The Only Show in Town is Now One of Many

by Bob Greene | Chicago Tribune FINAL EDITION | Tempo, Pg 1 | Dec 20, 1998

MIAMI BEACH — Some thoughts on the nature of hotness — and I don’t mean the balmy temperatures here at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean:

Almost three years ago I came to Miami Beach to do a cameo role on “Miami Vice.” At the time, the television show was at the peak of its hotness — nothing like it had happened in years. The stars of the show — Don Johnson, who played Sonny Crockett, and Philip Michael Thomas, who played Ricardo Tubbs — were as idolized as any rock stars. They made the cover of Time magazine. People all over America were canceling their Friday night plans just so they could stay home and watch “Miami Vice.” USA Today, the newspaper that knows everything, added a special feature each Friday — a list of songs that would appear on the soundtrack of that evening’s “Miami Vice” episode. It sounds like ancient history, doesn’t it? But that’s life as we near the end of the ’80s–three years later and you’re hazy history. “Miami Vice” is still on the air, of course, but its executive producer has announced that this will be its final year. (NBC, the network that broadcasts the show, has not officially confirmed the end of the run; no one, however, seems to doubt it.)

“Miami Vice” still is seen by millions of viewers; so is every prime-time network television program. As I arrived here this trip, though Miami Vice had finished third behind the two other networks in its time slot the previous Friday. “Miami Vice,” whatever else it may be, is no longer water-cooler conversation at offices throughout the land. It’s just a TV show.

I had made reservations at the Alexander Hotel for this trip because I had liked the place when I had stayed there while doing the “Miami Vice” cameo. The “Miami Vice” production offices, at the time, took up an entire floor of the Alexander. It is hard to describe the atmosphere around the place at the time. Whatever it must have been like to be on tour with the Rolling Stones in the early days — that’s what it was like on that “Miami Vice” floor. Everybody wanted in. One detail sticks in my mind: a representative of the Reebok running-shoe company kept calling, asking to send free cartons of shoes to that floor of the Alexander. The hope, of course, was that one of the characters on “Miami Vice” would wear a pair of Reeboks on the show, and that the next week people all over America would be wearing them, too.

So here I am again. I checked into the Alexander, and it occurred to me that the “Miami Vice” offices might still be in the same place. I rode the elevator to the floor one evening.

It was quiet. I wandered for a few minutes before anyone even noticed the presence of a stranger. A pleasant young fellow said that the show had “wrapped” for the day — had finished shooting out on location. Three years ago, though, that wouldn’t have mattered; ” Miami Vice” was such a cultural phenomenon that the production floor was frantic way past midnight, no matter what the shooting schedule was.

In an unstaffed office with an open door, mimeographed location information for the next day’s shoot was piled in a basket. This is how series television works; there is a disciplined routine — the payoffs are enormous, and the logistical demands can be grueling, but in the end it comes down to a routine. “Miami Vice,” though, was different. Or so it seemed until something else came along. I believe the something else was “Moonlighting.” For a while.

“Miami Vice” is still very important in Miami; Don Johnson is on the cover of the current issue of Miami Beach magazine — as one of the “24 Most Eligible” single men and women in town. (Philip Michael Thomas is one of the 24, too; in the “most eligible” story he describes himself as “spiritual, healthy, happy, content, prosperous, intellectual, wealthy, religious, a magician, a romantic, artistic, musical, rich, tough, unique, bad, bodacious and sassy.” He describes his “ideal first date” as “A journey to an island paradise, where we could walk naked amidst nature and all of God’s creatures.”)

The next evening, on my way back from dinner, I stopped on the “Miami Vice” production floor again. It seemed even emptier. I went looking for the wardrobe room — I remembered it as being hilarious, a carnival of color and fashion.

A hotel maid approached me.

“I’m looking for the wardrobe room,” I said.
She appeared puzzled.
“Wardrobe,” I said.
She knew little English.
“Clothing,” I said.
“Oh,” she said. “Ropa.”

She led me down the hallway, but the wardrobe room was locked. A woman who seemed to have some official capacity came out of another room and asked if she could help. I told her about my previous trip, and said that I was revisiting the place.

“Oh, hi,” she said. “I’m Don’s personal assistant. He was just here. You just missed him by a minute or two.”

She was leaving, too, and I asked her to pass on my regards. The maid moved down the hallway. It’s just a TV show. That’s all any of them are.

That observation isn’t supposed to be a melancholy column-ending device. Simply an American truth: It’s just a TV show.

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