Next year (2014) will mark the 30-year anniversary of the debut of Miami Vice, the cop-drama that, more than any television show of its time, defined an era. The 1980s may not have been the 1980s when Miami Vice came over the airwaves in 1984, but by the end of the show’s run in 1989 there was no doubt that if you wanted to define anything as “eighties,” Miami Vice would be at the top of your list.
Other ’80s shows, like Dallas or Cheers, were more highly rated (Miami Vice only cracked the top ten once), but nothing reminds me more of that decade than Don Johnson and his stubble, his white jackets and pink, sleeveless shirts, and of course his loafers—standard cop footwear I’m sure.
Even though I am a child of the 1980s, I don’t recall watching a full season of Miami Vice, but while tooling around Netflix I saw the entire series was available. Over the course of about a month, I watched the 22 episodes of season one (textbook binge viewing for you pop psychologists).
I’ll dispense with the encomiums about how Miami Vice changed television. There are a thousand articles on that. The question that I think most would ask currently is: does the show hold up? When I taught film and screenwriting, I would often show films from the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s that I admired and thought were valuable learning tools. Frequently, however, the students couldn’t relate and snickers were audible. Would today’s viewers of Breaking Bad, The Wire, or the Law and Order series look at Miami Vice as fresh, original, and realistic, or would the show seem passé and risible? In short, is Miami Vice timeless?
There’s no question some of the episodes seem goofy. There’s rarely a moment of humor in Walter White’s, Southwest-American world of meth, but in Miami Vice, from the detectives themselves to the informants they use, the show oftentimes swerves into intentional silliness. I tended not to prefer these episodes, and I could understand why a contemporary viewer might wonder what the heck all the fuss was about. The darker, more serious episodes and moments seemed to have greater effect, but perhaps that is because the show often employed farce: had it been deadpan and dourness all the time Miami Vice may have been less effective.
This is one thing the movie remake of Miami Vice completely missed, and it’s why that film was such a disappointment. It’s surprising because Michael Mann, the original series showrunner, wrote, directed, and produced the 2006 movie. He, more than anyone, should have known why the series succeeded, but for some reason the movie stripped out all the quirkiness that made the TV program engaging. All the movie shared in common with the TV show was the title and the names of the detectives. The Brady Bunch movie, for instance, worked because it chose to parody the TV show. The Miami Vice movie chose neither an interesting take on the original nor did it inject any humor into the characters or plot that made the TV show endearingly peculiar
Even though the humorous episodes can be grating, sometimes they connect, as when a fast-talking, speed-dropping informant gets married at the end of one episode. The wedding takes place in a strip club, and the bride sheds her clothes as she walks down the aisle. The “minister” of the wedding is covered in tattoos, bald and shirtless. It’s pretty damned funny.
If moments like that occasionally work, they pale next to the darker storylines and mise en scene. One thing Miami Vice seemed to do differently than other shows to that point in television history is employ cinematic tactics and editing. Again, those thousand articles about how the show used music and image innovatively (in MTV fashion) are out there, but I’m not sure if many note the way certain shots and scenes feel more like cinema as opposed to television. This may be where the show truly broke ground, and it was more than filming “on location” that did it—as opposed to studios where most TV shows were recorded.
For example, the use of montage. In one of the early season one episodes, Crockett and Tubbs travel by speedboat to the Bahamas. They are attempting to hunt down the killer of their lieutenant, as well as Tubbs’s brother. The producers could have cut from Miami to the Bahamas with no intervening footage or sequences, but instead they opt for a three minute montage—one that is striking.
The speedboat, at full throttle, bounces off the waves violently. If you look closely, Philip Michael Thomas (the actor who plays Tubbs) appears intensely sea sick. A helicopter shot circles the boat as it races toward a setting sun. The eerie song “Voices” plays throughout, as we cut between the speeding boat and incidents from previous episodes that show the murders committed by the man Crockett and Tubbs are on their way to apprehend. For a moment, we do not feel as if we are watching a TV show, but instead a feature film with all the power and synergy that image, sound, and editing can deliver.
A few episodes later, Crockett and Tubbs travel to Columbia to pose as drug buyers. They meet with a drug kingpin. Near him, squatting in the sand, is a young, shirtless boy with a crucifix dangling from his neck. The boy’s presence is never made clear. Is it meant to suggest religious corruption? Pedophilia? Poverty? Whatever the reason, several scenes later Crockett and Tubbs again meet the drug dealer, this time in a nightclub. The club is dark, smoky, seedy. The same boy is present, again shirtless but this time dancing on a stage (though there is no music). It’s incredibly creepy and quite brilliant and something television shows did not do. Miami Vice broke barriers in this way.
One of its progeny, Breaking Bad, is probably a better written show. It does have the luxury of developing characters and story lines over an entire season. Miami Vice episodes often feel rushed or expository in the way they develop characters and plot, but each episode is only 45 minutes. On occasion there would be a two-episode show, but it’s nothing like The Sopranos or The Killing, whose stories play out over 13 or more episodes. These current shows may feel more realistic and the characterizations more in depth, but they owe a debt to Miami Vice, which made it possible to bring a cinematic style and point of view to television.
Miami Vice might be best known for its opening credit sequence and musical score. It promises everything the show is about. T and A. Exotica. Wealth. Techno-ish music. And motion.
The opening and the show in general made Miami the central character, perhaps moreso than even Crockett and Tubbs. A show like The Wire is brilliant in many respects, but it really could have been set in any urban area where drugs, gang violence, and police co-mingle. Baltimore was not sui generis to the story.
Miami Vice would not have been the same set anywhere else, and the credit sequence establishes that.
The human character that is at the show’s core is Sonny Crockett. He works because he is a tried and true archetype. He’s a film noir anti-hero. Like Hammett’s Spade and Chandler’s Marlowe, Crockett is a dark, jaded, wounded character who is able to traverse both the world of light and the demi-monde. Indeed, he and Tubbs often pose as criminals to ferret out drug and prostitution rings. In later seasons, Crockett gets in so deep he loses his memory and believes he is a trafficker.
That plot line aside, Crockett is a film noir character at its best. He’s traded the trench coat for pastel and instead of the mean streets of a dark, urban landscape he treads the palm-lined and Art Deco bordered streets of Miami Beach. But make no mistake, he is all noir—neo noir (or neon noir) perhaps but no different than Humphrey Bogart’s characters in The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep.
Indeed, the most interesting character besides Crockett is Lieutenant Martin Castillo, portrayed brilliantly by Edward James Olmos. He doesn’t appear until four or five episodes into the first season, when the first lieutenant is killed in the line of duty. I’m not sure if this is because the first lieutenant was deemed to be unappealing or if it was simply part of the original story. Whatever the case, the show ticks up a notch when Castillo arrives.
Like Crockett, Castillo is dark and morose. He’s got a murky past and stares down friend and foe alike. His grimness makes the show come alive.
I don’t have ceaseless praise for Miami Vice. Many of the episodes follow a predictable template. Crockett, Tubbs, and the other detectives pose as buyers or arrest a low level player in the world of vice. The detectives (on their own or via the informants) get deeper inside a criminal enterprise, and Crockett ends up shooting someone. In the first season alone, I think he shot at least one person per episode. That’s a body count of around 20 (and this does not include the other detectives who pick off their fair share of bad guys), which is a little silly no matter what the context.
I must admit that I don’t think I have it in me to watch the other four seasons. That’s another 80-90 episodes, and I don’t know if I could binge that much on cocaine parties, Sheena Easton, and yachts. Nevertheless, I enjoyed greatly the trip back in time. What I found there was not only a remarkable television program, but also a show that defined an era in all its frivolity, decadence, and mirth.