Thirty years ago this month (on September 16, 1984, to be precise), a television series premiered that quickly became one of the major cultural icons of its decade, as readily identifiable with the 1980s as Ronald Reagan and MTV. But with the perspective of three decades of dramatic television, it's now clear that the influence of the program in question, Miami Vice, was far more profound and lasting than merely encouraging the sale of unstructured linen jackets and the growth of three-day beard stubble.
For most of television history, the lines between good and bad, right and wrong, and cops and robbers were mostly clear-cut. Miami Vice changed all that. As frontline soldiers in the so-called "War on Drugs," James "Sonny" Crockett (Don Johnson) and partner Ricardo "Rico" Tubbs (Philip Michael Thomas) were certainly dedicated cops in the best TV tradition, but they had few illusions about the ultimate nature of their jobs.
"The stuff just keeps rolling in. We're just a tollbooth on the highway," Sonny laments to Rico at one point. It doesn't matter how many dealers they bust, kilos of cocaine they intercept, or supply lines they close down — there are always more. Even the powerful contacts of their boss, the enigmatic Lt. Martin Castillo (Edward James Olmos in an Emmy-winning portrayal), gathered in his previous life as a shadowy operative for the Drug Enforcement Administration in Southeast Asia, can't negate the Sisyphean weight of the $400-million-a-year international drug trade stacked against the efforts of two weary $400-a-week Miami vice cops.
In one pivotal scene from the two-hour second-season opener, Crockett and Tubbs, closing in on a cabal of drug-dealing Colombian brothers, find their path blocked by an unexpected obstacle: a slick, impeccably suited bank president. When they confront him in his plush Manhattan office, the banker explains with silky menace: "Not too long ago, our bank loaned a lot of money to our friends in Latin America . . . hundreds of millions of dollars. Now, they aren't going to repay that by selling straw bags and clay pots. . . . That's why it's very, very important that we nurture and protect our Latin brothers' major cash crops." "Especially those that he measures in kilos," Tubbs wryly responds. Crockett demands to know "why a Wall Street address is running interference for a couple of bloodthirsty Colombian peasants." "All you need to know is that you're just along for the ride," says the banker. A tollbooth on the highway, in other words.
Stymied, Crockett can't resist a few parting words: "I can't touch you. I know that. Too many roadblocks, politics, favors. But you're dirty, Ace. And I'm patient." Cynical and realistic, he still believes in his cause, still thinks that whatever the odds, he can make some kind of difference.
Enough is enough
But by the end of the five-season run of the series, both Crockett and Tubbs think otherwise. Thoroughly disillusioned, disgusted, and discouraged, they toss their badges into the dust at Castillo's feet and leave Miami, Tubbs for his native New York, Crockett for "parts south," knowing that the drugs will continue to roll in, the dealers and politicians and businessmen will continue to get rich, and the victims will continue to die.
More than just the visual style or the cool soundtrack, it's that sense of alienation, of existential heroism in the face of utter futility, that hit home back in 1984. In a way that few if any TV shows had ever done before, Miami Vice depicted a chaotic universe in which the only moral absolutes were those created and maintained by its inhabitants. Nothing new these days, after The Sopranos and The Wire and Breaking Bad, but a radically new and dangerous concept for television back in 1984. Michael Mann, Anthony Yerkovich, and the other creative minds behind Vice laid the groundwork for the David Chases and Vince Gilligans who followed.
Miami Vice took the TV policier in an entirely new direction, blending the clean, well-lighted places of 1980s Miami with the dark sensibilities of 1940s film noir, exposing a bleak undercurrent of corruption and violence. Even during Vice's network run, many critics were dazzled by its seductive veneer of conspicuous-consumption excess, the Ferraris and Versace clothes and Arquitectonica houses, and couldn’t see past it, thinking that the glitz and glamour was all there was. They were wrong.
In fairness, it was an easy mistake to make. It was hard not to be distracted by the look of Vice, because visually and stylistically, nothing quite like it had ever been seen before on network TV. Executive producer Michael Mann approached television from a cinematic perspective, not just in the obvious aspects of production design such as wardrobe, sets, and props, but at the deepest level of the cinematography, the lighting of scenes, framing of shots, and editing of sequences.
Stop! Look! Listen!
And of course, the music. The legendary "MTV cops" note from NBC network executive Brandon Tartikoff was partly a joke, partly a convenient shorthand, but there's no denying the importance of music to Miami Vice. Mann used music not to dictate but rather to both complement and counterpoint the narrative, in ways that sometimes suggested new interpretive depths in seemingly familiar songs.
Also often disregarded is Vice's original music, composed and performed by noted jazz musician Jan Hammer. Consistent with Mann's insistence on a feature-filmic approach, every week Hammer composed an original soundtrack for each episode from scratch — something unheard of in an age when TV shows were generally scored from a stock music library.
In another filmic technique previously anathema to television, Vice often featured lengthy sequences built solely on visuals and music, without any dialogue at all. A frequent criticism of television drama used to be that it was nothing more than "radio with pictures": You could follow the story perfectly well without ever looking at the screen. Thanks to Miami Vice, that's no longer true with most of TV's best shows today — perhaps one of Vice's most significant and yet overlooked innovations.
Especially if you're a fan of Breaking Bad, The Wire, True Detective, or pretty much any other prominent contemporary crime shows, you'll find it both enlightening and entertaining to revisit — or discover — Miami Vice.
(Here’s an informative look at the legion of now-famous actors who first appeared on Miami Vice back in their salad days.)
Photo above right: Frank Carroll - © MPTV - Image courtesy mptvimages.com