Opening Credits and the Aesthetics of Television History

Upon recently re-watching the HBO series Rome, I was struck anew at the complex artistry that underlies the opening credits.  While the series itself raises numerous questions about the representation of history within the medium of television, it is the opening credit sequence, more than anything else in the series, that adequately evokes something of the strangeness and alien sensibilities of antiquity.  This also made me think about the function, both aesthetic and ideological, of some of the other popular historical (and pseudo-historical) dramas that have become such an important part of the programming line-ups of premium channels such as HBO.

As I have argued elsewhere, one of the functions of effective historical fiction is to evoke, in some measure, the foreignness and difference of the past, and this is something that the opening titles of Rome do to a greater degree than allowed by the narrative demands of the series itself.  Featuring numerous types of graffiti and a haunting score, Rome’s opening sequence seems to skitter away from any attempts to pinpoint its exact meaning or to fit it neatly into our own expectations for artistic representation.  Holly Haynes has compellingly written that the opening credits, and the series itself, evoke the contradictory pleasures of the exotic and the everyday.  If the visual arts can serve as a barometer of how a given culture conceives of itself, these opening illustrations provide a fragmentary glimpse of a culture whose sensibilities are quite different from our own; not just exotic (with all of the problematic politics that entails), but alien and even, I would argue, uncanny.  By relying on ephemera such as graffiti, these images not only evoke the fragmented nature of our knowledge of antiquity but also allow us to get as a close as we can to a phenomenologically different experience of the distant past.  In that respect, they rely on an aesthetic more akin to Fellini Satyricon than I, Claudius and as such call for a for a nuanced and (drawing on Haynes again) contradictory relationship to Roman history.

The opening credits for The Tudors could not be more different.  Unlike Rome, the sequence has much more of a direct relationship to the material presented, with each of the characters presented, typically with a posture or a prop that suggests their role in the narrative.  While it does not evoke the strangeness of Early Modern culture, these images, as lush as they are, evoke the aesthetics that The Tudors consistently relied on throughout its run.  Just as importantly, they also evoke the ethos of the series’ vision of the past and of history, i.e. a vision characterized by the (sometimes) uncomfortable and pleasurably tight coupling of politics and sexuality, all of which is highlighted by the sensuality of the visual image.

Finally, Game of Thrones.  Yes, I know it’s not technically historical, but both the series and the novels upon which it is based draw extensively from history in our world, both for narrative and for worldview.  In this case, the opening credits (arguably some of the best produced in recent television) provide viewers with an overhead view of the continents of Westeros and Essos.  In creating and relying upon this particular aesthetic, Game of Thrones’ opening credits reveal this series’ investment in a historical consciousness that construes history, both recent and distant, as a convoluted and complex skein of individual events and actions that, while connected, are not governed by any overarching logic.  There may be causality in this world, but there is no explanation.

All of this is not to say that the actual narratives of these series don’t matter; quite the opposite.  However, what I want to suggest is that the opening credits sequence, far from being tangential to the historical vision offered by contemporary historical drama, is actually an essential part of the viewing experience, priming viewers for the vision of the past they will soon encounter and offering a particular viewing position from which to experience history.

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