Friday, June 01, 2018

The 10 Best Episodes of "New York Undercover"

From a demographic standpoint, I was a very unlikely fan of the Fox crime drama "New York Undercover" which ran for four seasons in the mid-to-late 1990s.  I was a white high school student in rural Minnesota growing up on a dirt road surrounded by cornfields, and not a particular fan of the era's hip-hop music that was hard-wired into "New York Undercover's" DNA above and beyond any other series to hit network TV airwaves.  But I nonetheless discovered the series and connected with it more than any other series of its era.

In an era of shrinking budgets for primetime series and widespread puritanical shaming about "violence on TV", it was pretty remarkable "New York Undercover" ever made it on the airwaves, and even more remarkable that for three seasons the Harlem-based crime drama maintained a no-apologies ethnic flair that really stood out when I recently revisited the series this spring as there's nothing remotely like it on the airwaves a generation after its 1994 premiere.  The legend goes that the idea of an "urban Miami Vice" had been in the works for a couple of years but didn't get greenlit until "Law and Order" producer Dick Wolf put his name behind the project, at which point Fox put it on its 1994 fall lineup to air in the kamikaze Thursday night slot against then ratings powerhouse "Seinfeld".  Wolf's association would later prove to be more of a curse than a blessing, but without question in the beginning he was vital in getting the establishment gravitas necessary to secure the funding for a series that demanded the kind of production values that were increasingly hard to come by at that point in time.

And the product was impressive from the starting gate as "New York Undercover" showrunners knew exactly the kind of show they wanted to make and it found its footing right away without enduring the kinds of growing pains so many rookie series do.  The primary cast, fronted by Michael DeLorenzo and the particularly charismatic Malik Yoba as young undercover police detectives, immediately shined bright and gelled with a supporting cast that mostly consisted of the detectives' families.  The primary hook of "New York Undercover" was its well-produced cold opens, filmed music-video style with a bluesy or hip-hopped soundtrack, that set the stage of each episode with the crime that the detectives would be focusing upon for the remainder of the episode.  And the focus on music resurfaced later in the hour with live performances from "Natalie's", a smoky bar that served as an after-hours hangout for the detectives and their social circle.  Everybody from James Brown to Mary J. Blige to Brian McKnight to The Temptations took to the Natalie's stage to sing new material and their takes on blues and R & B classics over the series' first three seasons.  It was an excellent formula that never grew stale for the series, and some of the best exchanges came when the characters dropped by Natalie's at the end of an ugly case with some closing perspectives.

The stories ran the gamut from more conventional undercover cop show antics with drug kingpins, gunrunners, and serial killers, but the show shined best when it was most provocative on race and class issues, well ahead of its time on a variety of topics regularly making the headlines 20 years ago back in an era when such matters were not exactly in the mainstream.  And the treatment was usually three-dimensional and sophisticated.  The original blueprint of "New York Undercover" intended for two black officers, but they ended up deciding to go with one black detective and one Puerto Rican, and I think that ultimately served the series better given that it more accurately depicted the demographic splits in pre-gentrification Harlem, and it also made for greater conflict between the partners in cases where one detective would rein in the other if their perspective on a certain case was being skewed by racial or ethnic tribalism.  The perspectives of the supporting players in the cast also helped in providing a broader context to the detectives, and the end result was a stunning degree of authenticity for a project of this nature compared to other network TV series which often looked like a middle-aged white guy's interpretation about what life on the mean streets of the big city was like.

I mentioned how "New York Undercover" was set in Harlem before gentrification, and the timing for the series was pretty perfect on that front in that the crack epidemic and street crime generally peaked in the early 1990s and began to recede in the years to come.  The series would not have worked as well a decade after its original run, or today for that matter, because of how much New York City has changed, with the dangerous culture of street violence a fraction what it was a quarter century earlier.

"New York Undercover" definitely knew what it wanted to be from the outset and had an impressive first season, but to me it seemed as though the series really found its voice by the end of season 1, which carried over exceptionally well into season 2, far and away the series' best season.  It's hard to put a finger on what made "New York Undercover" shine so bright in its second season, but almost every episode sparkled with a number of highly engaging subplots that spanned several episodes.  The male leads seemed to mature quite a bit in the second season, after a bit too much emphasis on youthful "coolness" in season 1, and the change was fitting after all of the things Torres and Williams had gone through.  And while it's generally a gamble to add a new character, the addition of Lauren Velez as female detective Nina Moreno was a homerun and fit in so well that it was hard to figure how the show got along without her in season 1. The mood of the music matching the stories, always a high point for this series, was most on-point this season as well. Everything that made "New York Undercover" great was firing on all cylinders in its second season.

Unfortunately, off-camera drama would deliver a serious blow to "New York Undercover" after season 2 with Yoba and Delorenzo going on strike with a number of demands for producer Dick Wolf, a hard-nosed negotiator who was fully prepared to replace the actors, but they blinked after a brief walkout in the summer of 1996.  Apparently Fox was leveraging some creative concessions as well, insisting on adding a new white detective named Tommy McNamara.  Unlike the addition of Detective Moreno the season before, the McNamara character never felt like a natural fit and his character's story arc cut into the screen time of the other characters and thus never clicked with fans.  The series crawled down another distracting rabbit hole in season 3 with a multi-episode arc of an extramarital affair between Lieutenant Cooper and the male captain.  The Cooper character was in need of some depth, but this arc was a miscalculation that led nowhere.

Despite all of this, the core of the "New York Undercover" franchise held strong in season 3 and they continued to make some great episodes.  The exciting season 3 finale was one of those episodes, featuring a vicious group of bank robbers.  But despite the episode's general appeal, producer Dick Wolf's vindictiveness turned it into one of the most depressing hours of television in my lifetime, with a car bomb killing off the Eddie Torres character in the final scene.  Detective McNamara was gruesomely killed off earlier in the episode and it set the stage for a complete cast and creative overhaul for the series' fourth season.  Even though "New York Undercover" never got great ratings, it had a strong core following and foisting this cast overhaul on the audience would prove to be the biggest marketing miscalculation since the "new Coke".

"New York Undercover" returned for its fourth season in January 1998 as a midseason replacement, and almost everything was different.  Only two of the previous season's core five characters (JC Williams and Nina Moreno) made the cut into season 4 and they were now working as part of a secret off-the-grid NYPD unit.  Most of the series' writers and producers were gone, the music-fueled cold-opens and Natalie's denouements were scrapped, and the stories faltered into a sort of generic "Mission: Impossible" mold, with three new characters that failed to excite.  It didn't take long before the revamped "New York Undercover" proved itself a flop.  Fox pulled it from the schedule after only eight weeks, airing the remaining episodes over the summer.  I suspect the series was probably on its last season no matter what given that Fox didn't put in on their 1997 fall schedule, but the structural shakeup sure was a depressing way to see a once-great series fade into oblivion.

Like most "New York Undercover" fans, I effectively choose to ignore that the revamped fourth season ever happened and focus entirely on the series' first three seasons for overarching critiques.  The show had very few tangible downsides, but as I hinted at earlier, the detectives' characters sometimes behaved a little too immaturely in season 1, but that was rectified by season 2.  Another small critique is that there was a "small world" factor that was sometimes hard to swallow given that the show was set in New York City.  When the detectives had to report to a homicide at a middle school, the victim would turn out to be Williams' son's tutor, as one example off the top of my head.  This at times strained credibility, but the upside was that any time the main characters' families were brought in for subplots, the series proved most entertaining.   And lastly, I had a mostly negative take on the Lieutenant Cooper character.  Patti D'Arbanville had some solid acting chops generally, but she usually needed to take it down a couple of notches in her bull-in-a-china-shop portrayal of the dyspeptic lieutenant barking orders to the detectives or suspects.  The character had some potential but only on a couple of occasions was she three-dimensional.  This is a pretty slender list of grievances for 76 episodes worth of quality cop drama fare though.

It was pretty easy to make a top-10 list of favorite episodes of this series.  The iconic episodes that left the biggest impression on me back in the 1990s held up as my favorites two decades later as well.  The stories were fresh and original and ahead of their time, often at multiple levels.....

#10. "Fade Out" (Season 3, Episode, 13....originally aired January 16, 1997)....A 13-year-old boy opens this episode with the backdrop of his rough-and-tumble urban neighborhood, musing on videotape how he feels lucky to be alive to reach his next birthday given the culture of the neighborhood, and the remainder of the episode proceeds to vindicate this confession.  The boy takes to the streets with his camcorder to capture the neighborhood for a class project.  He really seems to have found his calling with the camera, but it leads him to a degree of voyeurism that leads to his capture of a murder on camera by a young gangbanger from the neighborhood who is completely bereft of a conscience, as is revealed by his confession to the police in the episode's closing.  Adding an extra layer to the exposition is the young boy's embittered single mother was a former girlfriend of Williams (small world that New York City!) which leads to some intriguing backstory for both JC and Chantel.  It was episodes like this--where "New York Undercover" really had something different to say compared to your average crime drama--that the show was most memorable and compelling.

#9.  "Buster and Claudia" (Season 2, Episode 6....originally aired October 5, 1995)....Opening this episode was one of the series' coolest cold opens, filmed in black and white and featuring a young woman living in poverty in a dark world....until her "savior" shows up in a shiny red car, and as they embrace the black and white turns to color.  It was a pretty slick production trick for mid-90s TV, and the scene became even more dramatic when the young couple proceeded onto an armed robbery of a jewelry store in the aftermath.  The male lead was played by a young Terrence Howard (the future Luscious Lyon from "Empire") as an ex-con trying to play it straight but continually struggling to put his past behind him and ultimately drawing his girlfriend into a string of quick-cash jewel heists.  The action-packed hour featured some great plot twists and social commentary, and the secondary plot also sizzled, with Torres' father getting involved with a loan shark to take over the Natalie's business and ultimately leading to a brutal conflict with Eddie.  When I talk about how "New York Undercover" was firing on all cylinders in season 2, this is exactly the kind of episode I'm talking about.

#8.  "The Reaper" (Season 3, Episode 12.....originally aired January 9, 1997)....Taking some inspiration from the mid-90s Susan Sarandon-Sean Penn film "Dead Man Walking", NYU nailed an episode featuring a young man in the final hours of death row, accepting of his responsibility of the murder of a mugging victim and resigned to lethal injection.  But the man's construction worker father is determined to take a last stand to convince the police to look into his son's case one final time, stealing some explosives from the construction site where he worked and holding Lieutenant Cooper hostage at the police station with a bomb strapped to his chest.  While it wasn't hard to figure out that the accused's otherwise squeaky-clean friend would end up being the real trigger-man, the delivery was outstanding, and the closing minutes provided one of the most gripping and emotional scenes of this series' run, where the convicted killer, even after it's been determined was not the trigger man, was still put to death, making extended eye contact with the embittered daughter of the shooting victim as she watched the execution from the gallery.  The viewer could glean a number of different takeaways from their body language during this extended silent scene, but my takeaway was that the victim's daughter realized the wrong call had been made as she looked in the eyes of the remorseful convict in his final moments.  Great stuff in what was a more conservative time generally for television.

#7.  "Is It a Crime?" (Season 3, Episode 22....originally aired May 1, 1997)....Humanization of the marginalized was a consistent strong point of "New York Undercover", and one of its most effective gambits came in this episode where a 10-year-old girl is killed in the slum housing where she lived with her working-class father.  It is quickly determined the child's death was an accident, the result of a defective, unrepaired elevator in the building which Detective Williams himself almost fell down.  The girl's father and Detective Williams took it upon themselves to get some justice for the girl even after the death was ruled accidental, wading through the layers of slumlords and building inspectors who had been looking the other way while the safety standards of the building deteriorated.  The story was very strong generally, with some great images of the dangers awaiting around every corner that the girl endured just walking home from school every day, but what took it to an entirely different level were the handful of posthumous monologues delivered by the girl that punctuated the hour, featuring the musings of an intelligent child with a black-screen background.  Her commentaries fit the mood of the scenes over the course of the hour, with a hopeful closing commentary about "most people in her neighborhood being good" closing the hour right after the community gathered together for a benefit in her honor.  Adding these monologues by the girl was a masterstroke in putting a face to a dead child that would otherwise have gone down in history as a mere statistic of urban tragedy.

#6. "Sympathy for the Devil" (Season 2, Episode 18....originally aired February 15, 1996)....As I said earlier, "New York Undercover" was most compelling when it got the most provocative, and the stage was certainly set for that in this episode where three young black men were bulldozing down the streets on a petty crime spree, mugging little old ladies and beating up homeless people.  But shit got real for them when an older couple was shot (the wife being killed) jogging in Central Park, and the young men picked over the belongings of the dead woman like vultures.  As news reports circulated about young black men being seen near the victims, a tidal wave of racial profiling ensued with dozens of young black men confronted and detained by police.  Detective Williams was aggressively questioned as well, emasculated in front of his son (and another boy and his father) while walking home from a hockey game.  The episode's ending wasn't anything that a regular viewer of cop shows wouldn't likely pick up on, but the racial profiling angle and its consequences was handled tactfully and three-dimensionally, with Detective Williams' son pointing out that JC had partaken in some of the same tendencies when it came to his parenting choices.  "New York Undercover" was the only series that had even thought about the concept of racial profiling let alone dedicated an entire episode to it back in the 1990s.


#5. "Manchild" (Season 1, Episode 24.....originally aired April 27, 1995).....I said in the overall series' writeup that "New York Undercover" really seemed to find its voice towards the end of the first season, and no episode better reflected that than "Manchild", featuring an 11-year-old boy hanging out with gang-banging older teenagers and, after a minor diss at an after-school basketball game, the young boy proceeds to cold-bloodedly gun down another kid at the shocking end of the cold open.  The boy was friends with Detective Williams' son and in their scenes together, the killer is portrayed as a sweet kid prematurely corrupted by the poisonous culture of the streets and unable to discern right from wrong.  The episode was already very provocative but became even more powerful when the older teens the young boy had committed murder for turned on him and ended up shooting down in the streets.  There were moments of preachiness in the episode, and in general throughout the series, but the new frontier tone of the storytelling on network TV made the preachiness work, and never better when Detective Williams discovered that his own son had claimed possession of the other boy's handgun.  There was much to like through "New York Undercover's" first season, but this episode was head and shoulders above the rest.

#4. "Tag You're Dead" (Season 2, Episode 2....originally aired September 7, 1995)....The second season of NYU sparkled from the outset and managed to foreshadow the headline-grabbing Trayvon Martin incident nearly two decades ahead of schedule with a would-be vigilante patrolling the streets and confronting a duo of graffiti artists spray-painting a building in a cold open featuring a pitch-perfect TLC song that sets the mood brilliantly.  The confrontation leads to an armed gunfight leaving one of the boys dead and the other crippled, and their gang out for revenge.  The television portrayal of the shooter is relatively three-dimensional (less cartoonish than the real-life George Zimmerman), so much so that Detective Williams makes an uncharacteristic connection with him, being on a bit of a bloodthirsty streak after his fiance's killer was released on a technicality.  There was a great gravesite visit scene early in the episode by Williams that sets the stage.  A lot goes on in the hour and the tension is palpable as it becomes clear that it's either gonna be "him or them" regarding the vigilante and the gang members, and the narrative just comes together with a great, albeit tragic, closing ribbon.  Only two episodes into the second season and it was already clear that the show was operating at a whole other level than it had in season 1.

#3. "The Finals" (Season 2, Episode 11.....originally aired November 16, 1995)....In two prior episodes in season 1, Ice-T guest starred as unhinged gangster Danny Cort, who killed Detective Williams' fiancee and unborn child in the season 1 finale as revenge against the accidental death of Cort's brother at the hands of Williams.  But it was Ice-T's final appearance in the role in season 2 that featured the most epic script, as Danny Cort stepped up his game to mess with Williams and finish off his revenge fantasy.  Williams' newest girlfriend, played by Naomi Campbell for a handful of prior episodes, was revealed as a Danny Cort lieutenant in on the scam to break Williams down and turn everyone against him.  The Danny Cort character rose to the stature of Michael Des Barres' "Murdoc" on "MacGyver" in this episode, always operating a couple steps ahead of Williams and blindsiding him every step of the way.  It was a tense and eventful hour, culminating in a questionable shooting that would sadly prevent any further Ice-T guest roles on the series.  The follow-up episode with the internal affairs investigation of JC's shooting was also exceptional, just missing my top-10 list.  "The Finals" is probably the only episode in my NYU top-10 that didn't provide any overarching social commentary.  It was just fun, and I'm glad "New York Undercover" proved itself able to sparkle at those types of episodes as well as the more socially provocative shows.

#2. "Student Affairs" (Season 2, Episode 7.....originally aired October 12, 1995)...Only a couple of months after the Michelle Pfeiffer inner-city teacher movie "Dangerous Minds", the small screen put forward a darker and more suitably cynical take with this outstanding "New York Undercover" episode set in an extremely tough Harlem high school where JC went undercover as a high school teacher to investigate a student murder.  Back in the mid-90s, the "school shooter culture" was actually quite a bit more prolific than it is today, but back then it was more likely to be shooters settling grudges against a couple of selected students rather than a deranged mass murderer randomly mowing down people with an assault weapon.  The environment portrayed in the high school in this NYU episode was more in keeping with the former scenario, with a misunderstanding about a girl leading to a homicide.  The rising tension after the murder led to a "kill or be killed" cycle that was captured with stunning authenticity for network television with a compelling hip-hopped soundtrack that added to the authenticity.  The subplot in the episode was also excellent, with Torres having already taken a beating by the gangster hassling his father, and now taking a beating while undercover as a janitor at the school and getting caught up in a melee in the bathroom.  The intense pain brought about his experimentation with pain pills, the foundation of a pending story arc where Torres battles some of the same addiction demons as his father.  This was "New York Undercover" at its most compelling.

#1. "A Time to Kill" (Season 2, Episode 14.....originally aired January 4, 1996).....It wasn't until my full viewing of the entire series that I settled upon the poignant "Time to Kill" episode as the series' shining achievement.  The cold open told a great story in itself, with two young cops documenting their weddings and early married life on videotape.  The recording continues while on-duty and happens to capture one of the officers' live executions as the initiation for a vicious Latin gang.  The killer gets off in the murder trial and his widow goes vigilante, gunning down his killer in the ensuing days.  The whole series of events plays out in the cold open, brilliantly set to music with the chilling Los Lobos song "For Just One Man" which perfectly sets the mood.  The episode could have gone a number of directions from there, but the narrative pivoted focus to the witness of the gangbanger's killing, a teenage girl raised in the ugly gangbanger culture who connected with Detective Moreno.  A tide of vengeance and retribution ensued with great character development throughout and the ticking time bomb of the AIDS virus spreading its way through the characters.  The episode was dark and disturbing in many ways but made for a raw and compelling hour of television, and never more real that when the teen gang girl's heroin-addicted mother has a one-on-one with Moreno in the closing scene following her daughter's death.

I've never seen "The Wire" but it's long been at my list of TV police dramas I most want to check out, celebrated as an intelligent look at the culture of the drug-addled urban jungles of Baltimore.  But certainly for network television, no other series in my lifetime can rival "New York Undercover" in the realm of the tough urban cop show.  It managed to be fast-paced and action-packed while still seeming authentic and character-driven.  It could be deadly serious but had enough fun, lighthearted, and purely human moments to be that rare TV show with a soul.  The decision to massively retool the series after its third season remains a blunder of epic proportion, but outside of unfortunate final chapter, my opinion of the series was only enhanced after my first revisit of it in nearly a decade.  The series' managed to work on two levels in capturing the cultural zeitgeist of its era more than anything else on television, but does so with storytelling that holds up very well.  There's nothing like it on the air today, and in one sense that's too bad because the show's perspective would still be useful in today's culture, but on the other hand, I enjoy that this series has such a unique fingerprint on the landscape of television history.  It's a shame it never realized the kind of large-scale audience it deserved, but the continued acclaim of its fans more than 20 years later speaks volumes of the impact it left on us.



Thursday, May 10, 2018

Six More Months To Go: Analysis of Midterm Senate Races

I waited until the recent round of consequential primaries in Indiana and West Virginia to write this update of the 2018 midterms, which is now less than six months away.  My enthusiasm for this stuff is nowhere near what it was in the 2000s as my cynicism about the one step forward and one step back formula of the American electoral politics cycle has poisoned my expectations for sustained policy improvement.  Still, there are few things more exciting than the heat of a political campaign, particularly when it's your tribe who seems to be on offense.  That's definitely the case heading into 2018, and nearly every special election result of the past 12 months is pointing in the direction of substantial Democratic gains.  I expect that consensus to be rattled and second-guessed at various points in the coming six months as the present incarnation of the Democratic Party remains as out of touch with the cultural values of Middle America as it was in November 2016, and Trump has an uncanny ability to exploit that and steer the national conversation towards his preferred topics, knocking his critics off-balance.

In addition, the fundamentals of the country are currently very strong, with a strong economy and an electorate that generally finds things heading in the right direction.  And each new round of Trump administration drama and media/legal pushback towards it appears to be yielding diminishing returns as the public is becoming immune to it.  With all of this in mind, there's a possibility that this midterm could play out much like 1998 did, with Democrats gaining seats in a similar environment of a strong economy overruling voters concern about Presidential ethics.  Indeed, Trump's approval rating has ticked up a couple of points in recent weeks, befuddling his furious critics, suggesting that some of the likely damage in November can be mitigated.  Ultimately though, I've seen enough from the special elections to assure me the Democratic base is highly motivated, the Republican base is lethargic, and faction of the electorate "within the 40-yard lines" is open to voting for Democrats in the same way that kept a lot of red-state Democrats in office during the Bush years.  In the dogfight between Trump and his critics, I expect Trump will win handily in 2020, but in 2018 he's gonna face a big setback simply because of the laws of political gravity.

All of this leads me to expect a lot of Democratic victories on November 6, 2018.  I believe the Dems need 23 seats to win the U.S. House of Representatives and expect they'll get there with seats to spare.  I'm betting on a gain of about 35 seats in the House, with those gains centered in upscale suburban areas, a trend that makes me nervous as I expect the country club takeover of the Democratic Party will inevitably changes its policies.  The biggest earthquake will likely come in downballot legislative races in states all over the country, where the Republicans are heavily overexposed and the shift of a few percentage points towards Democrats is likely to flip multiple legislative chambers and give Democrats hundreds more seats than they do today.  The Senate, however, is a different story.  When I last profiled the state of the race six months ago, the Democrats were defending 25 out of 33 overall Senate seats up in 2018, an unusually lopsided margin that is the result of Democrats' recent good fortunes in this Senate class dating back to 2012, 2006, and even 2000.  Since then, the playing field has gotten even worse, with Democrats defending 26 out of 34 seats following the resignation of Minnesota Senator Al Franken.  Even predicting for a strong Democratic year, I still had the Democrats losing four Senate seats based on my predictions six months ago simply because the Democrats are defending Senate seats in such inhospitable states.  My thoughts on a few of these races have changed.  Read on to find out which....

Arizona--When I made my original Senate predictions, Republican Senator Jeff Flake had just announced his retirement and I concluded that the GOP probably improved its chances at holding the seat, allowing Congresswoman Martha McSally to take the reins.  I figured McSally was probably the narrow favorite early on, given her personal profile and being the incumbent Congresswoman in a swingy suburban Tucson district, along with Arizona's continued Republican lean.  But McSally has faltered out of the starting gate and has yet to shake right-wing primary opponent Kelli Ward, who could still theoretically win the nomination.  Ward would almost certainly lose the general election, but even McSally looks to be a slight underdog at this point, making some amateurish stumbles out of the starting gate while early indicators suggest the Democrats have really moved the football closer to their end zone in Arizona since Trump was elected.  The likely Democratic nominee is Congresswoman Kyrsten Sinema has an early lead in publicly released polls and cuts a decent profile from a moderate suburban Phoenix district.  It's possible that Sinema's former life as a left-wing Nader supporter could come back to haunt her among some of the center-right voters she'll need, but at this point I am inclined to believe the Democrats will pick up a seat here, reversing my call from six months ago.  Dem +1

California--Either long-time Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein gets re-elected to a sixth term or her Democratic primary challenger Kevin de Leon upsets her.  Either way, California stays in Democratic hands.  My money continues to be on Feinstein pulling it out fairly comfortably.

Connecticut--Democratic incumbent Chris Murphy will skate into a second term by a 2-1 margin.

Delaware--Democratic incumbent Tom Carper gets a fourth term by an even wider margin than Murphy's margin in Connecticut.

Florida-- The race that had me on the ropes six months ago continues to leave me guessing.  Republican Governor Rick Scott has made it official now, throwing his hat in the ring against Democratic Senator Bill Nelson.  Just looking at their electoral histories, Nelson would seem to have the edge, winning handily in all three of his prior contests while Rick Scott barely eked out wins in very Republican years in both of his gubernatiorial runs.  Furthermore, 2018 should be a pretty strong Democratic year, presumably enhancing Nelson's advantage.  But times have changed since Scott's gubernatorial runs as his popularity is now considerably higher, and his unlimited personal wealth will help him buy a lot of advertising to neutralize the generic Nelson/Democratic advantage.  I continue to tilt ever so narrowly on the side of a Scott victory here as the Democratic base in Florida has proven itself so unreliable in midterm elections, but certainly if the Democratic advantage among upscale suburbanites that has been the story of recent special elections holds in the midterms in Florida, Scott will have an extremely narrow path to victory.  I reserve the right to change my call on this one as the election gets closer, but as of now I'm still predicting Scott squeaks it out having learned my lesson to never underestimate him.  GOP gain.  Running total...even.

Hawaii--Democratic incumbent Mazie Hirono won't have to break a sweat to get a second term.

Indiana--A dogfight Republican primary was finally settled on Tuesday to determine the nominee against freshman Democrat Joe Donnelly.  The winner was wealthy businessman Mike Braun who got 41% of the vote while Congressmen Todd Rokita and Luke Messer evenly split the remainder.  Braun's lack of Washington stain probably made him the best candidate of the three to face Donnelly, but there are some unsavory details in his business career that were litigated in the primary and could cost him some votes.  Due to the favorable Democratic climate, Donnelly is by all means still in this race but there are few signs he's established the kind of bipartisan brand that can save him in this red state.  Hoosiers showed us they had an independent streak in the 2006 and 2008 cycles though and if that streak resurfaces in November, Donnelly could be spared.  As I said six months ago, Donnelly's ace in the hole is that his geographic base of support comes from northern Indiana, the most elastic part of the state which could decide the winner if it breaks comfortably for Donnelly.  Still, Braun's deep pockets will buy a lot of advertising and the pro-Donnelly college student turnout is likely to be depressed given that it's a midterm, so I gotta give a small edge to Braun until I see any evidence otherwise.  GOP pickup.  Running total....GOP +1

Maine--Independent Angus King is not technically a Democrat but he caucuses with them and his lack of party identification will cut in his favor as it has throughout his career in Maine politics, resulting in a slam-dunk second term for him.

Maryland--The Old Line State is fast becoming the most inelastically Democratic state in the country, especially for federal races.  And considering 2018 is shaping up to be a very Democratic year, incumbent Senator Ben Cardin should win by more than 20 points.

Massachusetts--Six months ago, I figured Democratic incumbent Elizabeth Warren would win a second term, but with an underwhelming margin. At this point, however, it's just hard to imagine the deep blue Bay State won't hand her a comfortable victory despite her mediocre approvals, simply as a protest to the deeply unpopular Trump.  Had Hillary won in 2016, I'm not entirely sure Warren would even keep her job.

Michigan--Here's another race where conditions have changed a lot in the last six months.  Neither Kid Rock nor Congressman Fred Upton will be running on the Republican side as the party had been hoping, leaving the GOP with dim prospects for taking down three-term Democratic incumbent Debbie Stabenow.  Their best bet is John James, a young black businessman with a military background who in many ways is a candidate straight out of central casting for the GOP, but his campaign has been very slow to gain momentum and early indicators suggest a tough slog for the Republicans generally in Michigan this year.  I was tilting towards Stabenow in this race at last check but now it's a full lean in the Democrat's direction.

Minnesota Race 1--Here's the easy race in the Gopher State.  Two-term Democrat Amy Klobuchar who has scored landslide victories in both prior Senate runs will come out smelling like a rose again, scoring a third term with a sweeping bipartisan coalition of support.

Minnesota Race 2--And here's the race that probably never should have happened.  Al Franken got blackballed out of the Senate without due process and now Democrats have to defend another seat that will be at least a little bit tenuous.  Former Lieutenant Governor Tina Smith was appointed to the seat following Franken's resignation, and I suspect she'll have little problem dispatching the primary challenge by Richard Painter next month.  She's probably favored for the general election too, but Minnesota is always a bit of a wild card and particularly so after the realignment it saw in 2016, with rural areas moving overwhelmingly towards Donald Trump.  My first impression of Smith has not blown me away, and in no way would I rule out an upset by Republican legislator Karin Housley who is challenging her.  Just four years ago, a backbencher state lawmaker from Iowa named Joni Ernst found her way to the U.S. Senate against an opponent expected to have it in the bag, and Housley doesn't appear to have the kind of political baggage that Ernst had when she won by eight points.  It's still odds-on for Smith though primarily because of the general Democratic lean of Minnesota and the likely strength at the top of the ticket with Klobuchar in the other Senate race.  I'll be curious to see the geographic breakdown of this race though and wouldn't be surprised if the map ends up similar to the 2016 Presidential map, with Smith's strength concentrated almost entirely in the metro area.  I hope the Democrats aren't caught overconfident and napping on this one.  They always seem to take Minnesota for granted only to be humbled over and over by an upset or a very narrow victory.

Mississippi Race 1--There was plenty of ambiguity six months ago whether incumbent Republican Roger Wicker would receive a primary challenge from right-wing gadfly Chris McDaniel.  But the resignation from senior Senator Thad Cochran has upended the drama expected to play out in the regularly scheduled 2018 Mississippi Senate election.  The bottom line is that Wicker should now have a clear lane to be comfortably re-elected in the Magnolia State.  In theory, Democratic House Minority Leader David Baria could put up a fight if he wins the Democratic nomination, but Wicker's noncontroversial brand of conservatism is unlikely to scare away rock-ribbed Mississippi Republicans.

Mississippi Race 2--Long-time Republican Thad Cochran timed his recent health-related retirement well for his party, as the special election in November will be a jungle primary from which the top-two vote-getters advance to a December runoff.  Appointed to fill Cochran's seat is Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith, who will be the establishment choice for the special election with Chris McDaniel running to her right.  The Democrats scored a decent get with former Ag Secretary Mike Espy, but failed to get their top prospect in Brandon Presley.  The best-case scenario for Democrats would be McDaniel vs. Espy, but even that seems like it would be a huge longshot for them for a number of reasons.  Never say never as Doug Jones proved to us in Alabama five short months ago, but the same type of perfect storm would have to take hold for Republicans to piss this seat away.

Missouri--There have been some crazy developments in Missouri since my last round of Senate predictions, with the Republican Governor being charged with multiple felonies for blackmailing a mistress, and at least in theory these developments should help incumbent Democrat Claire McCaskill in her pursuit of an improbable third term.  The Republican boy wonder, Attorney General Josh Hawley, has found himself in the awkward position of having to make a legal case against his own party's Governor, and it's sucking up some of the oxygen from his campaign, dividing loyalties within the party, and creating a negative association tide of headlines generally.  Republicans are getting nervous and an unnamed Missouri GOP official mused that he "wants Claire McCaskill to buy his lottery tickets for him".  The coronation is premature though as McCaskill's third victory is still more likely not to happen than to happen in the Show Me State as it sprints to the political right more each cycle.  She's proven herself wily enough to win twice in the past, but the state has only gotten more Republican since then and she's never established a personal brand that has won her enough bipartisan support to keep beating the odds.  If Jason Kander was running this cycle, I suspect he'd have a better chance of winning this seat for the Democrats, but I suspect Hawley still pulls this one out against McCaskill.  The race remains a tossup to be sure and it would be crazy to underestimate McCaskill completely, but I don't think enough damage has been done to Hawley, yet at least, to blunt his advantage.  GOP gain.  Running total:  GOP +2

Montana--You'd never know two-term Democrat Jon Tester was running for re-election in a state that went for Trump by 20 points based on his recent voting record and aggressive oppositional posture against the administration.  Nonetheless, Tester is the best-positioned of the bright-red-state Democrats to prevail, with State Auditor Matt Rosendale as his likeliest challenger but not exactly burning up the world right now and perhaps not even a sure thing in the primary.  It's possible Tester is overconfident and could still get caught flat-footed if Rosendale proves stronger than expected, but he's certainly not behaving like a man who fears losing in six months and the Senate race analysts appear to agree.  I continue to lean towards a Tester victory here, but definitely recommend both parties keep a close eye on this race as it's by no means in the bag.

Nebraska--This feels like the sleeper-race-that-could-have-been to me.  Freshman Republican Deb Fischer has very mediocre approval ratings and may well have proven vulnerable.  If former Democratic Senator Bob Kerrey had attempted his comeback in 2018 instead of 2012, I think we just might have a race on our hands given the political climate.  Unfortunately for Democrats, they've been beaten down and demoralized to the point of incapacitation in Nebraska and haven't put up anything but token opposition for the fast-approaching primary.  Once in a very great while, token opposition proves itself worthy of a serious fight so I'm not taking this race entirely off the table just yet, but you can't win if you don't play and it appears that's the likeliest scenario this year leading to a second term for Fischer.

Nevada--Given the state of the map, Democrats have very few "likely pickups" despite the expected Democratic lean of the year.  Nevada is as close as they'll get, with Republican Senator Dean Heller shaping up as the underdog in his fight with Democratic Congresswoman Jacky Rosen.  The affable Heller mustered up enough bipartisan strength to survive in 2012 by a one-point margin in a state trending Democratic.  It would be quite a trick if he was able to do it again in this environment with most polls showing him the underdog.  His best bet is catching the union-fueled "Reid machine" napping, but Democrats haven't had much of a problem with enthusing their base in the last year.   Heller may be able to keep it close but I'd be shocked if he pulled out a win.  Prediction: Dem gain.  Running total: GOP +1.

New Jersey--With the corruption trial behind him and ending with a hung jury, it seems likely the current political environment nearly assures that oily Democratic Senator Bob Menendez will get a third term simply based on partisan advantage in a blue state.  Had Hillary won last year, I think the Republicans would have an opening here against the less-than-wildly-popular Menendez, but New Jerseyians are so used to corruption and shadiness from their politicians that Menendez can likely point to his acquittal and get another mulligan.

New Mexico--What a difference a Presidential election makes!  If Hillary had won last year, I suspect the New Mexico Senate race featuring freshman Democrat Martin Heinrich would be right at the heart of the Senate battleground with one of a couple top GOP recruits challenging him.  Instead, Trump won in 2016 and Heinrich faces token opposition, not on anybody's radar for vulnerability and poised to win this fall without breaking a sweat.

New York--It's been a sketchy six months for Empire State Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand, who has ruffled some feathers in her attempt to reinvent herself as the leading Congressional figure of the #MeToo movement, being the first to call for Al Franken's scalp and saying she now thinks Bill Clinton should have been resigned for his sexual indiscretions.  She's made some enemies (including the Clintons) out of people who used to be friends and has shined a brighter light on her long history of shifting with the political winds to suit her ambitions.  None of this means she won't win re-election in a landslide come November, but a candidate who six months ago seemed like an interesting dark horse option for the Democratic nomination seems considerably less so now.

North Dakota--A few months ago, national Republicans were getting nervous that they were poised to gift Democratic Senator Heidi Heitkamp with a second term by failing to put up a top-tier challenger for her.  It was at that point they convinced Congressman At-Large Kevin Cramer to reconsider his prior vow to pass on the race, and they got their man.  The race is now very much at the forefront of the battleground again, and although Cramer is by no means a perfect candidate, he has the partisan advantage of running in a bright-red state that's only been getting redder.  A decade ago, a Democrat with an independent profile like Heitkamp would have had no problem coasting to re-election in a climate like this one with an electorate as elastic as North Dakota's has typically been, but the infusion of the oil economy into the state has made it that much heavier of a lift even for a popular Democrat like Heitkamp.  There are still enough elastic voters in the eastern part of the state to help her secure a second term, but in a midterm environment, it's harder to believe the turnout will be there among college students in Fargo and Grand Forks, who provided her the margin of difference in 2012 against Rick Berg, to save her this time, especially against a known entity like Cramer who's likely to tribalize voting patterns more than some of the token GOP opposition that Kent Conrad and Byron Dorgan pummeled back in the day.  I don't underestimate Heitkamp and could still see her running away with this race rather comfortably, but for now I'm still leaning towards Cramer having a small advantage.  Prediction:  GOP gain.  Running total: GOP +2

Ohio--Democrat Sherrod Brown is well to the left of his Republican-trending state but has been fortunate enough to win in two very favorable Democratic environments in 2006 and 2012.  Even six months ago, I figured Brown would luck out again in 2018.  The race has changed since then as Brown's 2012 opponent Josh Mandel surprised everybody and decided not to run again.  The Republican primary on Tuesday instead produced an underwhelming but still victorious margin for Congressman Jim Renacci from northeastern Ohio.  Brown's economic populism plays relatively well with the Ohio electorate and helps score him some votes among culturally conservative Trump voters. It feels as though the race has moved even more in Brown's direction in the last few months, and the lack of enthusiasm Renacci saw in his primary win strengthens that argument.  It would be a great surprise at this point if the momentum swung away from Brown.

Pennsylvania--Six months ago, I predicted Democratic Senator Bob Casey would win a third term this November, but at least then it appeared to be part of the overall Senate battleground with Casey getting a top-tier challenge from Republican Congressman Lou Barletta.  As of now, few consider Pennsylvania to be part of the battleground anymore as Barletta's campaign has been a disappointment thus far from the GOP with few signs of momentum and a political environment in Pennsylvania that seems to dramatically favor Democrats.  Casey's overconfidence and lethargic 2012 campaign allowed a third-tier GOP challenger to hold him to single digits, so that's worth considering in not completely writing off Barletta, but it's also worth considering that Casey will likely benefit from continued parochial goodwill around his hometown of Scranton and in southwest Pennsylvania, areas that are otherwise trending Republican.  Couple that with what I expect will be a huge Democratic margin in suburban Philadelphia and Casey seems increasingly secure.

Rhode Island--In a likely Democratic year, Democrats should have no reason to spend a moment's energy worrying about Senator Sheldon Whitehouse winning a third term in this very blue state.

Tennessee--I'm guessing no Republican ever expected to be sweating the Senate race in Tennessee six months ago, but at least thus far former Democratic Phil Bredesen is making a race out of the open seat vacated by Republican Bob Corker.  Bredesen has plenty of bipartisan goodwill from his days as Governor while his tea-flavored Republican challenger, Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn, is polarizing and has made plenty of enemies even in her own party. Tennessee is not quite as heavy of a lift for Democrats as Alabama where Doug Jones prevailed last December, but it has moved further and further to the right in the last 15 years and doesn't have as large of a black population to serve as a solid Democratic base.  A lot of things would have to go right geographically for Bredesen to pull this out, improving Democratic margins substantially in the suburbs of Memphis and Nashville, winning outright in ancestrally Republican East Tennessee cities like Knoxville and Chattanooga, and winning back some of the rural Yellow Dog Democrat coalition in western and middle Tennessee that has shifted hard to the right since the dawn of the Obama era.  It's possible Bredesen can do this, and multiple polls have showed that he's doing just that, narrowly leading Blackburn in the early polls.  My gut tells me that tribal fault lines will emerge as the race unfolds and Blackburn will pull ahead in the clutch simply based on the partisan advantage in Tennessee, but there's not much room for error for a candidate with a reputation as a bomb-thrower.  At the outset, this race reminds me of the 2012 North Dakota Senate race, where polls early on and throughout the cycle showed Heidi Heitkamp performing well, but Democrats and election analysts kept thinking it was too good to be true and that the laws of political gravity would catch up.  They never did in North Dakota.  Heitkamp won.  And Bredesen may as well.  Just as in ND back then, I'm betting against it....but it's not unthinkable.

Texas--Presumably because of hatred for Ted Cruz by liberals, his Democratic challenger, Congressman Beto O'Rourke, has had some extremely impressive fund-raising reports and will be ready, willing, and able to run a strong race against Cruz.  If Texas Democrats had found a nominee with the kind of independent brand as Phil Bredesen in Tennessee, Cruz might be vulnerable as there have been numerous indications that the country club Republicans of suburban Texas are not at all fond of Trump and are open to a backlash vote against him in a way not seen in a generation in Texas.  But it's very hard to see the unapologetically progressive Congressman from El Paso being the man for the time in Texas as his profile and his geography seems all wrong for capturing the "Dallas debutante" vote that would likely prove key in any Democratic coalition capable of taking out Cruz.  This remains a race to watch, however, simply given the pile of cash O'Rourke has to work with and the general swing away from Trump-flavored Republicans that was seen in Texas in 2016.  Furthermore, Ted Cruz is still a massive douche and that won't do him a ton of favors.  At least for now though, I think a Democratic victory is Texas is no more likely than a Democratic victory in the Mississippi special election, which is also a huge long shot.

Utah--I predicted wrongly last October when I said if Mitt Romney decided to run for Senate in Utah to replace the retiring Orrin Hatch, the field would clear for him.  Utah's aggressively conservative nominating process denied Romney their endorsement, forcing the race into a primary.  Romney remains the heavy favorite in the Beehive State, where he's something of a legend, but I shouldn't underestimate Romney's ability to piss away a sure thing as he's been doing it for nearly a quarter century now.  But even if Republican state legislator Mike Kennedy somehow manages to beat Romney in the primary, either one should easily dispatch token Democratic opposition in this very Republican state.

Vermont--Another landslide victory by left-wing Independent Bernie Sanders should be the least surprising outcome on November 6th.  Bernie gets my vote for the Senator who scores the most lopsided margin of all 34 races.

Virginia--Had Hillary Clinton won the Presidency and Tim Kaine become her Vice-President, I suspect the Virginia Senate race determining Kaine's replacement would be at the epicenter of the 2018 battleground. Instead, Democratic freshman Kaine will be running for a second term and nobody considers him remotely vulnerable, particularly against the Republican nomination frontrunner, archconservative Corey Stewart.  My prediction is for Kaine to outperform the impressive victory by Democratic Ralph Northam in last November's gubernatorial election, winning statewide by double digits.

Washington--As Democratic as the Evergreen State has become, it's hard to imagine three-term Democratic incumbent Maria Cantwell being vulnerable in any environment, but as with her previous three races, she's running with the partisan winds at her back again in 2018 and is likely to win a fourth term by more than 20 points.

West Virginia--The prospect of an upset in Tuesday's Republican primary by felonious coal baron Don Blankenship had Democrats positively giddy, but Blankenship imploded in the clutch and came in a distant third place.  Democrats are probably lucky that coal country GOP Congressman Evan Jenkins came up short to Attorney General Patrick Morrisey because Jenkins' parochial ties to conservative Democrats in coal country would have really proven challenging for Democratic Senator Joe Manchin to overcome in a state that is riding a rocket ship to the political right.  Had Blankenship won, I'd have given Manchin the narrowest of advantages, but against Morrisey, I remain skeptical that Manchin can overcome the partisan tide.  His voting record in the Senate during the Obama years will be heavily scrutinized and his authorship of anti-gun legislation makes him a uniquely vulnerable NRA target in a state where firearms fetishism runs especially strong.  Manchin should never be counted out as he prevailed comfortably in tough political climates in 2010 and 2012, but the state has become considerably less amenable to the Democratic brand since then as its coal economy has flatlined.  And even though Democrats did well in November 2017 statewide elections in Virginia as well as well a Congressional race in southwestern Pennsylvania in the spring of 2018, the rural counties bordering West Virginia voted much closer to the solid Republican margins Trump saw in 2016.  Maybe if it gets to be this time in October and Manchin has a double-digit lead, I'll finally be convinced he can hold this seat, but until then I will stand by my assessment that he's the most vulnerable Democratic Senator in the country.  Prediction: GOP gain.  Running total:  GOP +3

Wisconsin--The Badger State seems to vacillate with the prevailing political winds, and with the Democrats appearing to hold the hot hand in 2018, I'm increasingly confident that Democratic freshman Tammy Baldwin is elected to a second term.  Neither of her two Republican challengers, businessman Kevin Nicholson or state Senator Leah Vukmir, is a top-tier challenger and early polls suggest Wisconsin voters aren't interested in firing Baldwin.  This race is not yet a done deal since Republicans haven't picked a nominee, but Wisconsin is moving down the list of GOP pick-up opportunities fairly fast.

Wyoming--Not many Republican Senators are in a position to rest easy this fall, but John Barrasso is probably as close they'll get.  Even in Wyoming, however, the Democrats have a decent candidate with Gary Trauner, who came within a hair's breadth of winning the state's at-large Congressional district in 2006.  Barrasso will likely prove a tougher foe that scandal-plagued Barbara Cubin was in 2006 though.


So despite plenty of developments in the six months since my previous Senate predictions, I've only changed my call for one race and that's Arizona where I'm now leaning towards a Democratic pick-up.  But there are a half dozen races on the razor's edge where it's hard to discern a real advantage at this stage, which leads me to defer to traditional partisan leanings.  The hardest call of all right now is Florida, but given that Republicans almost always seem to pull it out in contested races in Florida, I'm standing by my Rick Scott prediction.  In the remaining states, campaigns will matter a lot on both sides and will likely mean the difference in North Dakota, Missouri, Indiana, and perhaps plenty more.  It's not all unthinkable that Democrats could get another inside straight with this Senate class and actually win the Senate.  Hell, they could even enter 2019 with a 52-48 majority if they win every competitive race on the table, something they nearly did in both 2006 and 2012.  Right now that seems like too much to expect given how significantly Republican a handful of the states have trended that are being defended for Democrats but when I return in October with my final predictions for the season, my results could very well change a lot more than they did since last October.











Saturday, March 31, 2018

The Electoral Foreshadowing of the "Roseanne" Reboot

When the original "Roseanne" premiered on ABC in the fall of 1988, it was a fresh take on the situation comedy from the perspective of a decidedly unglamorous blue-collar family in a small Midwestern industrial city living paycheck to paycheck.  When the recession of the early 1990s hit, the show really found its voice, dealing with the family and the community's struggles with joblessness and fading hope with a rawness that hit home for downscale Americans.  The show was rarely overtly political, but there was little room for doubt that the Conners were a Democratic household in an era when class-based political fault lines were considerably less complicated than they are today.

Fast forward to 2018 and, despite the unhinged real-life nature of series star Roseanne Barr, the Trump era is a savvy time to revive the Conner household from Lanford, Illinois, and redefine them as part of the Trump coalition of "deplorables".  You'd be hard-pressed to find a fictional household from the past generation that would better embody the prototypical Obama-Trump voters that swung the 2016 election than the Conners.  But whatever the merits or demerits of the series' revival may be generally, I think the most frightening foreshadowing of the sitcom is that, more than a year into the controversial Trump Presidency, the fictional Conners are still with Trump.  And I suspect most of their real-world neighbors are as well, or at least will be when all is said and done.

There have been dozens of special elections since November 2016 that have telegraphed some demographic trendlines of voter preferences, and just about all have been in Democrats' favor.  But when you break down the data to the precinct level, the clearest takeaway has been that upscale suburbanites really do not like Donald Trump and are taking it out on his party.  Upscale suburbanites, of course, are not historically part of the Democratic constituency and will be a very odd fit as they become one, forcing Democratic officeholders to choose between a policy agenda that requires enlarging the size of the government or a policy agenda that takes it easy on the cost-conscious upper-income voters who would have to pay for enlarging the size of government.

There has been less indication based on special election results that downscale whites who used to be the backbone of the Democratic coalition (i.e. the Conners) have abandoned Trump in any real way.  This is important because winning the states that cost Hillary Clinton the election--Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, among other states--requires winning back some of those downscale whites.  And for all of his foolishness, Trump is savvy when it comes to catering to this key swing constituency.  He was savvy when he spent the first 15 minutes of the first 2016 Presidential debate hanging trade agreements signed by Hillary's husband around her neck, and then drawing a straight line to the industrial wreckage that has occurred in those swing Midwestern states in the generation since.  And he was savvy just this past week bragging about the strong ratings of the "Roseanne" revival and insisting that it's "our people" watching it.

Trump is sagely attaching himself to the hip to a constituency that already feels economically and culturally persecuted, and keeping his foot on the gas in reminding them of this attachment.  Doing so won him the last election and sets him up nicely to win the next one as well.  The timing of the "Roseanne" revival should serve as a stark reminder to Democrats that as go the Conners likely goes the nation.


Sunday, March 18, 2018

The 20 Best TV Theme Songs of My Lifetime....Without Lyrics

Earlier this month, I profiled my 10 favorite TV theme songs with lyrics.  As promised, I'm back now with my 20 favorite theme songs that were music only.  As with the previous list, there's an embarrassment of riches, especially during the 1980s and early 90s before TV theme songs were shortened or removed entirely to make room for more commercials.

My favorite TV theme songs tend to be sophisticated, with musical arrangements that elevate to soaring highs and descend to a more relaxed climax.  A solid combination of bass, saxophone, and keyboard/synthesizer almost always wins me over.  There's something to be said for theme songs with a more laid-back arrangement as well, but I'm less likely to rate those songs in the same category as greatness as the more layered and compelling arrangements that make up most of my top-20 list.  Theme songs that are catchy but not layered enough to make my list are mid-80s action show icons "Airwolf" (1984-86) and "Knight Rider" (1982-86).  Not taking anything away from those shows' fondly remembered and heavily synthesized tunes, I just thought there were a couple dozen from my lifetime more worthy of acclaim.  Ditto for the widely acclaimed, piano-driven intro for "Hill Street Blues" (1981-87), a great tune deserving of an honorable mention but not quite near the top of my pyramid personally.  Another great honorable mention is the saxophone-heavy theme song for the John Ritter cop dramedy "Hooperman" (1987-89), but like the show itself, the song fizzled out before hitting its final note.

My last bullet point is that my ratings are about more than just the music.  Since television is a visual medium, the on-screen imagery needs to be worthy of the music.  In some cases, that is more true than others, but I give bonus points to series where the visuals define the series' brand in coordination with the music itself.  In some cases, I'll even give bonus points to a series where the quality of the visuals exceed the musical pedigree of the song itself.

Without further adieu, here's the list

#20. "Hawaii Five-O" (2010-present)....I struggled with what to do with "Hawaii Five-O".  I vastly preferred the extended theme song of the original series 1968 series to that of the truncated 2010 reboot, both aurally and visually, but the original "Hawaii Five-O" was not during my lifetime and thus disqualified by the guidelines of my list.  Elevating the second-rate imitation song from the reboot didn't seem quite right, but omitting from the list entirely such an iconic theme song that fit the culture of the series' setting and adventure theme would be even more of a travesty.  With that in mind, I decided to put the reboot's still-catchy tune in the #20 position, edging out "Cagney and Lacey" (1981-88) for the last position on my list.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T7Ba_jz22sI

#19. "Boomtown" (2002-03)...One of the best cop shows of the last 20 years was NBC's "Boomtown", which was widely acclaimed but perhaps a little too out of the thematic mainstream for network television.  NBC renewed it for a second season but then abruptly canceled it, leaving only six episodes produced for season 2 that are sadly unavailable on DVD along with the episodes from season 1.  The series theme song is hard to categorize due to the era of the series, as the song is shorter and less layered than I'd prefer, but the poetic sound of the instrumentation fit the nature of the series well and was accompanied with a nice montage of historic and modern-day Los Angeles.  If the show was made 10 years earlier and this theme song went on another 20+ seconds, it might be higher up my list.  Still, it deserves to be recognized as one of the few shows since 2000 that put forth a noteworthy theme song and packed a lot into 40 seconds. 
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4PJ_L1K2Sv4

#18. "Automan" (1983-84)....Here's an entry I just had to include for the sake of "yes, Virginia, this really was on primetime television in the mid-80s!"  You'd be hard-pressed to unearth a weirder time capsule in terms of a TV intro both in terms of massively synthesized music and the cutting-edge-at-the-time computerized effects that defined this series.  I was six years old when this limited-run 13-episode show was on and I did watch the series, but I'm guessing it would hold up quite terribly to adult eyes in the late-2010s, but I dare anyone to look away out of boredom during the 60+ seconds of surrealism that plays out before your eyes during this intro, which spectacularly includes a personified computer "cursor" copping a feel of a young woman's cleavage!
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kA1NT4I0s34

#17. "Wiseguy" (1987-90)....The TV crime drama was kind of stuck in a creative rut by the late 80s and one of the few that broke through with a new concept was "Wiseguy", a Stephen J. Cannell series featuring an FBI agent deep undercover in various crime families with story arcs that drug on for several episodes at a time rather than self-contained in a single episode.  The series was hit or miss, with some story arcs being very intense and satisfying while others were a little sleepier, but like most shows that were above-average on the creative inspiration front, "Wiseguy" had an inspired theme song as well, with a diverse and comprehensive array of instruments reaching a crescendo of highs and lows just as I liked best in my 80s shows.  My favorite iteration was from season 1 and they poached some great action scenes from the early episodes as a visual backdrop.  They went for a more uptempo version of the song for the shortened fourth and final season of the series.  I didn't dislike it but preferred the version from the early seasons.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Gwc-eZ7wzU

#16. "Hart to Hart" (1979-84)....I was too young to stay up for "Hart to Hart" during the school year as a young boy since it came on at 10/9 central, but during summers I was able to watch several episodes in my early elementary years.  I always enjoyed the show and at least some episodes hold up decent as an adult as well despite the ridiculous 80s-centric premise of a crime-fighting millionaire couple.  But the one part of every episode that still holds up 30+ years later is the catchy and stylized theme song, featuring a narrated introduction by crusty "Max" followed by an extended litany of action shots set to a soaring, pulsating musical backbeat.  Great stuff!
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K8sdMTT6nXo

#15. "Simon and Simon" (1981-88)....The first season of CBS's long-running detective show "Simon and Simon" featured a vocal performance of the Thrasher Brothers tune "Best of Friends".  I guess I didn't hate the song, but was pleased that the series shifted to a catchier, all-music theme song in season 2 and kept it all the way until the end of season 8.  It hit all the right notes for me as a catchy tune with a sophisticated arrangement and some action shows visuals capturing the series San Diego setting that accompanied the sound to great effect.  It's hard to overstate how a catchy song like this brought viewers to the table and may have even brought them back, particularly in the pre-You Tube era where hearing their favorite shows' theme song was a once-a-week pleasure rather than something they could simply do with the push of a button on their computer keyboard.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CCIGE__1b4c

#14. "T.J. Hooker" (1982-86)....While the theme song for the action-packed William Shatner cop show with its synthesized police siren backbeat was an undeniable earworm, it's the visuals accompanying song that probably succeeded in lifting it a few points on my list than it would have been just based on the song alone.  "T.J. Hooker" was second only to "MacGyver" of shows on my radar that offered a steady beat of impressive action sequences, and the 50-something Shatner did many of his own stunts to authenticate the imagery.  It's undeniable that many of the images seem pretty darn cheesy 30+ years, but the old school production style would make a show like this impossible to do today and thus pretty darn impressive on a weekly TV show's budget.  The most iconic "T.J. Hooker" intro came from seasons 1 and 2, but I think I might have narrowly preferred the intro from seasons 4 and 5 as the visuals were that much cooler.  With that in mind, I'm attaching a link to both!!!
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f637wq8EPj0
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8eOBafO5Sh0

#13. "St. Elsewhere" (1982-88)...Two of the most acclaimed shows of the 80s were "Hill Street Blues" and "St. Elsewhere", and while I already gave an honorable mention to the more subdued "Hill Street" theme, the medical drama "St. Elsewhere" had a more layered theme song that impressed me more.  I must confess to not watching a lot of this series in its day as the medical drama has never been my genre of choice, but what I have seen is compelling, and the star power exhibited in the cast from the linked theme song helps explain why.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GLRfhRuGNW0

#12. "The Young Riders" (1989-92)....The economics of television changed considerably in the late 80s and the action shows that dominated the airwaves just a few years earlier had been priced out of existence or sent off to exotic location shooting outside of Los Angeles.  This presented a few opportunities to TV producers, however, and the brief attempt to revive the Western genre with location work in the American West gave rise to TV's visually impressive attempt to replicate the popular feature film "The Young Guns" with a TV Western about the Pony Express.  I can't say the show ever really blew my mind content-wise during its three-season run, but it had a strong cast and a fantastic theme song with a successful combination of Western twang and late 80s tempo.  The other TV western of the era was Lee Horsley's "Guns of Paradise" (1988-91) and it also had a great albeit more traditional theme song, but "The Young Riders" nonetheless ran circles around it with one of the last truly great theme songs for an hourlong network series.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ca4oH6Gvie8

#11. "Spenser: For Hire" (1985-88)....There were three seasons of the Robert Urich detective show and three variations of the theme song.  Far and away my favorite was the first season with its smooth saxophone interspersed with a nicely woven strings arrangement, and I may or may not have found myself humming it incessantly while at work in the past week.  They slowed down the tempo for the season 2 version and I liked it a whole lot less, but then returned to a version closer to first season in the series' third and final season.  Unfortunately, the visuals don't quite live up to the sound for me in this intro.  There are some iconic shots of Boston but the film quality seems drearier than that of other TV show intros from the mid-80s.  Even in subsequent seasons, the visuals didn't dramatically improve in the intro.  Still, the song carries the intro, especially in season 1.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=coAQ1jjUa9k


#10. "The Equalizer" (1985-89)....I've always had a fascination with the mean and gritty streets of New York City captured in 1970s and 1980s pop culture.  An entire genre of dystopian films set in New York flourished in the 70s, but the small screen perfectly captured the paranoia of navigating those tough Manhattan streets in a little over 60 seconds with the intense intro from "The Equalizer".  Stewart Copeland of The Police composed the dark musical notes set to a series of paranoid images of lurking dangers, fading to the savior in the shadows at the end.  On occasion, "The Equalizer" was every bit as dark as its intro song would indicate, but it was one of the most hit or miss shows I've come across.  Exceptional episodes would be followed up by complete dog turds and that pattern continued throughout the show's four uneven seasons.  When the show was on, however, there were few shows that could rival it, and the theme song always set the mood greatly for the worthy episodes.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g87nDBIyqeU

#9. "Quantum Leap" (1989-93)....The time travel drama "Quantum Leap" was among the last generation of series to place value in a quality, extended theme song and did so to great effect with a song with soaring highs and mellow lows.  The content of this series really lent itself to a variety of images, and the series editors brilliantly packaged the visuals to fit the rising and falling of the melody, with action-oriented images in the song's high points and rolling clouds, amongst other softer images, to fit the low points.  The song served as an additional draw to a curious viewer in addition to the series' clever premise.  "Quantum Leap" did a faster-tempo version of its song for season 5 and I never did care for it, so I'll stick with the music that defined the franchise for the majority of its run.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yE_L2NSuSNs

#8. "Soldier of Fortune, Inc." (1997-99)...First-run syndication was the low-rated refuge of most action series in the 1990s.  Some of the shows weren't bad, and the militaristic "Soldier of Fortune, Inc." fit that definition, a serviceable but ultimately soulless adventure series that ran for two seasons, the second of which featured (I kid you not) Dennis Rodman (!!) in a limited role.  And while "SOF" didn't really have the heart or charm of most the 80s action shows it was imitating, it did capture one key element of those shows in having a theme song that pitch-perfect for an adventure show.  I'm gonna go so far as it to say it was the last series to have a truly iconic theme song, at least that I'm aware of, and it's a damn shame that so few people ever got to hear it because of the series' low profile.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IUA1lVXEw2o

#7. "Mission: Impossible" (1988-90)....Here's another show where I struggled with placement, but for different reasons than "Hawaii Five-O".  The late 80s remake of the "Mission: Impossible" from 20 years earlier featured an extended theme song that I liked just as much as the original song, but it still feels a bit like I'm shoehorning a song from before my time into the list.  That's not the end of the world I guess so I'll include the iconic song in the top-10 where it belongs with its well-captured "spy caper" melody set to a thumpier beat on this Australian-produced extension of the original series that kept Peter Graves, with some stylish visuals to match the music.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KKlf-Ei_br4

#6. "Unsolved Mysteries" (1988-99)....."Unsolved Mysteries" was reality-crime rubbish with no business crowding the primetime schedule, but it was very well-made rubbish.  Narrator Robert Stack was the Rod Serling of his time, and with the aid of some slickly edited footage and actor re-enactments, lent an aura of genuine creepiness to the conveying of these real-life crime stories.  The forced "don't watch alone" tagline accompanying contemporary "Dateline mysteries" are amateur hour compared to Robert Stack's contributions to the genre a generation ago, and the haunting tone of "Unsolved" was set in the opening salvo with the skin-crawlingly eerie intro music.  My only grievance with the intro is that it runs about 20 seconds too short.  If the composers had mastered one more layer of ear candy as perfect as the song's peak, this song would be a strong contender for my top spot.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=scVca0XDWkU

#5. "Falcon Crest" (1981-90)....In addition to the crimefighters and action shows that dominated the airwaves in the 80s, the decade was also known for its trashy but fun primetime soap operas, and almost all of the successful ones had excellent theme songs.  If my list was extended to a top-25, "Dynasty" would have been included on my list as well, but CBS's Friday night soap duo of "Dallas" and "Falcon Crest" featured the best intros of the genre.  "Falcon Crest" was essentially the same show as "Dallas", except set in northern California wine country instead of the Texas oil fields, they had very different theme songs introducing viewers to their large casts, with "Falcon Crest" serving a much more orchestral sound.  The colorful Bay Area visuals contributed nicely to a very memorable opening, but the dramatically arranged music would have carried it even with bleak visuals.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GbAJaSjD5KU 

#4. "Dallas" (1978-91)....The most highly rated of the 80s primetime soaps narrowly gets the edge for the best theme song on my list.  The iconic images of the Texas plains and oil farms with the slow-shifting frames really gave the "Dallas" theme a distinctive profile and the song itself was complex and addictive with an outstanding crescendo at the end to fit the image of the Southfork estate.  It was very close to a draw for me between the songs for "Dallas" and "Falcon Crest", but a triple image of the timeless blond hottie Charlene Tilton is as definitive of a tiebreaker as there's ever been in "Dallas's" favor.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZsVZUJVVaIE 

#3. "Miami Vice" (1984-89)....Even in an era where a lot of shows had larger-than-life theme songs, "Miami Vice" took it to a different level with the booming synthesized Jan Hammer composition that's unlike just about anything else I've heard set to flashy and contemporary images of 80s Miami.  After a handful of episodes, an extra layer of instrumentation was added to original song and set the stage for the iconic "Miami Vice" intro.  The series went dark, stylistically and thematically, in season 3 with some great new images added to the theme song that I thought outshined the softer imagery from the first two seasons.  It's hard to find a version of the season 3 theme with good audio though, so I'll include a copy of each, the first being from the early seasons with the cleaner sound, and the second with the darker imagery that worked even better for me visually.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dEjXPY9jOx8
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-HvVrcjgbeI

#2. "MacGyver" (1985-92)....I'm sure it's no surprise to anybody that my favorite TV series of all-time also rates right up there for its theme song.  The first-rate composition from composer extraordinaire Randy Edelman hits one quality note after another and captures the science nerd aspect of the series as well as the high adventure flourish in a sweeping 92-second roller coaster ride, but just as vital to making the "MacGyver" theme work is the imagery.  The opening moments convey the tinkering, jerry-rigged nature of the hero's trademark handiwork while the rest of the song captures images of Richard Dean Anderson in high-adventure mode, the actor's stuntwork enabling more convincing close-up images of his heroics than just about any other adventure series could do.  The season 1 variation of the theme song will always be my favorite.  The later season version of the song wasn't my favorite version, but both need to be seen for the variety of high-adventure images to match with the music.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4hAgFxKIm7Y
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6AEOWTN7rIE

#1. "L.A. Law" (1986-94).....For years I grumbled about quintessentially 80s legal drama "L.A. Law" outshining "MacGyver" when it came to industry and media recognition, stealing all the awards even in technical categories where it wasn't in "MacGyver's" league.  So it's with no small irony that I'm now elevating "L.A. Law" to the top of the theme song pyramid ahead of "MacGyver".  I have no background in musical composition but can recognize a comprehensive masterpiece when I hear it, and the broad spectrum of instruments fused together to perfect effect to construct the "L.A. Law" theme song knows no peers as far as I'm concerned.  The imagery backing up the song is flashy and colorful, but the sets of law firms can't match the high-adventure visuals on the "MacGyver" theme.  Still, I'm giving credit where credit is due here and acknowledging a peerless musical introduction to a TV show.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DouX9Ubw-Xw

There's the list.  I'm sure no two people's lists would be alike but this is my submission.  Anyone outraged by any omissions from my list is free to add their own preferences in the comments and/or throw tomatoes at me.
 

Sunday, March 11, 2018

The 10 Best TV Theme Songs of My Lifetime....With Lyrics

I've recently been consuming hours and hours worth of retro TV theme songs on a spectacular series of You Tube videos where some glorious bastard recorded the intros to hundreds of shows, including some that had been forgotten by just about everybody for more than 30 years.  I always found my boyhood years in the 80s to early 90s to be the heyday of the TV theme song, although I acknowledge that the 70s, 60s, and even the 50s had some outstanding songs as well.  But at some point in the mid-90s, the addition of more commercial time per hour and a general changing perspective on the utility of a lengthy musical introduction to TV shows led to the truncation of the theme song or the complete contraction of it on most shows.  Some hourlong shows today still have the theme song, but it doesn't serve as the same means of branding a series' identity the way it did a generation ago, and in my opinion, the medium has lost some of its soul because of it.

To be fair, the majority of shows in the 80s and 90s had less than inspired theme songs as well.  In more cases than one would expect, the sophistication of the theme song was a pretty telling indicator of how much inspiration was behind the show overall.  Most mediocre or bad shows had unmemorable theme music while most well-executed shows had high-quality theme music, but there were a number of exceptions in both directions.  NBC's 1990 sitcom "Grand" was an absolutely terrible show, but it had such a good theme song (at least the season 2 iteration of that song) that it was nonetheless a contender for my top-10 list.  On the other hand, the police drama "New York Undercover" was one of the best series of the 1990s, but despite music being part of the series' overall soul more than just anybody other show, its theme song was about as mediocre and low-budget as they come.

I'd heard so many good songs that I decided I just had to commemorate the best of them with a list, but as I started to stack up worthy entries, I decided it wasn't fair to categorize theme songs with lyrics alongside those without lyrics...so I settled upon two different lists!  In addition to the quality of the song,  the imagery accompanying the music should be compelling.  In most cases, they go hand in hand, and if a series has a longer run, it tends to incorporate more footage from the show into the theme music after its first season.  The oddest counterexample I found was the 1990-91 CBS sitcom "The Family Man" which had a mediocre song set to amazingly impressive beach-side production values.

When it came to isolating a top-10, I felt as though I should exclude series that repurposed rock classics as their themes.  "Crime Story" (1986-88) had a glossy intro set in early 1960s Las Vegas set to Del Shannon's "Runaway", but it felt like cheating when your theme song isn't an original composition so I disqualified it.  Ditto for both of the Vietnam War dramas of my era.  "Tour of Duty" (1987-90) had a great opening sequence set to the Rolling Stones' "Paint It Black" while the "China Beach" (1988-91) theme song sung by The Supremes was equally worthy of acclaim both audibly and visually but doesn't meet the guidelines I've imposed.

If I had expanded this list to a top-20, I'd have probably included the likes of catchy jingles for shows like "The Facts of Life"(1979-88) and "Family Matters" (1989-98), but those songs didn't strike me as iconic or defining the franchise and including them would lessen the impact of my top-10.  And I will only give an honorary #11 ranking for the theme song widely heralded as the greatest TV theme song..."Cheers"(1982-93).  It's a poignant but simple song set to low-budget graphics.  Comparing it to the more sophisticated arrangements and better visuals of the songs in my top-10, I simply don't find it worthy.  The fact that everybody else seems to think it's the best of all-time only reinforces that my brain is wired much differently than those of the consensus makers.

With all that pretext out of the way, here's my top-10 list...

#10.  "Growing Pains (1985-92).....My favorite family sitcom of my childhood was the Seaver clan whose run overlapped with my all-time favorite series "MacGyver" down to the same week (premiered the same week, ended the same night).  Country crooner BJ Thomas sung most iterations of the "As Long as We Got Each Other" theme song, singing it solo for season 1.  That first season version was my favorite version of the song, but the weird and Gothic imagery that served as a backdrop was off-putting.  Thankfully, they cleaned up the visuals for season 2 with the images most people remember from the "Growing Pains" theme song, featuring the actor introductions as they aged from childhood.  However, BJ Thomas' vocals were diluted by mixing in background vocals from female crooners such as Jennifer Warnes and Dusty Springfield in season 2 and years thereafter.  And then they really messed things up in season 6 when some unidentified group sang an acapella version I didn't care for.  But I'll accentuate the positive and link the first season version where I liked the song best AND the second season version where the visuals improved.

Season 1.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nq7Z61wdttE
Season 2.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=blpwNN5k79U

#9. "Masquerade" (1983-84).....Crimefighters dominated the airwaves in the mid-80s and there was a bit of an arms race in search of the coolest action show vehicle on TV.  As a lifelong connoisseur of action shows, this was a wonderful era to come of age.  Unfortunately, there were some stinkers among this action show tidal wave, and one of the biggest howlers was Glen Larson's "Masquerade" where everyday Americans were recruited for one-time international spy missions.  The concept was intriguing but the execution was usually as tacky as the average episode of "The Love Boat".  With that said, the series knocked it out of the park with the atmospheric theme song, featuring a litany of glossy Cold War-era spy images set to the unmistakably smooth vocals of country singer Crystal Gayle, a perfect choice to capture a theme song that comes as close as any TV show has to the iconic tunes that open James Bond movies.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UW4FBUGOHDc

#8.  "Moonlighting" (1985-89)...I really should revisit the highly rated action-comedy "Moonlighting" as an adult, but the cutesy silliness was a turnoff to me when I was a boy.  Perhaps the critically acclaimed dialogue that annoyed me or went over my head as a boy would seem more clever today, but I suspect my long-standing grudge against the series wouldn't disappear quite that quickly.  I have nothing but great memories of "Moonlighting's" theme song though, a smooth light-jazz number by the recently deceased Al Jarreau that flowed nicely with the vibe of the glossy visuals in the show's introduction.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YkOsFhenalk

#7.  "Happy Days" (1974-84).....Now that's how it's done!  In its first season way back in the mid-70s, the long-running retro-trip sitcom lifted its theme song from the old 50s song "Rock Around the Clock".  While that was plenty catchy, the series took a gamble by crafting an original song that fit the series perfectly.  The imagery of the spinning turntable with the photos of the cast members in the middle of the records gave the introduction an extra layer of atmosphere to go along with the fitting 50s rock-style groove.  My mom will sometimes remind me how I would take to the floor to dance as a very young boy when the "Happy Days" theme song came on, so I took a shine to this one at a very young age.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6W6y7YhHdVE

#6.  "WKRP in Cincinnati"(1978-82)....It's only fitting that a show about a top-40 station have a great theme song and "WKRP in Cincinnati" certainly nailed it with a smooth 70s soft-rock number composed by Tom Wells accompanied by some great images of the Midwestern city.  I was too young to remember the show (but know a lot of people who really liked it) but some of my earliest TV memories involve humming along to the theme song.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g8exUJ-Cmfc

#5. "Hardcastle and McCormick" (1983-86)....The majority of 80s action shows either had charm or soul to help distinguish them from many of their present-day crime drama counterparts, but only a few managed to combine charm and soul the way "Hardcastle and McCormick" did, featuring immensely likable characters played by great actors that helped sell what began as a fairly ridiculous elemental gimmick.  It didn't hurt that it had a great rock-fueled theme song set to action-packed images from the series, getting the blood pumping for a fun hour of mostly lighthearted action to come.  Interestingly, producer Stephen J. Cannell attempted to replace the original theme song with a light-rock tune sung by staff vocalist Joey Scarbury at the beginning of season 2, but fans were outraged and the series returned to the original theme song halfway through the second season.  By no means did I hate Scarbury's theme song, but it wasn't a great fit for this series the way the "Drive" song was.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zZDRAlrgK-c

#4. "Full House" (1987-95)....A few years ago, I posted a lengthy writeup romanticizing the late 80s and early 90s "TGIF" sitcom lineup on ABC, acknowledging that most of the shows were pretty bad but were nonetheless marketed into ratings gold.  Part of that great marketing included impossibly catchy theme songs with slickly produced imagery in the series intros.  They knew what they were doing, soliciting singer-songwriter Jesse Frederick for several of TGIF's biggest hit shows, most of which he nailed to some degree.  One of the most popular series of TGIF was "Full House", a show I never cared for personally, but made sure I never missed the earworm title sequence with its iconic shots of San Francisco even if I could have walked away from the sapfest that ensued over the 27 minutes of the series that followed.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aVWvLqgHkE4

#3. "Perfect Strangers" (1986-93)....What songwriter Jesse Frederick did for San Francisco in "Full House" he and vocalist David Pomerantz did even better for Chicago in "Perfect Strangers", a TGIF sitcom that was a bit of a throwback to the classic comedy acts of decades past that was always a bit polarizing but orders of magnitude better done than "Full House".  But even if the series content was a bit silly for your tastes, it's impossible not to like the theme song with its strong melodic hook and the visual backdrop of two "fish out of water" moving to the exciting big city.  The original theme song leaned heavier on the imagery of moving from the small town to the big city but I preferred the vocal performance of the song used in the series' later seasons.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aPyc7dH28KE

#2. "The Fall Guy" (1981-86)....Before "MacGyver" came along, my favorite TV series was "The Fall Guy", a fun action-adventure series about a professional stuntman who moonlights in the bounty hunter business and brings some of the tools of the stunt business to his second job.  It wasn't until I was 30 years old and got the DVD set that I had heard the story how musician David Somerville and producer Glen Larson went to ABC to pitch a series based entirely on the stuntman song Somerville had written.  The ABC programming executive thought the song was clever and lent itself to an interesting series premise and asked Larson to "write me a pilot".  It was a crazy opening salvo leading to what would become a very ambitious series, and although the countrified tune sung by series star Lee Majors is dorky as hell it's clever enough to bring a smile to your face every time despite the dated pop culture references.  Furthermore, the montage of aggressive stunts and other action sequences accompanying the vocals made for one of the most visually stunning TV show intros the medium has ever seen.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dj9ev40C30M

#1. "The Greatest American Hero" (1981-83).....It's not every TV theme song that finds its way to the top of the pop charts months later but that's what happened in the summer of 1981 following the abbreviated first season of Stephen J. Cannell's new superhero series "The Greatest American Hero".  The imaginative and catchy title song was sung by Joey Scarbury, a staff musician for Stephen J. Cannell Productions who Cannell attempted to turn into a star by infusing dozens more Scarbury songs into Cannell's other shows throughout the 80s, but he will go down in history as a one-hit wonder with "Believe it or Not", still featured in TV ads 37 years after its original release.  The show itself was not great and not at all in keeping with the more mature vision Cannell had for the series.  ABC had a reputation for massively micromanaging its shows in the 80s and insisted on the cornball, childish product the series would eventually become.  Still, it lasted three seasons and ABC at least had the sense to make the classic theme song the series' front-and-center feature.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eYUXnVxCoS4

In the near future, I'll be back with a list of my favorite TV theme songs from my lifetime without lyrics.  I'm anticipating that will be a top-20 list because there are so many great songs to pick from.