There has been a massive Miami Vice shaped hole in my cultural knowledge.
This was not and is not a conscious decision on my part. My father, I recall, watched the show during its run. He wasn’t a devoted follower of the series, but I can distinctly recall snippets of episodes and that iconic opening from my childhood wanderings down the hall to our living room. One in particular, an episode with Sheena Easton, is in my mind’s eye. It’s nothing seared in my memory or anything like that, but the memory of watching that one episode is there. Maybe it’s because I always confused (and still confuse) Sheena Easton with Sheila E, even though they’re nothing alike. Sheila E, as it turns out, is way cooler than Sheena Easton, but she was never on Miami Vice.
But I never revisited the show to see what the big deal was as I have with so many others. It’s not that I dislike cop shows or crime dramas; I’m not particularly drawn to them, mind you, but I enjoy enough of them that Miami Vice doesn’t repel me or anything. The show just never did it for me. As a kid, it was like watching people my dad’s age try to be cool. My dad is cool, but he wasn’t so cool in 1985 to eight year old Ian; the thought of watching guys my dad’s age wearing suit jackets with t-shirts while living on boats in Miami to New Wave soundtracks just didn’t appeal to me much at the time. Grody to the max.
As an adult, the whole thing seemed to be a callback to Boomer excess, a flash in the pan decade when a generation held the reins of power and gutted the whole American Dream in exchange for sex, cocaine, and cars which wouldn’t survive their midlife crises. Which is, of course, reductionist, with a sliver of truth on the edge. Miami Vice was gaudy and ostentatious. Self-indulgent. A perfectly dumb little show with Jan Hammer as its only redeeming quality. And Sheena Easton, who I thought was Sheila E, of course. Pabulum.
Sometime a couple of months ago, I decided I was going to watch Miami Vice in order to give it another shot with middle-aged eyes. I’m glad I did, because I was wrong about it. Dead wrong.
This is where I admit that nothing I’m about to write about Miami Vice is novel or new. I tried to maintain my blindness when it comes to the show, not reading any spoilers or cultural analysis until I was done. Fresh eyes, or as fresh as eyes on a thirty year old show of iconic status can be. Since what I found is more or less what the pros have already written for decades, I could and maybe should leave this as a short piece. It’s been written before, by people better and smarter than me. But I didn’t watch hours of Miami Vice to write a hundred words and a Wikipedia link, by god, so let me jump in
Here’s what I found: Miami Vice is actually a really good show, at least in the first two seasons. It is most assuredly hokey in spots. It’s not masterful storytelling, particularly compared to modern fare such as The Wire or Breaking Bad. The acting can be spotty (though Phillip Michael Thomas is, I think, underrated). What makes it good is just how well-shot it is and how tightly woven the pop culture references are. If it’s easy to overlook because it was one of the first at bringing movie techniques to the small screen, it’s equally remembered because of how new and raw this approach was. Television shows simply did not do what Miami Vice set out to do. When it comes to network television, many shows still don’t do what Miami Vice did.
The plot of the two part series premiere, “Brother’s Keeper”, is the tale of two converging quests for vengeance. Ricardo Tubbs, a New York City cop, is on the trail of a drug lord responsible for killing his brother, also a cop, during a drug bust gone bad. The drug lord, Calderone, moves from NYC down to Miami, where vice cop Sonny Crockett is also after the same guy for a car bombing which took out his partner. Both men are headstrong, don’t particularly like each other, and are each wanting to nab Calderone for himself. They’re forced to work together to make it work.
Pretty standard stuff. What makes the show sing is the framing and mood. I came in expecting a paeon to rampant capitalism; what I received, instead, was a sly indictment of it. Miami Vice’s New York is a dark place, one which wears its class and crime issues on its sleeve. Tubbs is accosted by street toughs while on stakeout early in the episode, only to show off his large gauge shotgun to scare them off in something right out of a late era Charles Bronson flick. To tail his quarry, he has to feign wild drunkenness in a strip club before the inevitable (and surprisingly violent for the time) shootout.
Things aren’t much better in Miami, but Miami looks better. South Florida is all pretty girls, hot cars, and strong drinks. The poor people are hidden, the criminals stylish. This doesn’t make it seem better, however. By contrasting it to the open sewer of New York, Miami seems worse. Here, the show seems to say, is the logical terminus of Reagan era. Here’s where your cars and cocaine get you. The nice veneer of easy money does nothing but shove it out of sight. Gangsters with nice teeth and a budget.
I was frankly taken aback. Again, we’re not talking about some deep examination of the cultural currents of the day, but it was far darker and much slyer than I expected. It had more in common with Scarface than with TJ Hooker. That’s a sliding scale, of course, but not at all negligible.
The kicker, of course, is that the bad guy gets away. Crockett and Tubbs do everything by the book, with Tubbs even being talked down from shooting Calderone (NOT THIS WAY, Crockett commands him, in a scene which every 21st century viewer will roll their eyes at as hopelessly cliché) while he has him at his mercy. Calderone has too much money, too much power, to go to jail. The new partners roll up to the airport just in time to see him smile and fly off to somewhere not the USA. Queue music and credits.
And the music is wonderful. The score, by Jan Hammer, has been praised effusively over the years, with good reason. But the other half of the music equation is the enormous quantity of licensed popular songs. The head of NBC at the time is popularly said to have wanted a cop show which looked like MTV. The way to make that work without just making an hour long music video was to integrate it movie style. This is something taken for granted today, when Breaking Bad makes such spectacular use of music montages, but it was unheard of at the time. On top of that, it was expensive. On Breaking Bad, to continue the comparison, you might get a cheap indie song every couple of episodes. Miami Vice, by contrast, had two or three Top 40 songs per episode at least. Top music stars of the time were clamoring to get on.
The music was put to good use. Nothing was wasted. The great example comes, again, from the premiere. “In the Air Tonight” by Phil Collins (and if we’re honest it’s the only great song Phil Collins ever did) was put over footage of Crockett and Tubbs heading to the final showdown with Calderone. They speed through the streets of Miami, loading their guns, before Crockett asks Tubbs how long they have. Twenty-five minutes is the reply and Crockett stops at a pay phone to call his ex-wife, asking her if what they had was ever real. Collins’ effects laden voice hisses, “I remember”, and his wife replies that of course it was. Then we’re back on the road, two grim men looking for all the world like they know they’re going to die in around a half hour.
It’s a legitimately fabulously put together scene. Watch it, rather than reading my description. It doesn’t disappoint.
Sadly, Miami Vice didn’t maintain its quality. The first two seasons still hold up; the back half of the series begins to fall in love with its own mythology, rather than interpreting the very weird all on its own American mythology of the 80s. The scenes became vehicles for songs, rather than vice versa, the guest stars more shoehorned in. I’m hardly enough of an expert to proclaim the series by mid-season three worthless, but the episodes that I saw were missing the elements which made “Brother’s Keeper” and the rest of seasons one and two so vital.
Still, I’m glad I came around to watching it. I don’t think I can binge on it, but it’s far and away smarter, grittier, and better put together than I had any inkling of. I’m definitely going to do the whole run over time. If I can convince my friends to rock some Crockett suits with me? All the better.