Politics & Policy

Something in the Air

An ode to two Miami knights in designer armor.

#ad#Accept no imitations. For the real thing, there’s the DVD player (the first two seasons of the original are available), the random enchantment of reruns or, for those of us who were around back in the day, fond memories of the evening we first saw those speedboats dance to Jan Hammer and two cops escape from the monotone restraints of conventional detective drama into the bright sun and subtropical colors of a city that didn’t quite seem to be part of America, not back then, and was like nothing else we had ever seen on television, not back then.

Quite where the idea sprung from is lost in time and competing reminiscence. Most credit the TV executive who had the idea about “MTV cops,” but Anthony Yerkovich, the show’s creator, has reportedly said that the inspiration was a magazine article on how law-enforcement agencies could use booty confiscated from the bad guys in other, unrelated, investigations. That would explain, just, the Ferraris, the powerboat, and the yacht: the threads always remained something of a mystery. What is clear is that Miami Vice would never have made the impact it did without the highly stylized vision of Michael Mann, something that was already taking shape way before (check out his 1981 movie, Thief) Ricardo Tubbs agreed to take up a “career in southern law enforcement.” As to where it came from, well, maybe there really was something in the air.

Even amid the wastelands of taste that were the 1970s there were sporadic signs of a sleeker aesthetic struggling to be born, and with the end of that decade, the end of Carter, the end of earth tones, and the beginning of better times, the country was finally ready for designer hedonism, Bright Lights, Big City, and the profound pleasures of a materialism without shame, guilt, or hair-shirt carping. The ersatz Appalachian sanctimony of the Walton clan was replaced by the glitz, bitches, and riches of those big feuding, big-spending Carringtons, and TV was all the better for it: Good riddance Mary-Ellen. Well, hi there, Fallon. Alex P. Keaton became a national icon and everyone went to the mall. The Eighties, thank God, had arrived. It was the perfect moment for Crockett’s Armani to replace Colombo’s raincoat, and thanks to Michael Mann it did. With its flash, dash, and images of consumer delight, music that was part of the script, and wildly eclectic celebrity guest stars (Lee Iacocca! G. Gordon Liddy! Little Richard! Ted Nugent!), Miami Vice reflected, shaped, and, ultimately helped define the best of all decades (oh yes, it was), and, while it was at it, transformed notions of what television could do.

But for all its innovation, the show also drew its strength and, I suspect, much of its success, from older traditions. Its hard-edged, gleeful, glittering, and sardonic portrait of a city of hoods, hoodlums, hookers and not quite hookers, crooks, cops, dames, sleaze, death, graft, and excess marked a triumphant reworking of classic film noir, the genre that, perhaps more than any other, reminds us that this country has traditions far darker than apple pie and white picket fence. For all its pastel shades, blue skies and architectural splendor, Miami Vice had much of the look, feel, and, sometimes, dialogue of a show from the gat, gal, and gumshoe days.

Crockett: “What a mess…and for what?”

Tubbs: “It’s just a job man. You’re telling me you’d rather be pushing papers in some white-collar cubicle?

Crockett: “This stuff keeps rolling in. We’re just a tollbooth on the highway.”

Tubbs: “Singing the vice cop blues again.”

Philip Marlowe would have understood.

But for all the tough talk, it was never just a job. Tubbs (Philip Michael Thomas) and Crockett (Don Johnson) may have inhabited noir’s corrupt, morally ambiguous, fallen world, but, like that world’s occasionally upstanding heroes, the two detectives were ultimately on the side of the angels, knights in designer armor, with, needless to say, hints too of the old west about them: Crockett’s white suit, the cowboy’s white hat.

And then there was the buddy thing, another American staple, Butch and Sundance, Starsky and Hutch, Turner and Hooch … well, you know what I mean. True to the conventions of that amiable tradition, Ricardo and Sonny were often defined by the differences between them: Tubbs, for example, seemed so much happier than the perennially haunted Crockett (Vietnam, Sheena Easton, amnesia, there were plenty of traumas for the poor fellow to choose from), but there was never any question about the bond they shared. In Michael Mann’s new take, by contrast, Farrell and Foxx are chillier than Charles and Diana and more distant than a pair of Garbos. There’s no hint of Johnson and Thomas’s sly, affectionate joshing, and the movie’s the poorer for it.

But if Miami Vice reflected and helped shape its times, it also foreshadowed what was to come. There will be some schlubs in Sears suits who still curse them for it, but there’s no doubt that, heterosexuality pointedly buttressed by guns, girls, and macho banter, Miami-Dade PD’s two clotheshorses both anticipated the metrosexual moment and did their bit to pave the way for it. Even more interestingly, their show was an early primetime acknowledgement that America’s ethnic kaleidoscope, so long usually reduced (however inaccurately) to stark, simplistic black and white, was again being changed. From the night clubs, to the streets, to the drug lord’s high-walled mansion, Crockett and Tubbs found themselves strangers in an increasingly strange land, lawmen operating in a disconcertingly alien territory, the country’s latest frontier, where old, familiar ideas of American identity were melting, shifting, and disappearing into Miami’s new mix, the exception that became a precedent.

Good times never last. Perhaps it was inevitable in so distinctive a show, but it wasn’t too long before Miami Vice began to succumb just a little too often to its own clichés, and it wasn’t much longer before Johnson and Thomas got a bad case of the Shatners and decided to record Heartbeat and Living The Book of My Life respectively, a couple of clunkers that gave early warning of hubris and trouble to come. Budgets began to be cut, fashion sense started to fall apart. A mullet was spotted. Michael Mann reduced his involvement. By then he’d already started work on the sadly underrated Crime Story, and served up a first helping of Hannibal Lecter in Manhunter. Miami Vice itself lingered on until July 1989, and not without some grace notes, but the Eighties were petering out, the Gipper had gone, George H. W. Bush was mumbling about a kinder, gentler America, and, since February of that year Columbo’s shabby raincoat, rumpled harbinger of a more earnest era, had again been disgracing network TV.

Later, the gorgeous disillusionment of Miami Vice was extended into the darkness and depth of Mann’s three neon-flecked neo-noir epics, the elegiac Heat, the preachy The Insider and the almost faultless Collateral, three reminders that moral murk still plays well in a country that, beneath the prosperous veneer, is as restless, uneasy and uncertain as the nation to which the troops returned six decades ago. As for the rest of the old crew, only Edward James Olmos, the dauntingly dour Lieutenant Castillo, has, after a depressing run of inspirational movies, found himself the perfect role as Battlestar Galactica’s dauntingly dour Admiral Adama. Perhaps he could find a berth somewhere in his rag-tag armada for the man who was Tubbs, the highlight of whose later career was, take your pick, either acting as spokesman for the Philip Michael Thomas Psychic Connection or supplying the voice for Lance Vance in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. Don Johnson did a little better, gamely returning to police work in Nash Bridges, a pleasure, but no Vice. Nevertheless, proving that you take the boy out of the Eighties but not the Eighties out of the boy, he did manage to marry a Getty. Well done, pal.

Satisfactory though that is, it’s somehow even better that, for all Miami Vice’s impact on television in general, and the cop show in particular, its most obvious successor on our screens today is located not in a police precinct, but in a plastic surgeon’s office, somewhere they really know that it’s surface beauty that counts. With its photogenic cast (headed by the love/hate buddy duo of McNamara and Troy), high production values, inspired use of music, and seductive mix of sex, scenery, cynicism, and scalpel, Nip/Tuck is an elegant, compelling, and thoroughly trashy tribute to the myth that Mann built.

And of course it’s set in Miami.

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