Miami Vice

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Miami Vice

No television series represented the style or dominant cultural aesthetic of the 1980s as fully or indelibly as Miami Vice. A popular one-hour police drama that aired on NBC from 1984 to 1989, Miami Vice was in one sense a conventional buddy-cop show—not unlike Dragnet, Adam 12, and Starsky and Hutch —featuring an interracial pair of narcotics detectives who wage a weekly battle against an urban criminal underworld. But the look and feel of the series—a mixture of flashy production values, music video-style montages, and extensive use of Miami's beach-front locales and art-deco architecture—elevated Miami Vice from standard cops-and-robbers fare to bona fide television phenomenon in the middle part of the decade. The show's unique attention to sound, form, and color spawned a host of imitators, sparked fads in the fashion, music, and tourism industries, and helped transform the traditional face of broadcast television by appealing to a young, urban viewership that was, according to one of the show's writers, becoming "more interested in images, emotions, and energy than plot and character and words."

In exploiting the quick-cut visual style of rock music videos, Miami Vice both reflected and consolidated the burgeoning influence of MTV (Music Television) on television and popular culture in the 1980s. Tellingly, the show originated in a two-word memo written by NBC Entertainment President Brandon Tartikoff: "MTV Cops." Created by Anthony Yerkovich, a former writer and producer for NBC's more realistic law enforcement show Hill Street Blues, Miami Vice was filmed on location in Miami at a cost of $1.3 million per episode—one of television's priciest at the time. The show's production staff selected exterior locations, buildings, and cars with a keen sense of detail, and scenes were composed in a painterly style more akin to cinema than television. Tropical pastels—pink, lime green, and turquoise—dominated the show's color scheme, and executive producer Michael Mann decreed early on that there would be "no earth tones." Music was also an integral part of the Miami Vice aesthetic: each episode featured contemporary pop songs that served as critical commentaries on the plots (NBC paid up to $10,000 per episode for the rights to the original songs) as well as instrumental scores by Czech-born composer Jan Hammer, whose synthesizer-driven music supplied the show with its moody atmosphere; Hammer's theme song hit number one on the pop charts. Two successful Miami Vice soundtrack albums were also released.

The show's slick depiction of Miami as a Mecca for the international drug trade, an American Casablanca teeming with cocaine cowboys and drug runners, initially met with strong local resistance from city officials who balked at the show's glamorization of Miami's chronic crime problems. Their fears were soon allayed, however, when it became apparent that Miami Vice's emphasis on the city's splashy architecture, gleaming beaches, and cultural exoticism was actually a civic virtue, enhancing the city's public image and focusing international attention on the South Beach area. The series' opening title sequence—a montage of palm trees, pink flamingoes, and bikini-clad women—played like a promotional ad for Miami's tourist industry, and by the late 1980s, Miami Vice had contributed to the revitalization of once-decrepit Miami Beach and helped the city reclaim its image as a trendy resort playground for the wealthy and fashionable.

At the heart of Miami Vice's popularity were its two charismatic stars, Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas, who played hip undercover detectives Sonny Crockett and Ricardo Tubbs. The series rocketed both actors to international sex-symbol status, landing them on the cover of Time and Rolling Stone in the same year (1985). Their trendy, expensive clothes were a key element of the show's appeal. Crockett sported a casual-chic look consisting of pastel-colored Italian sport jackets paired with T-shirts, baggy linen pants, and slip-on shoes with no socks, while Tubbs wore dark double-breasted suits, silk shirts with slender neckties, and a diamond earring. The Miami Vice "look" soon infiltrated clothing lines in department stores across America. One company even marketed a special electric razor with a "stubble device" designed to leave a Crockett-like five o'clock shadow. To round out the effect, each detective drove a flashy car: Crockett cruised the streets in a black Ferrari, while Tubbs drove a vintage Cadillac convertible. Little effort was made to explain how the detectives could afford such amenities on a meager cop's salary—one of many signs that the show generally favored style over dramatic exposition.

In addition to a supporting cast that included Edward James Olmos as the brooding Lieutenant Castillo (the role earned the actor an Emmy award in 1985), Miami Vice featured a high-profile parade of unusual guest stars—rock musicians, politicians, professional athletes, and corporate magnates—whose appearances were a testament to the show's initial "hotness"; it finished number nine in the 1985-1986 Nielsen ratings. In its third season, the show's popularity dipped when executive producer Mann ordered a dramatic shift to "darker" tones. Blues and blacks replaced the earlier pastels, the plots became murkier, and NBC scheduled the series unsuccessfully against CBS's long-running soap Dallas. By its final season, Miami Vice had slipped to 53rd place in the Nielsens and was no longer the "hot" property it had once been. Production values declined, and the show's original visual flair grew muted. As one TV Guide critic noted of the series' rapid rise and fast fall, "That's the thing about cutting edges: they're the first thing to get dull."

Despite its fadishness, however, Miami Vice did contain a marked moralistic component. Many episodes hinged on the problem of "cops who'd gone bad" and the fact that Crockett and Tubbs, undercover vice detectives masquerading as drug dealers, blended in most smoothly with the criminals they were supposed to apprehend. Episodes rarely ended with an unambiguous "triumph" by the detectives; often what victories they did achieve were pyrrhic or outside the conventional channels of the "system." Miami Vice also paid explicit attention to contemporary political controversies—Wall Street support of the Latin American drug trade, United States involvement in Nicaragua, and others—that highlighted the difficul-ties of legislating local justice in a world of multinational political and economic interests. The fact that this serious "political" commentary was often at odds with the show's more obvious worship of Reagan-era wealth and materialism (the clothes, the cars, the money) made Miami Vice both an interrogation and endorsement of the dominant conservative political and cultural ideology of the 1980s.

The show's formal characteristics, especially its emphasis on visual surfaces, also made it a popular "text" among postmodern academic theorists and cultural critics who found in its pastel sheen both an ironic critique of the 1980s worship of glamour and money and a wholehearted participation in that fetishization. This so-called "complicitous critique" of 1980s culture prompted Andrew Ross to dub Miami Vice "TV's first postmodern cop show," while other critics, such as Todd Gitlin, derided the show's "studied blankness of tone" and saw in its stylized emphasis on "surface" the same techniques of enticement used to lure consumers in car commercials. Despite, or perhaps because of, its relatively short-lived popularity and brief vogue in academia, Miami Vice remains an illuminating artifact for scholars interested not only in the history of television but in the visual, aural, and political texture of the 1980s.

—Andrew Sargent

Further Reading:

Benedek, Emily. "Inside Miami Vice." Rolling Stone. March 28, 1985, 56-62, 125.

Buxton, David. From The Avengers to Miami Vice: Form and Ideology in the Television Series. New York, Manchester University Press, 1990.

Feuer, Jane. Seeing Through the Eighties: Television and Reaganism. Durham, Duke University Press, 1995.

Gitlin, Todd, editor. Watching Television. New York, Pantheon, 1986.

McNeil, Alex. Total Television: A Comprehensive Guide to Programming from 1948 to the Present. New York, Penguin Books, 1991.

Ross, Andrew. "Miami Vice: Selling In." Communication. Vol. 9, Nos. 3-4, 1987, 305-334.

Seewi, Nurit. Miami Vice: Cashing in on Contemporary Culture? Heidelberg, Carl Winter University, 1990.

Zoglin, Richard. "Cool Cops, Hot Show." Time. September 16, 1985, 60-63.