I Love TV Themes

It took me a while to realize it, but this season of the United States of Tara has not been using its theme song, which I think is kind of a travesty.

This sequence was directed by Jamie Caliri, whom you may remember as the director of Marcy Playground’s video for “Sex and Candy.” And honestly, the parallels are pretty interesting. Watch:

Caliri-as-auteur has some interest in barren, forbidding, and dream-like landscapes, with single heads rising out of the ground. Everything, including interior shots, looks delicate and handmade, seemingly a child’s fully-realized fashioning of a fantasy.

In the case of Tara, the setup is a pop-up book about Tara’s alters. The ones established at the beginning of the series (Alice, T, and Buck) make appearances doing what they do, but it’s not until the last moment that we see Tara herself - not just not altered, but it is also our first glimpse of her face. This is kind of a strong reveal, as Toni Collette’s face is what makes the show. To watch Toni Collette as Tara transition between alters is a weekly face-acting lesson (is face-acting a thing?). To make a show where the bulk of the ensemble is played by a single actor (be quiet, Tracy Ullman) you need someone who can not just play all the characters but can also demonstrate when she’s transitioning. You either get Anna Deveare Smith or you get Toni Collette, and Anna Deveare Smith is busy.

The song is by The Polyphonic Spree, who as far as I can tell are incapable of making music that’s downbeat. The song’s complaint that “this mess is getting high” is preceded by its own solution: to “open up the skies.” The world can either make space for us or not, but we’re not going to change to fit its dimensions (this is visualized in Tara’s head’s enormous expansion out of a house that can’t contain her at the end of the video). Even though sometimes (especially at this point in the third season) it doesn’t always feel this way, we will be just fine. The second season finale, when this family unit realizes that they can live through their dysfunctions, is kind of emblematic of that. They should really bring back this sequence (even though Tara’s alters have increased in number since it was produced). It’s so good.

Update! Apparently the show was just canceled. Bummer.

I mentioned the story of the song used here earlier this week (brief comment - it’s probably meant as sad and bitter irony that the song itself is about eternal youth, used for a show largely about aging out of youth), so I’d like to focus on the sequence itself, since it actually belongs to an important tradition in TV opening sequences - sequences intended as documentary of the characters. For example, the How I Met Your Mother sequence is meant to look like a series of photographs taken of the characters during a fun night at the bar. Here’s Adam McKay’s take on the same, used in The Other Guys:

Another entry in this tradition is, of course, The Wonder Years and its home movies sequence.

All these things say important things about the times in which they take place. How I Met Your Mother’s is a commentary on the extremely-documented lives we all lead on facebook and so forth. To wit.

The Wonder Years’ theme evokes the nostalgia of people of a certain age for the home movies made during the early home video boom, when families could afford handheld devices to record videos. When VHS happened, making this so much easier, this was the result.

In the case of Dawson’s Creek, we’re made to recall something significant about that era (The Nineties). Dawson wanted to be “The Next Spielberg” but that’s not really true. Dawson’s idols wanted to be The Next Spielberg. In his Sex, Lies, and Videotape diaries, Steven Soderbergh lists “Jaws” as one of his all-time favorite movies; Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino have listed it among theirs from time to time as well. The first half of the nineties contained a large number of young white guys who made movies on the cheap - these were the men Dawson wanted to be. This sequence contains occasional shots of his friends as seen through his camera - the angsty male gaze he films would not have been out of place in 1998 at all. At the end of the series, Dawson creates a teen soap opera called The Creek (I live for things like this). We never get to see an opening credits sequence for his show, which is the greatest tragedy of the 20th century. And in the show’s final moments Dawson is about to meet with Steven Spielberg. What’s more likely is that he would get one of his own (actual) idols to direct an episode of The Creek. Like so.