Cool Cops, Hot Show: NBC’s Miami Vice
Philip Michael Thomas and Don Johnson
By Richard Zoglin, with reporting by Denise Worrell/Miami | TIME Magazine | September 16, 1985
[singlepic=74,250,338,left] The rat-a-tat sound of machine gunfire resolves into a pulsing electronic rock beat. Staccato images flash by. A flock of pink-plumed flamingos. Bikini-clad girls on the beach. Race horses bursting from the starting gate. The ocean speeding by under the bow of a boat. And, of course, the familiar art deco logo, glowing in vibrant turquoise and pink.
If viewers are not sufficiently hopped up by the credit sequence of NBC’s Miami Vice, chances are they will be before the hour is over. The plots whiz by with a minimum of exposition, the dialogue is tough and spare, the rock music almost nonstop. Characters may be shot in lyrical long shots or bathed in moody lighting or framed against semiabstract pastel backdrops. The local color of South Florida is augmented by the local colors: flamingo pink, lime green, Caribbean blue. Miami Vice has been filmed under what may be the strangest production edict in TV history: “No earth tones.”
A year after its debut on NBC, Miami Vice, TV’s hottest and hippest new cop show, is reaching a high sizzle. Scheduled on Friday nights opposite CBS’s popular Falcon Crest, the show languished in the bottom half of the Nielsens for its first few months on the air. But viewers gradually began to take notice of its high-gloss visual style and MTV-inspired use of rock music, its gritty South Florida ambience and the cool charisma of Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas, who star as Miami Detectives Sonny Crockett and Ricardo Tubbs. Since the end of May, the show’s reruns have finished in the Nielsen Top Ten for ten of eleven weeks. Following the pattern of another innovative cop show that caught on during its first summer of reruns, Miami Vice is poised to become TV’s next breakthrough hit. “Like Hill Street Blues before it, Miami Vice has redefined the cop-show genre,” says Brandon Tartikoff, programming chief of NBC, the former last-place network that is suddenly doing everything right (see following story).
Miami Vice already seems to have supplanted Hill Street as the darling of one segment of the TV audience: the Emmy Awards committee. The program has garnered a record 15 Emmy nominations (compared with Hill Street’s eleven), including ones for best dramatic series and best actor (Johnson). No matter how it fares at the awards ceremony on Sept. 22, the show is changing the way TV looks and sounds. Two new series debuting this month, ABC’s The Insiders and Hollywood Beat, each feature a pair of young crime fighters and a pounding rock score, a la Miami Vice. Other Vice imitators are currently in the works.
Perhaps more important, the innovative visual style of Miami Vice has helped show TV executives that there are alternatives to the cookie-cutter blandness of most network fare. Says Joshua Brand, a co-creator of St. Elsewhere who is co-producing Steven Spielberg’s new series Amazing Stories: “The success of Miami Vice shows that people do notice production values, lighting and what comes out of those little television speakers.”
Nor has the show’s impact been limited to the TV screen. This month MCA Records will release a Miami Vice album containing the show’s theme music, several songs used in last season’s shows, and three new numbers recorded for the coming season by Glenn Frey, Chaka Khan and Grandmaster Melle Mel. Meanwhile, the show’s tropical-chic fashions (especially Don Johnson’s typical ensemble of Italian sport coat, T shirt, white linen pants and slip-on shoes) have begun to catch on. “The show has taken Italian men’s fashion and spread it to mass America,” says Kal Ruttenstein, a senior vice president of Bloomingdale’s. “Sales of unconstructed blazers, shiny fabric jackets and lighter colors have gone up noticeably.” After Six formal wear is bringing out a Miami Vice line of dinner jackets next spring, Kenneth Cole will introduce “Crockett” and “Tubbs” shoes, and Macy’s has opened a Miami Vice section in its young men’s department. TV cops have never been so glamorous. Says Olivia Brown-Williamson, who plays Undercover Detective Trudy Joplin on the show: “Who wanted to look like Kojak?”
The flash and dash of Miami Vice has not been universally welcomed. Some critics have objected that the show makes violence alluring by dressing it up in pretty photography; others complain that coherent stories and fully drawn characters have been junked in favor of visual flourishes and a rock beat. Some of the show’s creators admit there is a certain laxness about narrative matters. Says Lee Katzin, who earned an Emmy nomination for his direction of the episode Cool Runnin’: “The show is written for an MTV audience, which is more interested in images, emotions and energy than plot and character and words.”
Even the show’s much vaunted stylistic breakthroughs can be overrated. Flashy visuals and rock music on the soundtrack were hardly invented by Miami Vice–or by MTV, for that matter. They have been staples of artfully directed feature films for a couple of decades. “We haven’t invented the Hula Hoop or anything,” admitted Michael Mann, the show’s executive producer and stylistic guru, in an interview with Rolling Stone. “We’re only contemporary. And if we’re different from the rest of TV, it’s because the rest of TV isn’t even contemporary.”
Yet at its best, Miami Vice has brought to TV a swift and evocative mode of visual storytelling. Points are made through looks, gestures, music, artful composition. In one of the season’s best episodes (written by Playwright Miguel Pinero and directed by Paul Michael Glaser, the former co-star of Starsky and Hutch), Glenn Frey’s song Smuggler’s Blues both enhances the mood and comments on a tense story in which Crockett and Tubbs pose as drug dealers to set a trap for a vicious kidnaper. In the climactic sequence, the cops race to defuse a bomb that has been wired to Trudy, the detective who has served as bait. After a narrow escape, the culprit is revealed to be a police lieutenant gone bad. “I can smell ’em but I can’t understand ’em,” says a federal agent involved in the case, as Frey’s lyrics chime in: “It’s the lure of easy money/ It’s got a very strong appeal/ It’s a losin’ proposition . . .” In a subtle and moving final shot, the agent drifts out of the frame to reveal Tubbs and Crockett comforting Trudy, the forgotten victim of this dirty but necessary operation.
Read the full article » TIME Magazine: Cool Cops, Hot Show (7 pgs)