A version of this article appeared in The Star-Ledger Dec. 9, 2005.
“You’ve got to know the rules before you can break ’em. Otherwise, it’s no fun.” So says detective Sonny Crockett (Don Johnson), who shot, punched and caroused his way across South Florida alongside partner Rico Tubbs (Philip Michael Thomas), scowling boss Lt. Castillo (Edward James Olmos) and the rest of the Miami Vice squad. That wisecrack might have been a bumper sticker on Crockett’s Ferrari Spyder, or it could have been an inspirational quote emblazoned on the door of the Miami Vice production offices—the birthplace of a revolt against TV conventions, a stylistic revolution whose aftershocks are still being felt.
When I use the phrase “stylistic revolt” in describing Vice, I’m not talking about clothes and grooming (although Johnson’s stubble, sockless Topsiders and T-shirt-and-sport coat combos will always be visual shorthand for Reagan -era fashion). I’m talking about the show’s style, which was not televisual, but brazenly, even affectedly, cinematic. Owing more to 1940s film noir and 1960s European art cinema than to any TV dramas being made at the time, the show superimposed ripped-from-the-headlines details about prostitution, drug smuggling, arms dealing and covert war onto a pastel-noir dreamscape, and gave American TV its first existential drama. Even after the innovations of its NBC predecessor Hill Street Blues, which brought ’70s movie grit to primetime, most hourlong ’80s dramas still felt stodgy, even primitive. By and large, dramatic TV storytelling still consisted of people walking into brightly lit rooms, hitting their marks and then talking, talking, talking in close-up. Vice peeled out in the opposite direction.
“Vice” was born when Brandon Tartikoff , NBC’s entertainment president in the early ’80s, scribbled “MTV cops” on a cocktail napkin and approached Anthony Yerkovich , then a “Hill Street” producer, about making a series out of it. The phrase reads like a glib marketing label, and at the time, it probably was. But series creator Yerkovich and executive producer Michael Mann (whose movie version of Vice just opened) took it further than anyone could have imagined. The result was a visually musical series, a place where actors and filmmakers could play around like musicians, noodling and jamming.
The first act of the season-one episode “Calderon’s Demise” ends with an unbroken, hypnotically powerful helicopter shot of Crockett and Tubbs driving a motorboat to Bimini on a revenge mission against a drug dealer, scored to about two minutes’ worth of Russ Ballard’s 1984 hit “Voices.” The centerpiece of the Don Johnson-directed episode “By Hooker by Crook” intercut Crockett’s red-hot tryst with a madam (Johnson’s sometime wife Melanie Griffith) and the crosstown murder of a prostitute-turned-murder-witness (Vanity) by an assassin (wrestler Capt. Lou Albano, of all people); the two incidents are visually united by close-ups of strangling gestures (one sensual and playful, the other murderous) and scored to Steve Winwood’s “Split Decision.” The much-heralded “Smuggler’s Blues” built an entire episode around the title song, an original track by Glenn Frey, who also guest-starred as an electric-guitar-strumming drug-runner. In retrospect, the episode is more interesting to think about than it is to watch (it’s slow and convoluted, and the song gets tedious after a while). Nevertheless, it’s worth pointing out that 20 years after “Smuggler’s Blues,” network dramas depart from their chosen format maybe a couple of times a year. Vice departed from the norm every chance it got.
The show’s vision of Miami as a cocaine Casablanca—a truly international city, a place where race and national origin were not subjects of anxious soul-searching, but sexy conversation-starters—was truly revelatory; its no-fuss attitude toward interracial friendship and sex was a solid 20 years ahead of the curve. (In the original buddy blockbuster, 1982’s 48 Hrs., Nick Nolte spent much of the movie snarling racist insults at Eddie Murphy; just two years later, Vice’s Miami detective Crockett and visiting New Yorker Tubbs became instant allies, and from that point forward, their respective races were rarely mentioned, because it never occurred to them—or the series—to bring it up.) Nestled amid the glitz were pointed references to the political and emotional aftermath of Vietnam and the ripple effect of war in Northern Ireland, Central America and other geopolitical sore spots, and the U.S. government’s complicity in stirring up certain kinds of trouble. Vice invoked these inconvenient facts as plot devices, to explain why certain spectacularly violent events were happening in Miami. But the effect was a backwards-ass form of public service, subtly reminding bubblegum-minded ’80s audiences that there was a world beyond their own city or suburb, and that violence from other parts of the globe would eventually wind its way back to the states—and to pretend otherwise was naïve at best, negligent at worst.
All these elements, however surprising and welcome, always took a backseat to picture and sound. The show’s stable of directors (who included Mann, Thomas Carter, Georg Stanford Brown, Abel Ferrara and Paul Michael Glaser) embraced the notion that style could be substance. Vice rarely passed up a chance to show characters in head-to-toe long shot, forcing you to appreciate them in context of their seedy-spectacular environment. Sometimes it zeroed in on striking details (upside-down figures caught in mud puddles, streetlights reflected in the bodies of speeding cars) just because they were beautiful, a defensible choice for a series set in a world where surfaces were everything. Characterization was conveyed not just with dialogue, but with montages, pregnant pauses, cryptic stares and silent images of people thinking. Shots often went on a bit longer than you expected; the frequent use of super-slow-motion, combined with Jan Hammer’s ominous, pulsating synth music, stretched moments out further still, creating a psychic space you could get lost in. Editing, photography, music and atmosphere were as important as plot; sometimes they were what Vice offered instead of plot.
This commitment to freedom guaranteed that Vice would be a hit-and-miss series. The first two seasons were the best, and even those contained scenes, sequences and sometimes whole episodes that were muddled, pretentious and trashy. (The music-and-fashion-obsessed Season Two premiere, in which Crockett and Tubbs hunted drug dealers in the Big Apple, and Crockett took an endless, preening stroll around Manhattan to the tune of “You Belong to the City”—shouldn’t that have been the New York native Tubbs’ theme?—was the first of many shark-jumps.) Frankly, Vice got worse as it went along—more interested in clothes, scenery and cameos by the likes of Frank Zappa, Ted Nugent and Little Richard. There were times when it was so dumb you could barely watch it. (I checked out after Crockett got amnesia and thought he was a drug lord.)
But if you consider Vice not as a traditional TV drama but as a kind of storytelling lab, every frame of it is exciting. Even when it was bad, it was great. Its failures were (and still are) more interesting than most of TV’s successes. There was an electricity around it, a sense that you were in the hands of crazy artists, that anything could happen. Even now, with a new generation of network and cable series building comfortable subdivisions in terrain that Miami Vice helped clear, that kind of thrill is in short supply.