The Story on Miami Vice

Miami Vice LogoI could take up the whole of this eulogy of one of television’s – indeed popular culture’s – seminal offerings making all the customary points you’ll find in the many online commentaries on Miami Vice. And there are many, because the series, always elevated by enthusiasts for the evolution of TV and film, has lately been enjoying a striking second life. This may partly be due to the nostalgia of us viewers who were blown away by it the first time round, and partly to the ongoing trend for Eighties stylings in contemporary culture; beyond Eighties-referencing skits and pop promos its footprint is all over the GTA games franchise, one of which is pretty much a straightforward homage (voiced by Vice co-lead Philip Michael Thomas). But the influence of Miami Vice is furthermore detectable in the most lauded TV series of recent times; in the underworld setting, moral ambivalence and playful postmodernism of The Sopranos, in the rigorous aesthetic, glamorous hedonism and fashion-dictating wardrobes of Mad Men, in the invigorating narcotics-peddling outlaw premise of Breaking Bad, and in the narrative use of (Eighties) pop music tracks in Deutschland 83.

Instead, before getting to my main thrust, I will briefly dispatch the customary facts for the benefit of those who remain unacquainted with the show. The overarching, enduring significance of Miami Vice is that it marked a distinct departure for television, which rather counter-intuitively had not hitherto been approached as a visual medium per se, rather as one though which to tell catchy stories in between selling household products, or to relay the news and sports. Informed by the singular cinematic sensibility of executive producer and nascent Hollywood auteur Michael Mann, Miami Vice basically looked unlike anything before it (or arguably, despite a slew of imitators, since). It also sounded like nothing else before it, because some bright spark (NBC executive Brandon Tartikoff) had had the genius idea of a cop show which drew on the recent explosion of MTV. Miami Vice incorporated tracks by some of the most significant artists of the decade (Peter Gabriel, Kate Bush, U2, Madonna), emerging British alternative acts (The Smiths, Depeche Mode, The Jesus & Mary Chain, The Waterboys), cutting-edge club and Urban sounds (Yello, the early Underworld, Afrika Bambaataa, Public Enemy) and vintage legends (The Who, The Doors, Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon), using them to underpin the narrative, sometimes to foreshadow it or to convey it singlehandedly. If you are lucky enough not to have savoured the series yet, all I can say is that it offers, in three scenes featuring Phil Collins’ ‘In the Air Tonight’, Dire Straits’ ‘Brothers in Arms’ and Godley & Creme’s ‘Cry’, the most breathtaking marriages of sound and vision, story and song, you are ever likely to encounter. And all the more remarkable when you remind yourself that the latter two tracks, familiar classics now, were fresh releases at the time, brilliantly seized on for their uncanny fit with the onscreen revelations they accompany. In fact I actually came to Miami Vice through its associated music releases, the first of which was, pre-Glee, the biggest selling TV soundtrack ever. As a precocious pre-teen muso in thrall to synth-based music I was drawn to Jan Hammer’s evocative electronic cues by way of the main theme (a US Number 1 single) and the timeless melody of ‘Crockett’s Theme’, a huge hit throughout Europe in 1987 and since endlessly remixed and reworked.

Unfortunately as a young British kid I had to watch the show, which to their credit the parochial BBC had picked up even before it became red hot in the US, on my tiny black & white TV with mono sound – which is a bit like listening to Dark Side of the Moon on those cheap airline earphones, or looking at Megan Fox as drawn in crayon by a three-year old. After all, we are talking about a show with such a distinct, uncompromising visual aesthetic that entire areas of the colour spectrum were banned (specifically, earth tones) and locations in Miami repainted where necessary. Also central to this unprecedentedly stylized show were, of course, the clothes – Miami Vice famously brought the freshest, most modish European fashions to the US, and in doing so came to define the look of the mid-Eighties. Incidentally, one of the gripes that uninformed critics and shoddy academics have with Vice is the spectacle of cops – public servants – decked out in Versace and Hugo Boss threads, brandishing Rolexes and driving Ferraris and vintage Caddies while posing as drug dealers. For the record, not only is this explained several times during the series, but the explanation was the inspiration for the show’s premise; a contemporary news article about how the confiscated possessions of organised criminals were being put to use in other assignments.

Also crucial to Vice is the effervescent chemistry between the hitherto obscure Don Johnson (Detective James “Sonny” Crockett) and Philip Michael Thomas (Detective Ricardo Tubbs). Their camaraderie and patter appears easy, effortless, a no-brainer, but one need only look to the woeful lack of any such spark between Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx in the disappointing film version to see what a fortuitous and sublime pairing it was. Add to all this the fact that almost everyone who was or was set to be anyone, in acting and music especially, had a role or cameo in Miami Vice (to pick just a dozen; Bruce Willis, Julia Roberts, Ben Stiller, Laurence Fishburne, Chris Rock, Benicio del Toro, Stanley Tucci, Little Richard, Miles Davis, Phil Collins, Leonard Cohen, Frank Zappa), and we’ve more or less covered what most semi-acquainted pundits will tell you about the show. Indeed Miami Vice is on these merits arguably the most innovative and influential TV series ever; three decades later it remains an aural and visual assault on the senses, and still fresh as a daisy.

But beyond and behind all this, the less familiar story on Miami Vice is that its stories are pretty good too. If the dialogue is occasionally somewhat corny, clichéd or clunkily expositional, the narratives are generally compelling and their underlying themes and issues weighty. In short, there is a good deal of substance beneath its famous sheen. Perhaps Vice’s only real antecedents are both movies, Blade Runner (1982) and Scarface (1983), the latter for its Miami location and graphic depiction of the violent drugs trade which blighted the city, and the former for its beguiling visuals and atmospheric synthesized score, and for the neo-noir aspects of its plot and overall ambience. For as more attentive critics have noted, Miami Vice is itself a neo-noir concoction, not only in its aesthetic, in the mood lighting and art deco designs and the pervading air of seedy glamour, but in the disenchanted nihilism of the majority of its tales. (In line with the noir tradition there is also a fine selection of wily femme fatales, played by, among others, Melanie Griffith, Helena Bonham Carter, and David Bowie’s future wife Iman.) In Miami Vice things generally end badly, and not especially for the criminal fraternity. It lays bare the professional and personal tensions, and the moral conflicts and sometimes outright moral transgressions, that seem to spring inexorably from participation in a covert war against the ever-flourishing narcotics industry, a war which, it is made plain, is anyway ultimately a losing one.

All these key themes are initially aired in the pilot (retrospectively christened ‘Brother’s Keeper’), itself a standalone quasi-cinematic masterpiece. The second episode ‘Heart of Darkness’ is also a defining classic, its title and premise drawn from the Joseph Conrad novel which inspired Apocalypse Now; Crockett and Tubbs track an FBI agent who has been living the criminal life under deep cover, and may have decided he prefers it. The allure of that luxurious yet intoxicating, adrenalin-inducing lifestyle for a modest cop and family man (and indeed, for the viewer) is persuasively depicted. Season One evolves from episodes sometimes reminiscent of earlier, more formulaic police shows, gaining added depth with the introduction of Edward James Olmos as the enigmatic, taciturn Lieutenant Castillo with a past in murky Southeast Asian DEA operations, to achieve by its end something of an altogether higher order, marrying the stunning visuals with powerful, sometimes taboo-busting stories, such as ‘Evan’ (a contender for its greatest episode) which centres on the guilt and recriminations around the suicide mission of a persecuted gay cop.

From muted beginnings in late 1984, Miami Vice’s popularity exploded in the US during the following summer’s reruns, and for at least the next eighteen months it was simply the hottest, coolest pop culture proposition on the planet. (It even graced the cover of Time magazine, an honour usually reserved for politicians, statesmen and, occasionally, Bono.) With all eyes now on it, the Season Two opener had to be a blinder, and it is; ‘The Prodigal Son’ exports our two heroes, and Vice’s visual sensiblity, to New York, where after some dizzying gunfights, romances and camera angles, Crockett and Tubbs ultimately discover that untouchable Wall Street names are behind the slaying of DEA Agents to safeguard the drug-derived repayments on huge loans to Latin America. Now at its commercial peak, with an emphasis on its über hip aural and visual approach (the season still looks stunning now, all aqua blues and luminous purples) and seeking to accommodate the trend-savvy showbiz names queuing round the block for a guest turn, there is an oft-perceived decline in script quality, with some admittedly underdeveloped or underwhelming plots. Yet Season Two also contains some of Vice’s strongest outings, such as the double-threaded ‘Definitely Miami’ featuring perhaps its most glorious femme fatale (and Ted Nugent), and ‘Out Where the Buses Don’t Run’, a seemingly light, quirky episode about an eccentrically unhinged retired cop obsessed with an old case which swerves to a stunning, shocking conclusion. There are also Vice’s first forays into politically-charged stories; in ‘French Twist’ a female French Interpol operative liaising with the Vice team is unmasked as a secret service operative implicated in the illegal sinking of the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior (which had actually happened, the previous year), while in the beautiful, poignant ‘Free Verse’ a visiting South American poet and humanitarian campaigner is the target for both right-wing death squads and leftist martyr-makers. Hardly the fare of a show consisting merely of alpha male clotheshorses, fast cars and music promo editing.

But where it really all came together artistically was in Miami Vice’s third season, commencing in autumn 1986. Michael Mann’s decision to keep things fresh with darker hues replacing the pastel tones of old alienated some fans, and its placement against the titanic Dallas caused a drop in ratings in the US, though its march across the rest of the known world continued. But taking on board criticisms of the previous season, there was a concerted effort to make Vice a ‘writers’ show’, resulting in high-grade – and downbeat – stories, often of a ‘ripped from the headlines’ nature. The darker, grittier tone inspires some suitably intense performances, particularly from the criminally underrated Johnson. In this season Miami Vice attains a degree of engagement with the political issues of the day which I found quite stunning when I came back to it via the DVD releases, having studied global politics in the interim. Some drivel has been written by worthy academics, whose research grant obviously wasn’t spent on buying the series, castigating it as some of kind of reactionary totem of the conservative Reagan era. By this point Miami Vice does indeed have a pronounced political aspect, and not at all in the way the Reaganites would have liked. The most striking example is ‘Stone’s War’, in which a old journalistic associate of Crockett secures footage of American personnel fighting alongside Contra rebels against Nicaragua’s revolutionary Sandinista government, and slaying an American missionary priest – a matter of weeks before the US’ actual clandestine involvement there began to be exposed in the Iran-Contra scandal. In a customarily noirish denouement, once shadowy Federal personnel have erased the videotapes and, despite the principled efforts of Crockett and Tubbs, the troublesome reporter has met his end, an overheard news bulletin gives the official line: Sandinista forces killed the American priest, who Contra “freedom fighters” had valiantly tried to save. Miami Vice has been dismissed as a “bubblegum cop show” (in Miami tourist guides, no less), but at the time this remarkably bold, polemical piece of primetime TV warranted an article in the New York Times.

Meanwhile, as I remember myself, Vice made the British tabloid front pages during the slow-news summer of 1988 when several episodes from this politically-inclined season were banned by the BBC, allegedly on the grounds of unacceptable violence. Yet among these episodes was the season opener ‘When Irish Eyes Are Crying’, starring the young Liam Neeson as a renegade Irish Republican Army operative, and its sympathetic treatment of the Irish nationalist cause and unflattering comparisons between British security ambitions and the policies of apartheid South Africa (in which it happened to reflect international opinion) may have been too much for the British establishment and its deferent BBC to countenance. It is an unnoticed irony of history that, shortly before the British media was compelled to ban the voices of Republican spokesman and replace them with those of actors in the government’s desperate attempts to undermine the IRA, they had already banned an actor voicing IRA sentiments, Miami Vice being the unlikely target. Other hot political topics explored in Season Three include the ongoing stand-off between the US and Cuba in its wider Cold War context (‘Heroes of the Revolution’) and the super-contentious issue of the death penalty, examined in a nuanced manner in ‘Forgive Us Our Debts’, an episode which concludes with another astonishing and unforgettable twist ending.

So, where does a show go once it has achieved something like perfection? The answer is, you experiment, throw some shapes around. Miami Vice is sometimes cited as the first postmodern TV series on account of its experiments with form and explicit referencing of the surrounding culture, and in Season Four its storytelling taking a distinctly postmodern, eclectic turn. The writing staff are, commendably, pushing the envelope, dabbling in various genres, and the stories take in elements of science fiction, comedy, surrealism, and even soap opera in the ratings-grabbing marriage of Crockett to a pop diva played by Sheena Easton. There are still, though, some serious-minded episodes, on the ambiguous rehabilitation of a convicted rapist (‘Hell Hath No Fury’ – with yet another gobsmacking ending), an AIDS hospice (‘God’s Work’), the plight of the Native American populace (‘Indian Wars’), and the sexual peccadilloes and blackmail of a Clintonesque political candidate (‘Vote of Confidence’). Some of the season’s most strident departures arguably don’t work; a lot of them do. Even the bizarre and much-derided episode ‘Missing Hours’, guest-starring a certain Godfather of Soul, James Brown and widely seen as Vice’s ‘shark-jumping’ moment, now looks with its UFO testimonies and shadowy government agents like a dry run for The X-Files, Men in Black and other popular Nineties sci-fi fodder. But perhaps conscious that Miami Vice was in danger of losing its moorings, the writing at the end of Season Four rallies with the commencement of a focused and thrilling long arc story of the kind with which we have since become familiar, which spills over into Miami Vice’s fifth and final season.

Casual observers and cynics may view as merely a far-fetched ratings-chasing plot this arc, in which a head injury sustained from an explosion whilst undercover leaves Crockett with amnesia and, convalescing among his drug dealer marks, under the illusion that he actually is his undercover alias Sonny Burnett. But all discerning viewers and Vice aficionados will know that it’s actually fantastic, and brilliantly rendered. This scenario is anyway merely the extreme manifestation of the identity crises and heady temptations with which the Vice team have wrestled throughout the series. The three episodes as Burnett allow Johnson to show his range, adopting a markedly different demeanour and even gait as he assumes the rule of a coolly ruthless, upwardly mobile gangster. (Unlike, say, the Hoff doubling as Michael’s evil twin in Knight Rider, he doesn’t simply grow a beard, though he does sport a natty ponytail.) And Philip Michael Thomas displays the passion and soul which make him for many the ‘heart of Vice’, weighing his instincts and his duty as his former partner becomes his quarry. Though after an engrossing spree as a consummate career criminal Crockett’s memory starts to return and, through judicial grilling and some philosophical conversations in psychotherapy, he is professionally rehabilitated, he never fully comes back.

And nor does the show. With its huge production costs of around 1 million dollars per episode Miami Vice was no longer viable once its lustre had inevitably begun to fade, if only within the US. But in this swansong season the sense of the end of the line being reached is often productively channelled into some of the series’ grimmest, most downcast (and violent) stories. Crockett’s increasing burnout mirrors Don Johnson’s growing boredom and itch to move on, while Philip Michael Thomas’ continued enthusiasm for the show is echoed in Tubbs’ lingering idealism and ensures that some of the old magic remains. More noir nihilism is the order of the day in the most hard-hitting stories, such as ‘Over the Line’, in which a masonic ring of zealous vigilante cops are revealed to have themselves become morally bankrupt, though their membership reaches the highest echelons, and ‘Victims of Circumstance’, where a deludedly devoted daughter seeks to silence accusations around her father’s Nazi past by murdering concentration camp witnesses, and the team infiltrate one of America’s vile far-right groupings. And the penultimate episode, ‘Too Much Too Late’, is a bleak tale of crack addiction, child rape and matricide which was judged so edgy by the network as to be left unaired during the initial run. The growing sense of futility and disenchantment amid unassailable crime and corruption comes to a head in the rollercoaster series finale ‘Freefall’. Alluding to the US’s contemporary spot of bother with General Noriega of Panama, Crockett and Tubbs are despatched on a high-stakes mission to extricate the right-wing dictator of a Latin American state on the brink of popular revolution in return for his testimony regarding the region’s narcotics trade. But once safely transported, the promised testimony is revealed as a chimera; he is being indulged at the highest level owing to his incriminating knowledge of covert US machinations there. Having remained steadfast amid years of exposure to personal and localised vice, this case of geopolitical immorality proves to be (spoiler alert!) the final straw for the duo, and it’s badges on the ground time. And so Crockett and Tubbs’ and Miami Vice’s resignation in 1989 came, fittingly, at the tail end of the decade it had helped to define.

Except that, of course, Miami Vice has never gone away. In the following decade its memory was perhaps evoked most commonly as easy shorthand for everything Eighties, or in the context of Michael Mann’s flourishing Hollywood career delivering superb films such as Heat and The Insider. But in the longer term Vice’s considerable impact on television, on music, fashion and architecture has been widely acknowledged (as many published guides to these varied media attest). But I am continually struck by the way in which acquaintances my own age or younger, who missed it the first time round but have watched everything which has since drawn or built on its innovations, have enthusiastically embraced Miami Vice thirty years on, not as a museum piece to be respected for its historical importance while wincing at clunky, dated aspects, but as something that still comes over as fresh and unique. Meanwhile there is perhaps a more general sense in which ‘the story’ on Miami Vice holds a continued appeal. We have been living in a period of excellent, highly absorbing but somewhat psychically draining epic TV dramas, which either provoke ongoing agonised suspense when watched weekly or demand several months’ sabbatical to appreciate later in box set form. Miami Vice, as some recent converts have remarked to me, is something of an antidote to that kind of intense investment; you can dip into it non-sequentially for a quick, exhilarating but substantial hit. The episodes zip along in their allotted 45 minutes with a beginning, a middle and a (usually bleak) end – yet they often resonantly convey the same eternal themes of greed, deception, personal and political corruption and emotional trauma which are teased out over many hours of The Sopranos or House of Cards. In the concluding confrontation of one such tightly compressed story, that controversial episode ‘Stone’s War’, the shadowy mastermind of the covert US operation (played by real-life Watergate conspirator G. Gordon Liddy) hubristically tells Crockett, “You can’t stop the inevitable flow of history”. Miami Vice has of course become part of that historical flow, its significance in the story of Western pop culture through its formal and stylistic novelties unassailable. But the relatively untold story on Vice, akin to those hushed-up geopolitical episodes it sometimes touches on, is that its stories too are sufficiently varied, intelligent, potent and descriptive of their era to warrant it an esteemed place in our cultural memory.