This weekend I consumed the 13 new episodes of House of Cards like a person eating popcorn at the movies: I swallowed it so greedily that after a couple of episodes, watching had become mere habit. The only time the spell was broken was every 55 minutes or so when the opening credits played: The music is stirring, and the capital’s monumental architecture impressive, but the empty streets and the images of speeding cars going nowhere in particular don’t seem well-suited to the themes of the show.
But at least House of Cards has a theme tune—and one that lasts a marathon minute and a half. On the broadcast channels, where ads are eating into shows’ running time like flesh-eating bacteria, credit sequences are disappearing altogether. Shows like Scandal, How to Get Away With Murder, and Empire dispense with them in a matter of seconds.
But there’s one opening sequence that I never ignore: ABC Family’s The Fosters, a show about a lesbian couple and their five teenagers, has the best on television. In fact, on more than one occasion I’ve rewound the credits and rewatched a couple of times to mentally prepare myself for a new episode. The sequence isn’t glamorous or star-studded, quite the opposite, in fact: Over the course of 38 seconds, 22 images flash by: a copper frying pan, a calendar crowded with appointments, a boy’s arm spilling over the edge of his bed. Some have to do with food and nourishment—breakfast cereal and syrup being poured over pancakes, a cup of coffee on the kitchen table—others suggest direct connections with the characters, like Stef unloading the contents of her pockets onto the dresser, Brandon’s music, or Mariana’s nail polish.
There’s something heartbreakingly familiar about the sequence, with its scenes of washing up and mail stacked on the stairs—and when I told Peter Paige, the show’s co-creator who worked on the sequence with a title company, that a friend had once sent me an email confessing, “I am just slaughtered every time that blue sponge comes into focus,” he was delighted. “I love that something that we take so for granted as a blue sponge can move someone,” he told me. “That’s exactly what the title sequence is meant to do. We asked ourselves, ‘What are those things that evoke home for all of us?’ ”
Paige and collaborators Bradley Bredeweg and Joanna Johnson knew that some viewers might have trouble relating to an interracial lesbian couple and their brood of biological, adopted, and foster kids, so the opening sequence was designed to help them connect. “The whole conceit of the show is this is about a family. It may not look like yours, but it probably feels like yours. We’re inviting our audience into the home. The hope is that there’s something in that title sequence that triggers a visceral memory of home. Whether it’s the mail on the stairs or the sponge in the sink or mom’s pillow or just the sight of your brother’s hand dangling from the bed.”
When the title company came to the set to capture the images, Paige told them not to fear clutter. “There is beauty in a mess. It’s evocative of a lived-in house. You don’t have five teenagers in a home without a mess in it. Mail on the stairs, I think to most people is like, ‘Ugh. I can’t get my life in order. I’m not doing my bills.’ But that’s real life, so that’s what we were trying to capture.”
I was curious to ask Paige about the penultimate image: a closeup of matresfamilias Stef and Lena’s hands in bed. Had they somehow snuck a scene of lesbian lovemaking into the opening credits? No, the scene is from the pilot when “everything is falling apart, and they’re lying back to back, but still reach out for each other and hold on.” Nevertheless, Paige was glad to have the couple’s sexuality evoked: “One of the frankest conversations we have on the show, to the joy-slash-frustration of our adult viewers, is about what’s it’s like to try to have a healthy sexual relationship in the context of raising five kids. How is that possible, and is it even possible?”
Choosing a musical theme was something of a challenge because Disney, which owns ABC Family, needs to own their theme songs, but Paige likes the juxtaposition of the sentimentality of Kari Kimmell’s “Where You Belong” with the practicality of the images. “Somehow it works,” he says.
“The Fosters Explores the Fear and Possibility of Queer Childhood,” by Stephen Vider and David S. Byers
“Remarkably Frank, Overtly Liberal, Totally Great: ABC Family’s The Fosters,” by Willa Paskin
“TV’s First Post-DOMA Family Show: A Conversation With the Creators of The Fosters,” by June Thomas