The “MTV cops” of Miami Vice gave television a facelift, then succumbed to the ravages of age

The “MTV cops” of Miami Vice gave television a facelift, then succumbed to the ravages of age

For most of the history of television, the barrier to syndication—and to profitability—has been 100 episodes. The shows that have made it to that mark are an unusual group. Many were big hits. Some found small cult audiences. Still others just hung on as best they could and never posted numbers quite low enough to be canceled. In 100 Episodes, we examine the shows that made it to that number, considering both how they advanced and reflected the medium and what contributed to their popularity. This entry covers Miami Vice, which ran for five seasons and 111 episodes between 1984 and 1990.

In the 1980s, most of the creative energy in TV drama could be found in a remarkable string of ambitious crime series—Hill Street Blues, Miami Vice, Crime Story, Wiseguy—that used a commercially safe genre as a means to experiment with and extend the boundaries of serial narrative on network TV. Miami Vice wasn’t the best of these shows, but it was definitely the flashiest, and that was the key to the show’s place in pop culture history: Flashiness wasn’t just a rare quality in network TV in 1984, it was practically unknown. There’s probably no way to appreciate how special the show seemed when it first aired unless you were there at the time, and had been watching TV long enough to accept that even the smartest, best-written shows were going to look like mud. “If the series didn’t reinvent TV,” critic Elvis Mitchell wrote, “then it at least gave the medium total reconstructive facial surgery.”

People didn’t turn on the TV hoping for visual beauty and style; they assumed that such things were simply impossible to achieve in something made for television. Certainly they didn’t expect to see filmmaking with any snap or flair to it. Even Hill Street Blues, with its crowded frames and early-morning-hangover look—inspired by Alan and Susan Raymond’s video-verité documentary The Police Tapes—that had been so shocking to network executives four years earlier still communicated narrative information and achieved most of its effects by having a bunch of actors stand around and talk at each other. When commercials for the new show first aired in the summer of 1984, unspooling a reel of eerie, kinetic imagery set to Phil Collins warbling “In The Air Tonight,” jaded viewers spilled their diet sodas all over their “Frankie Say” T-shirts in surprise and turned to stare at one other: What the hell was that?

As entertainment journalists rushed to explain after the series had hit it big, it was “MTV Cops.” That was the totemic phrase that NBC programming chief Brandon Tartikoff was rumored to have scribbled down on a note he then passed to Anthony Yerkovich, a writer-producer at Hill Street Blues who was credited as creator of the new show. It’s easy to see why both the media and NBC brass liked that story: It provided a simple, punchy explanation for the show’s style and success. It tied Miami Vice to something that was then considered hip and hot. It offered a reassuring (and very ’80s) picture of all true creativity flowing from the brain of a powerful CEO figure, issuing memos and telling his lackeys what to do.

But it’s probably bullshit. It’s true that Miami Vice featured good-looking actors striking poses and trading gunfire in crisply edited, strikingly photographed sequences, which were often scored to contemporary pop songs to propulsive effect. This did give the show a superficial resemblance to MTV. But to those who knew the personalities involved and their previous work, it mainly looked like the result of a collaboration between Yerkovich and Michael Mann, who was hired to serve as Yerkovich’s co-executive producer. Tartikoff’s greatest contribution—and it was a big one—was agreeing to pay for the thing. The decision to produce the show on location in Miami guaranteed that it would be the most expensive series on the air, even before anyone started haggling over music rights.

Yerkovich researched Miami while still working on Hill Street Blues, and he became interested in the dramatic possibilities of a city with a vibrant melting-pot culture whose economy was heavily fueled by the narcotics trade, one that served as a gateway to the political chaos in Central America. He was not alone in this: Nine months before Miami Vice premiered, the Brian De Palma-Oliver Stone remake of the ’30s gangster classic Scarface opened. That movie happens to feature a music-video sequence that telescopes Tony Montana’s rise to social respectability and power to the tune of a god-awful Paul Engemann song.

Yerkovich had also been reading about the practice of seizing the assets of convicted drug dealers and allowing narcotics agents to use the gangsters’ play toys as window dressing for their cover identities. After two years at Hill Street Blues, on which the civilian wardrobes of the underpaid, overworked detectives weren’t much of a step up from their undercover finery, Yerkovich was ready for a little glamour. Miami Vice’s detectives—local boy and Vietnam vet Sonny Crockett (Don Johnson) and New York transplant Ricardo Tubbs (Philip Michael Thomas)—would dress sharp, drive fast cars, and live high. (All in the name of selflessly bringing down the bad guys, of course.) Thus decked out, they would be the viewers’ tour guides through what Mitchell called a “throbbing mutation of the American dream.” Crockett even lived on a $120,000 sailboat, which—in the kind of cute detail that a writer may throw into a pitch and regret for the rest of his working life—he shared with a pet alligator named Elvis. The show was never that specific about where Tubbs lived. Given the party-hearty vibe that Thomas brought to the role, it is not inconceivable that, over the course of five years in Miami, he just never went home.

While Yerkovich laid down the show’s underpinnings, writing the feature-length pilot episode, Mann set about enveloping it in style. As a writer-director, Mann had already developed that style for his 1981 debut: Thief, in which James Caan’s career criminal drilled through safes and manfully shouldered his angst. (“I gotta hold onto my angst,” Al Pacino tells Diane Venora in Mann’s 1995 Heat. It is undeniably the most Michael Mann line ever delivered, and the way Pacino proudly mispronounces the word somehow makes it all the more so.) Mann had already demonstrated the elasticity of that film’s high-contrast, dry-ice look by repeating it in his second movie, the indecipherable 1983 horror movie The Keep, in which Nazis are confronted with Pure Evil in a wintry Romanian castle. For a lot of filmmakers, Nazis would be pure evil enough, but no one has ever accused Michael Mann of knowing when to scale back.

Even though Mann himself was never credited with directing an episode of Miami Vice, the show looks a lot like those movies, allowing for a change in climate and a shift away from shadowy darkness to pastels in bright sunshine. It also sounds a lot like them, Mann having brought the Czech keyboardist Jan Hammer on board to compose and perform a more intimate version of the kind of techno-noodling that the German group Tangerine Dream did for his movie soundtracks. The true mark of the style’s elasticity, and Mann’s ability to mind-meld with his collaborators, is that so many directors—among them Abel Ferrara, Bobby Roth, Rob Cohen, Stan Lathan, Georg Stanford Brown, and Thomas Carter, the last of whom shot the pilot—were able to duplicate it successfully. There were also first-season episodes directed by Paul Michael Glaser and David Soul, the former stars of Starsky And Hutch. It was a useful reminder that, in their earlier lives, both Mann and Yerkovich had written for this most pyrotechnically cheesy of buddy-buddy cop operas. For all their sophistication and talent, they both had a fair amount of old-school liquid gold coursing through their veins.

Miami Vice’s hoary side was present from the outset. It was there in an early scene from the pilot in which Jimmy Smits, as Crockett’s police partner, is presented as so sympathetically likable that it’s a safe bet he’s not long for this show. (If he wasn’t going to be killed early on, they’d have made him the lead.) It’s in the way that Crockett and the rogue New York cop Tubbs start out with an adversarial relationship, then bond over their shared sense of mourning and need for revenge: Tubbs’ brother was killed by the drug lord Calderone, the same slimeball responsible for the death of Crockett’s partner. These well-worn touches, which must have seemed reassuring to hardened TV viewers, don’t grate they way they would in a show that was less visual and visceral and heavier on the exposition. But the stinginess with character information helps take the curse off them. So do those moments when the terse writing tells viewers more, in less time, than could be provided from a dozen fat speeches. Early in the pilot, in the scene that (barely) introduces the second-string detectives Switek (Michael Talbott) and Zito (John Diehl), Crockett angrily refers to them as “Bluto and Lee Harvey Oswald.” That’s all the definition their characters need. Any acting the two do after that is gravy.

It’s arguable whether the cast stinted on the gravy. Johnson and Thomas hold the center of the show, dominating attention in the effortless way that stars are meant to, and they wear the hell out of their clothes. As for their acting: Has it been mentioned that they wear the hell out of their clothes? The officially designated star actor on the set was Edward James Olmos, who was also the show’s designated representative at the Emmys and the Golden Globes; he was nominated for each twice, and won one apiece. Olmos was hired to play the taciturn, upstanding boss, Lt. Castillo, after Gregory Sierra, the boss for the first five episodes, was killed off. Sierra’s decision to leave the show was a favor to the world on a par with George Raft’s decision to refuse the roles that ultimately went to Humphrey Bogart in High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon. Olmos’ performance was minimalism at its best; a slight widening of his eyes made it clear that Castillo had suddenly gone beyond his usual state of moody, stoic despair and was valiantly trying to hold himself back from killing someone with hate rays.

The show was not an immediate hit with viewers. (The big success of the fall 1984 TV season, both at NBC and on TV in general, was The Cosby Show.) But Tartikoff had made his reputation partly by sticking with low-rated “quality” shows such as Hill Street Blues and Cheers until they found an audience, and he stuck to that strategy with Miami Vice. By the time the show went into summer reruns, it had begun to pay off big. The show inspired fashion crazes, especially for Johnson’s beach-bum-with-money look.

MTV, feeling flattered, and rock magazines like Rolling Stone also took up the show in a big way. One episode, “Smuggler’s Blues,” took its title and a few lines of dialogue from a song on a Glenn Frey album that got a big boost on the charts from the show’s apparent endorsement. Frey himself made his acting-sort-of debut in the episode, then put out a video for the song that was modeled on Miami Vice. He also ground out a notably horrible new song, “You Belong To The City,” for inclusion on both the show’s second-season premiere and what was to become the first of three Miami Vice soundtrack albums. All this synergistic excitement ignited the rock ’n’ roll dreams of Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas, who both released their own debut albums during the show’s run. Johnson’s 1986 Heartbeat went Gold and had Barbra Streisand on it, while Thomas’ Living The Book Of My Life sank without a trace, even though a couple of its songs were featured on the show.

It’s an old pop-culture joke that the worse something gets, the more popular it is, and for a time, this was true of Miami Vice. The show lapsed into self-parody with its second season, inaugurating a period plagued by scripts that were underwritten or ludicrous. The show also pulled back from scouting out exciting new talent and instead turned into a public forum where celebrities from many different fields were given the chance to prove they couldn’t act. The show had become semi-infamous for its broad strokes of stunt casting; in one early episode, “No Exit,” Kid Creole sideman Coati Mundi gets to run around the set, firing a machine gun. But that same episode also featured Bruce Willis in his first real on-screen role (four months before the premiere of Moonlighting) as well as the fine actress Katherine Borowitz as his battered wife. Those warmly invited to stink up the screen in season two included G. Gordon Liddy, who appeared in two episodes as an old war buddy of Crockett’s turned Central American mercenary. Basketball legend Bill Russell was obliged to keep a straight face while being threatened by Michael Richards.

Had the show simply fallen victim to its own hubris? That was part of it, but there was also the problem that there was no longer a steady hand at the tiller. Yerkovich left after the sixth episode, and Mann had stepped away from his duties on the show to direct his third feature film, Manhunter, an adaptation of the Thomas Harris novel Red Dragon. Deeply eerie with great heapings of showy panache, Manhunter is the great Miami Vice episode that Michael Mann never got around to directing—much more so than the Miami Vice movie he finally made in 2006. Mann talked a good game to the press about being aware of the show’s shortcomings and his plans to correct them. But in practical terms, he was done with it all. He had his own baby to worry about: In the fall of 1986, Crime Story was launched. A hugely ambitious show starring Dennis Farina as a Chicago cop in the early 1960s, it was planned to run for five years, but lasted two. Yerkovich, too, came out with a new period crime show: 1987’s Private Eye, which, amusingly, was exactly the kind of style-without-content eye candy that Mann was accused of making with Miami Vice.

The show kept going without them, running on momentum and past glories. A succession of producers, Dick Wolf among them, tried to remake it in a way that would mean something, but none of them knew how, and based on their efforts, it’s debatable whether they ever understood what made Miami Vice special in the first place. One person who did get it was Joel Surnow, who wrote a number of early episodes, including the one that introduced comedian Charlie Barnett as the lovably scuzzy hustler Noogie, and the two-parter in which Calderone is killed. “I thought that the best thing to do with the show,” he mused to Rolling Stone, “would be to kill off Crockett and Tubbs and bring in a whole new team of cops. Make the star of the show Miami Vice.”

It was a good idea, but by the time Surnow shared it, Johnson and Thomas were two of the biggest stars on NBC, and there was no way that anything so audacious would have been considered. The show had become a celebration of the personalities of the stars, which was to say that it had become just another show. At one point, Crockett even got married, to a rock star played by Sheena Easton. Episodes from the later seasons are divided between those that are mediocre and those that, striving for something more, go into the ditch with such a thud that they’re choice examples of ’80s camp. One plausible candidate for the show’s worst-ever episode is “Missing Hours,” a UFO-themed episode featuring James Brown and Chris Rock, whose single most baffling element may be the fact that the script is credited to the great sci-fi writer and poet Thomas M. Disch. Episodes like these are the Reagan-era equivalent of a late-’60s Dragnet with Jack Webb lecturing the kids to stay off LSD.

When Miami Vice finally died, it did so with a whimper. “Freefall,” the two-hour finale, aired in May 1989; it concluded with Crockett and Tubbs telling off some feds, throwing their badges away, then driving off together into the sunset, with a montage of scenes from past episodes set to Terry Kath’s epic power ballad “Tell Me.” A few weeks later, NBC aired three additional new episodes that the cat must have dragged behind the refrigerator. The last-ever first-run Miami Vice episode, “Leap Of Faith,” was actually a failed backdoor pilot for a 21 Jump Street facsimile starring Kiel Martin, Hill Street Blues’ J.D. LaRue. A year later, yet another “lost” episode made its debut on the USA network, which was showing the series in reruns.

Miami Vice accomplished a great deal, and it set out to accomplish a great deal more. It wanted to be a romantic fantasy, and it also wanted to say something about macho craziness, the corruption and betrayal of the American dream, political violence, the horror of what good people may find themselves doing in the name of justice, and the power of memory to torture the soul. In all this, it had its good days and its not-so-good days. It set out to reinvent the face of its medium; in this, it was a resounding, if shallow, success. If you want a taste of the show at its most perfect, look at the scene from the pilot that put Phil Collins back on the charts, where Crockett and Tubbs— looking tough and determined but also a little scared—drive to their fates, while Collins howls about how he can feel it coming in the air tonight, oh lord.

It’s possible to watch and re-watch this scene until you have it well memorized, and still not be able to remember clearly what happens after it. (Here’s a hint: It involves guys shooting at each other.) It’s not like the final walk in The Wild Bunch, which leads to an unforgettable climax; it’s a tease. But that’s okay, because the power of Miami Vice was in its power to tease. It could be just seductive and tantalizing enough to draw you in and make you share its dreams, including its purest and most hopeless dream: of being the greatest TV in the history of the world. And it’s okay that this scene no longer looks as revolutionary as it did in 1984. That just means that the revolution has been won.

Next time: Brandon Nowalk rarely draws the classic Western Have Gun — Will Travel unless he means to use it. (In this column, he obviously does.)

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