Sensor Scan: Miami Vice

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Among the many, many ways Kei and Yuri shifted this blog's course and changed its mark was forcing me to drastically alter the structure of this essay. I was always planning to cover Miami Vice in some fashion here: It was an important enough show at the time, I watched enough of it and it left enough of an impact on me such that it's a not-insignificant part of my television viewing career and there's considerably more creative overlap between it Star Trek then I think a lot of people realise or understand.

But before I made the decision to cover Dirty Pair episode by episode I had planned to go into a great more detail here, anticipating a rather lengthy critique of the show's basic ethical premises and assumptions. But I don't need to do that anymore, because Dirty Pair already did that for me in the frankly stunning “No Way! 463 People Disappeared?!”/”We Did It! 463 People Found!” two-parter. Not only that, it tossed it out as an afterthought; one small fraction of a much grander and more splendid tale of love, healing, intrigue and hope because Kei and Yuri are better than all of us. So really, there's not a whole lot more I can say about Miami Vice's basic conceit and its depiction of life in the Miami/Dade county vice department that wouldn't be repeating what either I or Dirty Pair said in the context of the “463” episodes.

There's always going to be ethical questions about TV shows whose protagonists are police officers, and rightly so. This kind of genre is always one of the easiest with which to slip unto unabashedly brutal hegemony, especially given what's happened to the United States' police departments in recent decades and given the sorts of atrocities we now regularly see them committing in the news. It can be very challenging, especially for someone subscribing to the political persuasion of the average reader of, oh, let's say this blog, to warm up to a show like Miami Vice, and this is understandable and to be expected. One thing that is worth stressing, however, is that Miami Vice was nothing if not a show that committed to itself and its ethical claims and seemed to internalize every critique leveled against it over the course of its five seasons: The much-parodied colourful pastels of the first two seasons eventually gave way to darker Earth tones in later years, which better reflected the show's basic outlook. The whole thing even ultimately ends by having Crockett and Tubbs resign the force in bitter rage and disgust, feeling that everything they've done since becoming vice cops has made life provably and catastrophically worse for themselves and everyone around them.

Because that's the thing about Miami Vice-People think this show was all about bright colours, tropical scenery, glitzy high-rollers and girls in bikinis and it wasn't. In fact, this couldn't be any further from the truth of the matter: This is a deeply, deeply cynical show whose opinion on the human condition could be charitably called “nihilistic” and uncharitably called “hopeless”. I don't think I've ever seen a work of fiction whose populist perception is any more divorced from its actual content than this.

As much as Crockett and Tubbs are charismatic authoritarians by virtue of being leading men who are police officers in a (well, pesudo-) police procedural, they're also characters who, from the very beginning, are quite keenly and openly aware of the destructive nature of power structures and the role they in particular are playing in them. The pilot episode focuses on how Crockett's job as a vice cop has completely estranged him from his family, who have long since moved beyond him, and how Tubbs' got his brother assassinated in a sting gone bad back in New York. The iconic scene, with the two cops driving off into the night to a Phil Collins single, is all about how they're almost certainly heading to their deaths at the hands of a massive shootout. The first story arc (one thing among many Miami Vice does not get anywhere near the level of recognition for pioneering that it deserves) is a five episode serial about Crockett and Tubbs trying to bring down their arch-nemesis Calderone and never once succeeding in doing anything apart from contributing to massive collateral damage, ending with Lieutenant Rodriguez, someone pegged as a regular main character, getting gunned down in vengeance hit job. Although the show would mix up its subsequent serials with a more episodic approach after this, the overall despondence of the first arc set the tone for the rest of the series.

The first thing new viewers hyped up on expectations of pastels, beautiful scenery and delightful 1980s cheesiness learn about Miami Vice is that anyone can die, the good guys never win, the world is a heartless and unforgiving place, innocent bystanders *will* suffer as a direct result of your actions and nothing you do has any hope of ever making a difference.

Of course, part of the reason Miami Vice has the reputation it does is because of its unique look-and-feel. Nothing on United States television had looked like this before, and it's a tough case to make to say anything after it looked like it either. The two most commonly repeated stories about Miami Vice were that it was the first US TV show to deliberately look “cinematic”, thus paving the way for subsequent TV series to be more like movies, and that it was conceived when NBC head of entertainment Brandon Tartikoff scrawled “MTV Cops” on a napkin and sent that in as a show pitch. The latter is by most accounts simply untrue, although it's worth mentioning simply because of Tartikoff, who will crop up later on in the project as the CEO of Paramount who asked Rick Berman and Micheal Piller to come up with a spin-off of Star Trek: The Next Generation (Tartikoff being far from the only link between Miami Vice and Star Trek). The former is worth parsing out, however, because Miami Vice is in truth hardly cinematic, or if it is it's only cinematic in a very narrow and strange set of ways. 

Miami Vice was certainly responsible for changing how TV incorporates music, as it was one of the first shows to regularly shell out for the licenses to use current charting pop hits, which is something that movies often do and is standard practice on television now, but was unheard of when the show debuted in 1984. But what really set the show apart was its utterly jaw-dropping art design and attention to detail: Producer Michael Mann was tenacious about ensuing the world of Miami Vice evoked very specific moods and themes and was very precise about how things like colours and blocking conveyed different things. I watched a making-of documentary about this show once and I was absolutely awestruck at the amount of effort that went into every single shot of every single episode of this show for five whole years: Mann would obsess over things like the outfits the extras were wearing, how they were walking and where they were stood in relation to the action. The show would even buy up and re-develop entire city blocks *solely* for the purposes of getting a shot to look right. If it appeared onscreen in an episode of Miami Vice, you can be absolutely certain it was there for a reason and was meant to symbolize or make you feel something.

Take Sonny Crockett's infamous wardrobe, for example. The reason he wears T-shits under designer suits, leaves his collar constantly unbuttoned, keeps five o’clock shadow and wears shoes with no socks is because the guy's a broken, disheveled mess of a human being. Just look at his hair. He gets practically no sleep, is always bouncing from operation to operation and has to constantly look the part of a high-rolling drug dealer. He probably comes back home to his boat every night and falls asleep in that getup, then rolls out of bed the next day to do it all over again. And, once the show turned even darker (which was apparently somehow possible against all sense and reason) starting with the third season, his preference for whites, pinks and blues fades away to be replaced with oversized, ill-fitting dirt-brown and grey tweed. You can discern pretty much everything you need to know about Crockett just by looking at the guy, this was absolutely intentional and that it spawned a trendy fashion movement that's become the poster child for the glitzy and gauche '80s can only be explained as a case of the audience catastrophically missing the point.

MTV Cops or no, Mann was well aware this series was being made for an audience that was “...more interested in images, emotions and energy than plot and character and words”. And that's this show's real innovation and why it's so special and important: It marks the first time in US television where it became possible to do a show free to experiment on a higher level of narrative resonance, no longer weighed down by obligations to hackneyed Writing 101 bullet points. And this bears consideration in the context of Star Trek too, as we're entering the period where Star Trek is commonly seen as being mini made-for-TV sci-fi movies. When people like Rick Berman talk about how doing Star Trek in the 1980s and 1990s amounted to taking a feature-length science fiction film from pitch to screen in a week on a television budget and timetable and isn't referring just to ILM's special effects, this is the sort of thing he's talking about.

However, we need to parse out this statement a bit, because it can be a bit misleading. The truth of the matter is, from a critical perspective neither Miami Vice nor Star Trek: The Next Generation were actually cinematic in the traditional sense-Yes, they were both visually spectacular to look at, but they were both shot on video in 4:3 (or composited on video in the case of The Next Generation) with a lot of close-ups and as such they both lack a certain sense of scale Hollywood movies tend to have. These shows are only “cinematic” in the sense that art design, imagery and the way things are shot, framed and composited are now important in a way they weren't before. They're not mini-movies or even trying to ape movies: They're still TV shows, they're just a new and different kind of TV show.

Furthermore, and more importantly, neither Star Trek: The Next Generation nor Miami Vice act slavishly beholden to representationalism, a concept which I personally feel lords over all truly cinematic works these days to the point that it's become irreducible from them. The case for The Next Generation is obvious, set as it is in an overt science fiction-fantasy world, and it also has a staunch theatrical heritage we'll look more at once we start talking about the show proper. But this is equally true of Miami Vice which takes *extreme* liberties with law enforcement protocol and, despite taking its name and inspiration from the Floridian port city, has about as much to do with the real Miami as Starfleet Command does with San Francisco. This was a source of much chagrin for many Floridians, who started to become exasperated at delirious people flocking to Miami giddy with excitement to start living it up like Crockett and Tubbs only to discover a run-down slum of a port city.

This is, it must be stressed, not the show's fault: It never once made any pretenses that it was accurately representing life in southern Florida. Because the series was about images, emotions and ideas above all else and even though it adopts the police procedural trick of doing “ripped from the headlines”-type stories later in its run, the Miami of Miami Vice by necessity has absolutely nothing to do with the real Miami-It's obviously and self-consciously a constructed fantasy world modeled after the real thing in order to tell stories about the culture of greed, excess and heartlessness that had come to define the Long 1980s. Which is the other thing about Miami Vice: Although it's a crime drama following a team of cops and is supposedly on the side of law and order, its unrepentant cynicism (another thing it shares with 1990s Star Trek) effectively cancels out a majority of the ethical concerns such a setup might otherwise raise.

Forget cleaning the mean streets of lawbreakers, simply trying to do their job day to day as police officers causes this squad to become an accessory to the most horrific of situations. As police officers (and remember this show hails from a time where police officers at least had the impression of being honest working-class characters rather then the thuggish, hyper-militarized trigger-happy hate groups they act like today thanks to the Department of Homeland Security), the Vice team is caught in the middle of an impenetrable quagmire of corruption on all sides, and no matter which way they turn or what they do everyone's gonna lose in the end. And the show's underlying message is that it's the attitude of modern society, that is, the Reagan-championed Neoconservative revolution, that's allowed all this to happen.

No, drug dealers were not high-class jet set Nouveau-riche in 1980s Miami-That's another aspect of the fantasy world the show creates to emphasize its themes. But, the point of that character archetype is to demonstrate how the world Miami Vice creates is one where those sorts of people, the affluent, the high-rollers, the powerful, are criminals. One where the Yuppie ideal, and everything tangentially connected to it, is shown to be inherently decadent and depraved. The vice team winds up fighting against the military and federal government as often as they do drug smugglers (that is, when they're not one and the same), usually with even more disastrous consequences. This is a world where toxic individualism, cronyism and greed for power permeates every level of every institution and nobody cares about anything or anybody unless it increases their own lot or furthers their own shortsighted goals. And it's a world where those truths are conveyed within and through itself, with little to no need for any other kind of narrative.

(This even ties into the flashy cars, boats and high fashion Miami Vice casually throws around: Crockett, Tubbs, Trudy and Gina are ordinary people living undercover to infiltrate the 1% and bring justice to obscenely wealthy and powerful wrongdoers. The job of a vice cop is to live convincingly in multiple lives. It is, in fact, a kind of performativity and the show acknowledges this on multiple levels.)

What all this means is that really, Miami Vice is a science fiction show, and I don't just mean in that one weird UFO episode from the fourth season where Trudy boards a spaceship that randomly lands in the everglades and James Brown is an alien. Because it's using its world to tell stories, a world that is, I remind you, consciously disconnected from real life, and is explicitly more invested in ideas and emotions than plot, Miami Vice is far closer to what we'd call speculative and genre fiction then the standard contemporary drama to which is its frequently compared. Which also makes it such a gobsmackingly brilliant grand slam that Dirty Pair should give it a nod during one of its high-water marks: In hindsight, the shows really are in a sense compliments of each other, both being postmodern speculative fiction shows focused on concepts that draw some influence from buddy cop dynamics and detective fiction.

(Indeed, Dirty Pair even arguably anticipated and addressed the notorious “Crockett gets amnesia and becomes his drug dealer alter ego” story arc five years early with the “463” two-parter, and it didn't have to fridge anyone. Miami Vice does, unfortunately, have an occasional tendency to fridge people, usually Crockett's one-off love interests. And once, extremely uncomfortably in the aforementioned case, Sheena Easton.)

In fact, I would have actually liked Dirty Pair to engage a bit more with Miami Vice, because Kei and Yuri posses and understand something that Crockett and Tubbs were never quite allowed to: Utopianism and hope. In spite of its breathtakingly gorgeous cinematography and location, Miami Vice, while always thought-provoking, remains unceasingly dour. You're kind of left feeling like there's no way out of the existential hell the show surrounds you with and that your life and ambitions are futile and meaningless. Dirty Pair provides the counter to that: Through love, compassion and enlightenment we can all strive to better ourselves, help each other in the world in our own small way. I would have really enjoyed seeing a proper Dirty Pair riff on this show, set in a futuristic fantasy Miami stand-in that really took all the imagery and vibes of Miami Vice, kicked it into the stratosphere, brought the cleansing fire, ran giddy through it and gave it all a happy ending and sense of hopefulness. I guess that's the utopian in me.

Because I have to say, in spite of its quirks and foibles, I've always had a soft spot and affection for Miami Vice. It was one of the few shows of its kind to genuinely hook me and keep me invested all the way to the end. The world it creates, unrealistic and unrepresentative as it may be, has always fascinated me: It's one of my absolute favourite fantasy worlds in all of visual media, and is probably largely, if not directly, responsible for the visions of neon-tinged urban tropical port city metropolises that have seen better days that still haunt my imagination to this day. The acting is just as good as the production values: Though Don Johnson and Phillip Michael Thomas trend towards the showboating and their characters were the breakouts due to being charismatic leading men, another thing people tend to forget about Miami Vice was that it was a really well-done ensemble series as well. Saundra Santiago's Gina and Olivia Brown's Trudy were always depicted as equal to their male squadmates and each had numerous episodes and story arcs dedicated to them. And then there's of course Edward James Olmos as Lieutenant Castillo, whose performance of a stoic, yet passionate and dedicated man with hidden depths is mesmerizing, and in whom I see shades of William Adama to come.

And it has done some material good: Although the show's Miami bore no resemblance whatsoever to the real Miami, the production team set aside $1 million per episode to help their generous host city's at the time struggling economy and infrastructure, and it did have a calculable impact on Miami's tourism industry. Although that said, the gentrified, resort-choked tourist trap that is Miami today can't really be seen as anything other then a net negative, and now the show looks even *more* inauthentic as the Miami you can visit today really shares nothing in common with its television counterpart. Whatever simulacrum of that world might have existed at one point or another is now gone forever. Whether or not Miami Vice can be fully blamed for that though is up for debate, and it's here that the real problem of basing its fictional setting on a real place becomes clear: Undiluted science fiction doesn't have these kinds of problems because nothing in it could even remotely be mistaken for a real person, place or situation. Though on the other hand, “real” science fiction must also always face the stigma of potentially never truly being taken seriously: I wonder if even something as popular, iconic and influential as Star Trek: The Next Generation will ever be remembered as the kind of television milestone Miami Vice is.

Which it is. It's a show that's as important as it is misunderstood, and one I do recommend spending some time with if you get the chance. Like most TV shows, it has about two-thirds more episodes than it really needs, but that's hardly a slight on Miami Vice in particular and when it does work it's something quite unique and special. It won't necessarily be the most fun evening of television you'll ever have, but I have a feeling it might just be one that gets you thinking and leave you with lasting memories.

Comments

bbqplatypus318 2 years, 11 months ago

Never thought I'd say this, but you've genuinely made me interested in checking out a cop show. (Besides Cop Rock).

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Josh Marsfelder 2 years, 11 months ago

I'm thrilled, really. Like anything of this sort, there's a lot of chaff, but parts of it really are brilliant and that cinematography is unlike anything else.

Been awhile since I've seen the whole show so I can't give a ton of specific recommendations if you don't want to marathon the whole thing (probably ill-advised). Off the top of my head the initial 5-episode serial is pretty groundbreaking, though the familiar trappings aren't all in place yet. "Out Where the Buses Don't Run" from Season 2 seems to be regarded as the show's finest hour, though.

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Daru 2 years, 10 months ago

Yeah Josh thanks! I do have vague memories of watching this occasionally when I was younger but other than that I have not really paid attention to it. I will as with the commenter above go away and check some out!

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Nick Daly 1 year, 11 months ago

There's a lot more to Miami today than what was laid out here, to be fair. Being from the area, I have a lot of disdain and dislike for a lot of what Miami is - but there's a lot of character to it, a lot of good there, some good communities, etc. Just like any large city. The interesting thing - and perhaps the net negative - is that a lot of the "bad" I see seems to come from a weird desire people seem to have to reenact things like Miami Vice or Bad Boys or Vice City etc. - the myth of Miami, I guess.

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