Tuesday, November 7, 2023

Classic TV Flashback: Miami Vice (1984)

Miami Vice

Debut: September 16, 1984
Created by Anthony Yerkovich
Starring: Don Johnson, Philip Michael Thomas, Saundra Santiago, Michael Talbott, John Diehl, Olivia Brown, Gregory Sierra
Synopsis: Two undercover detectives and their team fight crime on the mean yet colorful streets of Miami.

Trey: Miami Vice aired on NBC from September 1984, to January 1990. We watched the pilot episode, "Brother's Keeper" on Freevee. It gives the origin story of the partnership between Floridan, good ol' boy detective Sonny Crockett and New York City street cop Rico Tubbs when both of them want to bring down a Colombian drug dealer who killed someone close to them (Tubbs' brother and Crockett's old partner).

Jason: I'll come clean right now: In my early teen years, I had made up my mind that cop shows were boring as Hell, ubiquitous, repetitive, and I had zero interest in seeing them. Hill Street Blues, a staple in my home, was the exception. As a result, I came to "Brother's Keeper" and Miami Vice a clean slate. I was always suspicious that Vice would present a particularly dumb approach to cop drama, given its reputation for visual splendor, bikinis, and beautiful people, and I was having none of it. Now, decades later I must publicly admit (yet again!) how spectacularly wrong I was!

The opening sequence set in New York, where we receive important set up information and a good chunk of Tubbs' origin story, put me in mind of The Wizard of Oz, the familiar, perhaps overused cop show setting seemed almost black and white like Dorothy's Kansas, and about to make a stark, pastel-and-neon tonal shift as the story sweeps Tubbs off to Miami.

This pilot episode does its job, setting up the series' characters, situations, and style for its run while successfully standing on its own. The story itself is suitably adult and entertaining, but we're not here for complexity or literary quality. 

Trey: I saw the pilot when it aired in 1984. Today, after years of TV shows and even films that borrowed from its style, it's the 80s TV cop show chassis that is most apparent to me. I mostly see how it is like all the Equalizers, Matt Houstons, and Hunters rather than its differences. But my memories of certain scenes in it are vivid from my childhood, and I still recall how much more dramatic and cinematic they seemed at the time than anything else. I have to think about it in pre-prestige TV terms.

The elevator pitch was "MTV cops," and I certainly think we get that, but it's interesting how much that feel is used to create moments of moody, neon noir, rather than the hyperkinetic, quick cuts we associate with the style today.  The story and the characters aren't really completely there yet to support it, but the idea was a solid one. Wikipedia says that TV critics Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz ranked Miami Vice the 51st greatest American television series of all time. While such rankings are always iffy, I think that feels about right in terms of importance.

Johnson and Thomas do a good job with the material. Honestly, Johnson seems to have pretty much one character in slightly different moods across his roles, but it's an entertaining one. 

Jason: They are both conspicuously and extravagantly handsome dudes for vice duty, but in a world where a young Jimmy Smits is expendable, it works.

Trey: I had forgotten Gregory Sierra was in this. I only remembered his replacement, Edward James Olmos. It amuses me to think Sierra is really playing the same guy he played on Barney Miller, just transferred to Miami.

Jason: He never imagined the strange fate in store for him when he put in for the transfer!

I thought the cast delivered admirably, while the most effective and affecting scenes were primarily visual and driven by their musical accompaniments. The iconic scene featuring "In the Air Tonight" is iconic for a damn good reason, as it happens. I'd rather watch dreamy Miami zoom by, reflected in the paint job of a speeding hot rod while listening to Jan Hammer's highly effective theme music (it helped that i hadn't heard it in decades) than be enriched by character development. 

Trey: Weirdly, Hammer's theme is missing the iconic solo in this episode. This is the version I remember: 

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