Sunday, February 10, 2013

Nostalgia Theater: Miami Vice -- Cool Cops, Hot Town, Dated Show

Don Johnson (L) as Sonny Crockett, Philip Michael Thomas (R) as Rico Tubbs
Miami Vice is the textbook example of a pop cultural force that can seem so hip and current one moment, then hopelessly dated and out of step later. During its mid-'80s heyday on NBC, the procedural skein completely redefined the boundaries of TV drama in general and cop shows in particular. But in the intervening decades since it first ran, rather than being remembered for the technical and stylistic trailblazer that it was, it's come to be viewed as the embarrassing artifact that created an entire generation of douchebags who thought they looked good in pastels.

Created by Anthony Yerkovich and executive produced by Michael Mann, Vice centered on undercover coppers Sonny Crocket (Don Johnson) and Ricardo Tubbs (Philip Michael Thomas), whose work trying to take down Florida's narco-driven criminal underbelly had them running in the seediest circles while wearing the nicest threads and driving the sweetest rides. Here's the intro theme, complete with neon-colored logo, with music composed by Czech synthesizer maestro Jan Hammer:

The marching orders from the get-go with Miami Vice were to shake up the existing paradigm of police shows, which had been bogged down for the past decade in stuff like this and this. As the story goes, the late Brandon Tartikoff, head of programming at time, handed Yerkovich a cocktail napkin with the phrase "MTV cops" scrawled on it, and told him to run with it (Yerkovich, on the other hand, claims he'd already been working on something centered on the Miami drug trade). Regardless of its parentage, the resulting series premiered in September of '84 and took viewers and critics by storm.

Whether the smoldering intensity of leads Johnson and Thomas, both of whom immediately became style icons and sex symbols (not to mention would-be pop stars), or the filmic sensibilities that tried to make each episode a mini-movie, Miami Vice earned instant plaudits from critics (it was slower to win over auds, though they eventually caught on). Though limited by TV standards & practices, the heavy subject matter took it into darker territory than typical TV of the time, woven in with the latest in fashion and music. Here's a bit from the pilot that helped make Phil Collins' "In the Air Tonight" one of the decades' most popular songs:

Miami Vice - In the Air Tonight Scene 1984 by drelamar1

Here's another Phil Collins-centric clip, this time using the singer's "Take Me Home" to underscore the Crockett-Tubbs bro-mance. I'm pretty sure I can blame this show almost entirely for my lifelong Phil Collins fandom:

Miami Vice was my first encounter with what I like to call "buzz" shows, where people are talking about them because people are talking about them. In those days, we were living in Saudi Arabia, and we'd come back to the States every summer. It was like summer of '84 everything was fine and normal, and then summer of '85 all of a sudden everyone -- and I mean everyone -- was wearing rumpled, pastel jackets, sporting five o'clock shadows and wearing loafers with no socks. Call it "The Crockett Effect." Damnedest thing I'd ever seen.

Of course, I've said it on this blog several times, the problem with being of the moment is that the moment eventually has to pass. And while Vice was impossibly hip and with-it during its first two seasons, familiarity creates apathy, and the ratings began to decline along with the buzz by the third season. By the time the show finally closed up shop in May '89 at the end of season five (with several episodes ignominiously going unaired until the summer rerun cycle), Miami Vice's time commanding the zeitgeist felt like a distant, pastel-colored memory.

By then its job was done, though. Miami Vice helped pave the road for other buzzed-about game-changers like Wiseguy and 21 Jump Street, not to mention -- in some shape or another -- every single cop show that followed in its wake (perennial procedural Law & Order, created by former Miami Vice showrunner Dick Wolf, would premiere the following year, and my understanding is that it did okay). Johnson and Thomas both went on to other things, though they never again enjoyed the same success they did when they briefly defined cool.

Exec producer Michael Mann, who never actually directed an episode of the TV show, would revisit Miami Vice in 2006, fifteen years after the show's cancellation, helming a feature film that starred Colin Farrell as Crockett and Jamie Foxx as Tubbs. I dug the flick, though a lot of people didn't, but I fully acknowledge that while it was enjoyable enough, it was still missing the intangible "it" that made TV's Vice such a captivating trip every week. Maybe it's because, more than the characters and the content, the show was just as much about its era, one that can only be appreciated through the frozen-in-amber permanence of reruns and DVDs.

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