is a character-specific sequel to the Warner Bros. 2021 film “The Suicide Squad,” which is itself a pseudo-sequel to the 2016 film “Suicide Squad.” Even for those who saw the latest film, what happens isn’t exactly a welcome invitation to spend more time with John Cena’s titular antihero; in the movie, he’s essentially the bad guy — a jingoistic loudmouth who kills Joel Kinnaman’s fan-favorite leader and nearly dies at the hands of another fan-favorite, Idris Elba’s Bloodsport. By the time the credits roll, you’re disappointed to learn he’s survived.
So, starting up “Peacemaker” presented a challenge for writer-director James Gunn, and he met that challenge with a wink, a bang, and an incredible dance routine. The show’s opening credits — which kick in after a two-minute, “previously on” recap of the movie and Peacemaker’s less-than-daring escape from a hospital — ask a simple question: “Do you really wanna, do you really wanna taste it?” The “it” in question is, presumably, “Peacemaker,” and the question is wisely posed amid an irresistible, inexplicable dance routine. Wig Wam’s 2010 anthem blasts over a peculiar piece of creative choreography orchestrated by Charissa-Lee Barton.
Cena marches forward through a path of spotlights. Danielle Brooks slides to his side, hands circling through the air. Characters parade into the neon-lit stage, their toned arms locked into 90-degree angles or loosely swinging a pistol until it’s path stops, pointed straight into camera. Hands “blink” along with the lyrics. Hips thrust with more power than bullets. The cast boogies with thumbs raising over their shoulders and middle fingers raised to the sky.
Part of what makes the “Peacemaker” opening credits so engrossing is there’s always a new movement to admire. Each time the sequence starts, your eyes will drift to a different spot, and they always land on something fascinating. The music and the movements, together and by themselves, are brilliant. They fit together, even if explaining why is clearly a fool’s errand. But what’s clear about the credits is that they provide an irrefutable reason to keep watching. Not only do they blow up expectations of what “Peacemaker” might be, but they guarantee the next episode will have at least one scene you love. Thankfully, the series pays off on its titles’ weird, exuberant promise. Season 2 can’t get here soon enough.
It’s been a fascinating year for the team at Imaginary Forces, the production house behind a few other standout opening sequences eligible this year, including “Lisey’s Story” and “Foundation.” They were also the creative team behind the credits and interstitials on last spring’s “Supervillain” — some rainbow-colored work that broke the mold for music and true-crime doc series by literally making molds of their own.
It’s not the most elaborate of their 2021-2022 output, but the “Candy” titles (headed by creative director Ronnie Koff) are by no means less exquisite. It’s the perfect tone-setter for the Hulu series, a blend of wicked ironies, the tiny absurdities of everyday life, and a lingering sense of menace that pervades every frame. Using sample text from cookbooks and household manuals, there’s a constant reminder of how even the everyday language of meal prep, sewing, and the most banal chores is laced with a sense of danger. (It almost takes a few views to register that “auger,” “crisp-tender,” and “zigzag stitch” are doing just as much eerie groundwork as “Friday 13.”) That most of the text is rendered in the ultra-familiar Helvetica font only underlines one of the show’s main ideas: Ordinary lives are more than capable of being the stepping stones to the unthinkable.
That potent cocktail also thrives on Ariel Marx’s blissfully great theme music, landing firmly at the intersection of fairy-tale glimmer and ominous dread. As the words and names jumble around (and in the case of executive producer Nick Antosca, get flung halfway across the screen), the tension stacks to an ending that decays rather than explodes. Right from the beginning, as that last chord distorts and fades, “Candy” becomes a story with no easy resolutions, where the dead are never really gone.
And while all of the above sequences have a few extra beats to really soak you in these respective worlds, “Candy” proves that efficiency can be just as effective. It’s not as brief as the superimposed logo treatment that many shows these days opt for, but any introduction that can chill you to your bones in the 50 seconds between the first and last notes is worth every ounce of attention.
“Pachinko” and “Severance” are available to stream on Apple TV+. “Peacemaker” is available on HBO Max, and “Candy” is on Hulu.