Lucky Signs: The Semiotics of HBO’s Luck

Everyday we are surrounded by millions upon millions of signs. The amazing thing about these signs is our mind rarely ever consciously registers them, rather it just accepts them and automatically derives meaning. The study of semiotics is an attempt to look at these various signs in-depth. But before one can study a sign, one must look at what a sign is. A sign is made up of two parts, the signifier which is the image/object/sound itself and the signified is the concept it represents. Each sign has a two types of significations, which is the relationship between the signifier and the signified.

The first order of signification is known as its denotation. Denotation would be seeing an image of a rose and then in one’s head realizing that the flower in question is indeed a rose. The second order of signification is known as connotation. The connotation of seeing an image of rose would be that it represents love. The form in which one views a sign is referred to as the code. Signs combined create the syntagm, a rule-governed combination of signs in a determined sequence. Syntagms get their meaning from the absence of possible paradigms, which is a group of signs so similar they can be substituted for one another within the syntagm.

While in everyday life we see plenty of unplanned signs, films and TV series on the other hand contain only signs that are carefully constructed give the viewer a specific idea or emotion. Every detail in a single shot are closely thought about and pre-planned. This could be no more true than in the opening credits for a David Milch show. Both the opening credits of Deadwood and John From Cincinnati contain an almost unparalleled precedent of selecting key imagery to convey precise messages and themes in a short amount of time. Through the code of television Milch creates syntagmatic title sequences filled with meticulously planned paradigmatic choices, and with his latest TV show Luck he’s managed to outdo himself with a one minute and forty seconds long title sequence that’s sure be analyzed and dissected for years to come.

The majority of the title sequence is made up of a chaotic series of signs that in some way carry the connotation of luck. From coins falling into a fountain to dice being rolled and hands in heavy prayer; each represents hope and faith, or as the neon signs that frequently appear in the intro bluntly refer to it, luck. When the title of the show comes up, despite having been given away earlier by literal signs, the image displayed next is that of a penny spinning around and around. The image fades away before one can see what side it lands on giving the connotation that the show isn’t about the outcome of this luck, but rather about the nature of luck itself; the moments before the coin lands.

From just watching the title sequence it’s clear Luck is a show that will require multiple viewings to fully understand what’s going on. Watching it only once would be simply skinning the surface of this multi-layered onion of television programing. The target audience is firmly established as an older, more sophisticated, and mature viewership. Every shot that makes up the opening has been chosen with intense precision, to remove a single element from it would be equivalent to that of removing the front wheel of a bicycle in mid use. If one paradigm choice were to be changed then the syntagm’s meaning would be altered.

The first image that comes up in the intro is that of the Arcadia, California (the show’s setting) at night from far away. The city’s lights glow bright amongst the surrounding dark mountains and pitch-black sky. The image then dissolves into a close up of the corner of a building with a neon sign. This sets up a certain order the rest of the title sequence follows almost to a tee: the shots will alternate back and forth between a wide, vast view of a full object and then dissolve into an unclose image of a related or symmetrical subject. From the vast city of Arcadia we zoom in to the microcosm of the Santa Anita Park area, a race horse track and breeding ground for gambling. This distinctive ordering of signs comes across most literally when a wide shot of a neon shamrock next to the glowing “Murphy’s” sign is featured. The image flashes, moving the camera closer and closer to the shamrock till only it appears on the screen. The image has literally moved from the wide full picture of the neon sign to the up close shamrock.

To stick to this syntagmatic order of signs, from wide shots to up close delivers the message that this a series interested in larger concepts such as the nature of what luck is, but will be viewing it through the narrow lens of a race horse track in California. Through the order of signs one can see that Luck is a series interested in macrocosm ideas  through a microcosm setting. If different choices were made and they were to remove this pattern of images the symbolism and message is severely altered. It becomes more of a random collection of images rather than a cleverly orchestrated thematic explanation. Without the macro and then micro back and forth images the title sequence loses its meaning.

Watching the intro it takes almost a minute until an important human figure appears on screen. With the majority of the images being signs that connote luck it’s easy for the title sequence to feel devoid of humanity, but the producers made the wise paradigmatic choice to feature a song that contains lyrics. While it may not feature an important human face for about a minute, one can hear a human voice twenty seconds in. It’s when the lyrics kick in that brief glimpses of humans can be seen, a quick flash of hands praying or a women’s lips. By including strong, recognizable vocals in the featured song the producers convey the message that while the show deals with large concepts and ideas, it’s one ultimately about humanity. Without those vocals the theme of humanity has the potential of being lost amongst the inanimate, neon signs. It then becomes a show not about the humanity within luck, but a show about higher themes that simply happens to contain humans.

A similar message is also conveyed through the paradigmatic choice to have only stills of humans appears rather than moving footage of them. Dice and coins move freely about, but no human is ever seen in motion. A still photo of John Ortiz appears and then dissolves into video footage of a series of cards falling through the air. Coins splash downward into water, but the camera merely moves ever slightly in on a still close-up of Dustin Hoffman. Having the sequence adhere to this strict rule reinforces the idea that the humans in this story are almost powerless against the larger forces of luck around them. Try as they will they are merely pawns in the larger game of life, forced to remain in the same position as life’s cards fall down onto them.

Luck’s title sequence is perhaps one of the most thought out intros to ever open a television series. While there are plenty more stylish and cool, one would be hard pressed to find an intro filled with as much symbolism and thematic meaning as Luck’s. Because of the particular paradigmatic choices made one could pay attention to only the title sequence of Luck and have a basic understanding of the various themes and messages the show attempts to tackle. If one paradigmatic cog were to be removed, the well oiled machine that is Luck’s opening credits would break down.

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