Alexis Gunderson is looking forward to a future where the flexibility of streaming is used to make better art, not better bingeing.
Even if fans knew to expect *something* interesting when The Good Fight finally came back for its long-awaited fifth (and first post-Trump) season, it’s safe to say few anticipated an episode-long “Previously On” sequence—and not least because the “Previously On” sequence we ended up getting (titled, literally, “Previously On”) comprised an entire year’s worth of brand-new action, boiled down to its most dramatically salient parts.
Here was Adrian (Delroy Lindo), retiring as name partner to pursue a potential 2024 candidacy; here were Liz (Audra McDonald) and Diane (Christine Baranski), plotting to turn the firm into a two-headed, woman-led powerhouse; here was Jay (Nyambi Nyambi), short of breath and succumbing to hallucinations, the first indication that 2020 may not go the way the characters (and creators) of The Good Fight had been anticipating.
Here was the summer of George Floyd; the summer of protest; the summer of brutal police crackdowns. Here was the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg; here, the anxious catatonia of Election Eve; here, the January 6 insurrection. Here was Biden, finally being sworn in. Here was, here was, here was, an endless onslaught of action and tension and (short-lived) emotional catharsis, until, at last—explosion-free, for the first time in series history—here were the opening credits.
Time elapsed from the moment the first “Previously On” card hit the screen? 48 minutes and 15 seconds.
On the one hand, messing with an audience’s expectations by messing with the title sequence is part of a long television tradition. As recently as the last few years, linear series like Legion, Supernatural and even DuckTales have made use of extra-long cold opens or goofy title sequence changes to keep their audiences on their toes. Reach back a bit further and you get Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which two decades ago made a (bad) name for itself by finally adding a beloved recurring cast member to its title credits in the same episode her character was killed off.
See also: Leslie Nielsen’s Police Squad!, which pulled a similar trick in 1982 by having its opening credits announcer tout “tonight’s special guest star, Lorne Greene!” just as special guest star Lorne Green rolled out of a moving getaway car, dead as a doornail. In the 70s, Monty Python’s Flying Circus made the inconsistent timing of their title sequence a running gag; four decades later, Community was doing the same with its opening variants. Hell—The Simpsons team’s been coming up with new couch gags for 33 seasons and counting.
That said, while linear audiences are still enjoying the fruits of TV creators’ structural fluency, streaming audiences have been getting increasingly, well, shafted. The binge model, which Netflix pioneered and every other platform has since adopted, has been unsettlingly successful in convincing audiences that the ultimate value of episodic storytelling isn’t as “art” but rather as “content,” the most telling proof of which lies in the fact that, sometime in early 2017, the streamer finally caved to its subscribers demands and quietly introduced a Skip Intro button. The better to sluice the deluge straight into your brain, baby!!!
And so we find ourselves in the increasingly bleak television landscape that exists today, four years and a whole cultural lifetime since Netflix established skipped intros as the ne plus ultra accessory to streaming consumption. Title sequences haven’t gone extinct, exactly, but it’s increasingly rare to find a streaming series that gets one genuinely worth watching. Why would any creative team bother, after all, when most Netflix viewers are just going to skip right past them? And to then mess with the title sequence in any artistically meaningful way?? In this economy???
That said, there are still plenty of creators who understand how to subvert the rhythms of the title sequence to inject, extend, or release narrative tension…which brings us right back to The Good Fight, whose episode-long “Previously On” sequence wasn’t so much an in-series anomaly as it was the inevitable climax of a trend showrunners Michelle and Robert King have spent years building across their extended dramatic universe. On their linear CBS projects—The Good Wife, Braindead—their brand of audaciously long cold opens has been notable, if not always innovative. Translated to the Paramount+ streaming space, however, they’ve turned into something entirely new, every unpredictably long opening sequence feeling like nothing more than a headlong rush down a precipitously rocky mountainside.
Delightfully, the Kings made this rush even more precipitous in the recently concluded second season of Evil, which incorporated not only the creepy, tension-bursting black-and-white title sequence from the series’ first season, but also a demonic storybook device bookending each “chapter.” How? Well, while the cold open preceding the title sequence might stretch as long as twenty minutes, the double-cold open preceding the shorter storybook element might last just two or three. In Evil’s hands, though, even that expectation didn’t turn out to be safe: In at least one episode (“D is for Doll”), the storybook didn’t pop up until 45 full, desperately anxious minutes had gone by.
It was, in both theory and execution, an absolute middle finger to the worst impulses baked into the business models of the very platforms that brought them to life.
It was terrific.
Happily, the Kings aren’t the only streaming creators to have seen how much possibility there still is in the bingeing space to play with structural elements: In 2019, the third episode of Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens spent its first 28 minutes unspooling the eons-long meet-cute between Aziraphale (Michael Sheen) and Crowley (David Tennant), turning in what critics counted, at the time, as the longest cold open in the history of television.1 Middle finger heard loud and clear! And with the second season officially in the works, we can hope the team is limbering up to disrupt their audience’s Skip Intro mindset yet again.
Still, considering how anxious other streaming services have been to introduce their own Skip Intro functions, it will be an uphill battle for streaming creators to remind their audiences that even streaming television can be more art than content. But while it may just be the Kings and a mismatched angel and demon extending that finger at the moment, I have reason to hope a surge is just over the horizon. I mean, just look at this gorgeous Cowboy Bebop title sequence—if that doesn’t scream screw you, Netflix; we DARE you to skip even a second of this, I don’t know what does. — By Alexis Gunderson
The Dirt: In the age of frictionless, bingeable content, injecting a little chaos into the structure of the title sequence provides some much-needed texture.
Fans of Netflix’s own The OA might take exception to this claim, given the fact that in late 2016, mere months before the streamer’s Skip Intro button first appeared, it turned in a pilot that was—in technical practice, if literally nothing else—itself a 57-minute long cold open. The final straw for Netflix in finally building out its creativity-quashing Skip Intro feature, or just an interesting coincidence? YOU TELL ME.