Thirty Years Later, Miami Vice Remains One of TV’s Most Influential Shows (Food For Thought)
For 111 episodes, “Miami Vice” epitomized the 1980s. Thirty years ago this weekend, September 28, 1984, Sonny Crockett (played by Don Johnson) and Rico Tubbs (played by Philip Michael Thomas) charged through our livingrooms in a Ferrari Daytona Spyder, with guns blazing, and pastels poppin’. After its five-year run on NBC (and one sole episode premiering on USA), the Michael Mann-backed series became the butt of ’80s jokes—for its intensity, its fashion, and its plot lines. But in present day, “Miami Vice” was ahead of the times in so many ways.
Although the pastels and scruffiness are the symbols of “Vice,” the intensity is the true contribution to the Cop TV canon. Living on a sailboat, going to extremes to honor his word, being a divorcee and widower with a quiet, troubled past, Sonny Crockett carried the baggage that has become much more associated with masculinity in 2014, versus 1984. It is little surprise that Drake nodded to “Miami Vice” in his extended narrative video for “Hold On, We’re Going Home.” Meanwhile, Rico Tubbs’ ambiguous intimate relationships, like that with Valerie Gordon (played by Pam Grier), forecast the nature of so many romantic connections in the 2000s. Along with casual romances, Tubbs had a cultured worldliness to him—years before those things were believed to make great television. A onetime New Yorker, the character was a renaissance man, and the perfect complement to Crockett. Whereas Crockett represented the rogue cop with trouble forever on his mind, Tubbs was closer to a Sherlock Holmes, with his own complications in the rear-view.
Coming off of a decade of series of police portrayed as fun-loving, joking tandems that knew how to talk to pimps (“Starsky & Hutch”), rollerskating, beach-going buddies (“CHiPs”), and lollipop-licking cool-guys (“Kojack”), “Miami Vice” felt different from the start. The beautiful sights of South Beach, from sexy bodies to sandy coasts, made for a different feeling television. Comic relief was sparse, and sometimes the bad guys were still on top at the end of the hour. This advanced what average TV goers were used to. Like the police detectives in film, the lead characters of “Miami Vice” were flawed, complex, and often times—dark.
One of the most colorful aspects of 1984 was the music. The Roland 808 drum was king. And from the charged theme of “Miami Vice” by Jan Hammer, it was clear that the series was scored like a blockbuster film. Roger Daltrey (The Who), El Debarge, Devo, Black Uhuru, Jackson Browne, Kate Bush, Meat Loaf, Phil Collins, Bryan Adams, Tina Turner, Peter Gabriel, Pink Floyd, ZZ Top, The Tubes, Dire Straits, Depeche Mode, The Hooters, Iron Maiden, The Alan Parsons Project, Corey Hart, Glenn Frey, U2, Underworld, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Foreigner, The Police, Ted Nugent, Suicidal Tendencies and Billy Idol were among the artists whose music was licensed by “Miami Vice.” From Reggae to Rock, Synth Pop to Classic Rock, Metal and Punk to New Wave, the show had its fingertips on the pulse of the musical crossroads (and before) of the mid-’80s. Villains were amplified and even more unpredictable, while the good guys were set to music videos—as MTV was simultaneously doing for an entire generation. Less than 15 years later, Jay Z and Blackstreet interpolated not only Glenn Frey’s hit “You Belong To The City,” but the music video and the show from which it hailed. Hits were made from Vice.
While musicians’ careers (including Don Johnson’s) benefited hugely from the show, so did those of actors. Edward James Olmos and Brian Deihl–two highly-touted actors–were in the cast, joining Sheena Easton and Pam Grier. Meanwhile, guest turns helped open doors for Laurence Fishburne, Bruce Willis, Viggo Mortensen, Dennis Farina, Stanley Tucci, Jimmy Smits, Ving Rhames, Liam Neeson, Lou Diamond Phillips, Ed O’Neill, Julia Roberts, Michael Madsen, Bill Paxton, Luis Guzmán, Kyra Sedgwick, Wesley Snipes, John Turturro, Melanie Griffith and others who appeared in various capacities throughout the show’s run. Few platforms carry the would-be star-power as “Miami Vice.”
Around the same time Hip-Hop albums started garnering plaques, “Miami Vice” showed the lifestyle. Five years after Sugar Hill Gang bragged about a Cadillac and a Lincoln, the NBC hit regularly showcased the ultimate adult toys: boats, cars, jewelery, and sprawling beachside mansions. Beautiful woman and endless supplies of drugs colored the figures met in the show—as young Nas, Ghostface Killah, and T.I. were watching, studying. The “D-Boy” lifestyle of BMW 6-series coupes, SEL Mercedes Benzes, and linen suits finally got portrayed beyond the 170 minutes in Brian De Palma’s Scarface. In the era of “Cocaine Cowboys,” Crockett & Tubbs were the sheriffs—who happened to have some of the same bounty as the bad guys.
The fashion is the fashion. Just as Madonna’s black lace and updoo came back, along with Kangols and Cazals, it is little surprise that the warm weather preppy styles of Crockett & Tubbs are in vogue once again. Epitomes of the Ralph Lauren-draped “yuppy” style, this duo made dressy-casual a thing. No socks, bender-savvy facial hair, and those pastel tees underneath creme jackets lasted far beyond the 1989 cancellation of the show.
Though “Miami Vice” always will be a cultural touchstone for the 80’s, it also will forever be seen as the launching pad for many of the modern day conventions taken for granted in today’s golden age of TV–morally grey heroes (and anti-heroes), soundtracks infused with popular music, stylized cinematography, complex storytelling, diverse casting, star-power previously reserved to the big screen…And, for that and so many more reasons, we salute “Miami Vice.”