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Emmys 2018: Ranking the Contenders for Main Title Design

Sometimes it's the best 90 seconds of the show!

Tim Surette

Let's be real, the only category that matters in the Emmys is Main Title Design, you know, those flashy things that pop up when you fire up an episode of your favorite show. Though the art of opening credits is dead on broadcast, the emergence of cable and streaming services has given new life to the careers of people who somehow make a living in graphic design, and more importantly, has renewed our ability to get totally jazzed up for an episode before it really even begins.

Even though Emmy voters are notoriously boneheaded, they did an almost fantastic job of picking this year's crop of nominees. So while everyone else bickers over why Jon Snow isn't going to solemnly accept an Emmy award or argues over whether Modern Family deserved to end its streak (it did), let's talk about the important stuff: those 90 seconds before an episode that you usually skip anyway!

I've ranked the contenders from worst to best and picked a deserving winner below.

5. The Alienist (TNT)

So like, what if, like, New York City was unbuilt? That's what I got from the opening of TNT's period detective series, set in 1896 the Big Apple, which isn't exactly a compliment. There's no doubt that the visuals are cool, but what do they really mean other than, "Hey, you're about to watch a show about old New York"? It sets part of the mood, but not all of it. How do I know this is about cops? Where is the murder? What about all those funny hats they wore back then? A credit sequence like this is really only effective for the pilot, when viewers are new to the show. If you want to bring home a statuette, this thing has to be timeless.

4. Altered Carbon (Netflix)

There's no doubt that Altered Carbon put together a beaut of an opening title sequence. BUT. Does it really work? The snake motif has double meaning: The skin shedding represents the show's main idea that people can shed their own skin by hopping into other bodies (or sleeves) using advanced technology, and the snake eating its own tail is the Ouroboros signaling the infinite, again relating to Altered Carbon's idea of never-ending life. But wow does this title design hit you over the head with it, and with such little snake imagery in the actual show, this looks like a concept that went too far without showing off what the rest of the show is. A good title sequence will touch on themes while still feeling like part of the actual show, but this is just pretty video.

3. GLOW (Netflix)

I lurv this pretty neon-drenched credit sequence for Netflix's women's wrestling comedy and its ode to all things '80s. And the song choice -- Scandal's 1984 headband and fringe jacket anthem "The Warrior" -- is spot-on to represent the struggles of the female characters in a male-dominated society. But just like the wrestling personas that these women drop as soon as they're out of the ring, this is very surface-level fun that doesn't have much meaning, and not an Emmy-caliber opening. We need more than just glitz!

2. Westworld(HBO)

Westworld's opening credits were also nominated for Season 1 (when it lost to the wonderful synthy simplicity of winner Stranger Things), but it's back this year because the credits changed. A tiny bit. The general feel of the sequence is the exact same as the first season, but creative director and Main Title Sequence nomination hog Patrick Clair (True Detective) added symbols from Season 1 (hey, it's the hat!), and I wouldn't be surprised if some people didn't even realize the whole thing was different from the first season. This was really cool last Emmys, and it's a meaty, complex treat, but Season 2 is just a nifty remix and not a totally original composition. We can't award an Emmy for that. We have standards.

1. Counterpart(Starz)

The Counterpart opening is so far ahead of the rest of the field that it's a lock to win. This has it all: subtle themes, dazzling visuals and even clues to the show's true nature. There's a lot of similarities between this and one of my all-time favorite openings, 2015's Emmy winner Manhattan, and it's a blueprint for an ideal title design as it embodies the show perfectly. The use of adjacent squares shows off the symmetry of the show's two combating universes (and maybe hints at more universes?), and the details inside show the minor changes between them that make them unique. Karin Fong's creative direction doesn't want you to forget that Counterpart is also an espionage show in an alternate universe with quick cuts to old recording equipment, and the blips of futuristic technology reminds you that this is also a sci-fi series. There's also lots of gamesmanship on display here, most noticeably with the game of Go and it's double-sided black and white pieces, proving that the cold war between these two realities is much more complex than you think. Fong, who is also behind the brilliant credit sequences of Rubicon and Chuck, should have won an award for 2014's magnificent Black Sails opening titles, but she ran into the instant classic True Detective. This will be her well-deserved breakthrough.

The Creative Arts Emmy Awards will be held Saturday, Sept. 8 and will air Saturday, Sept. 15, at 8/7c on FXX.