The iconic cop drama premiered 30 years ago this fall. Is it worth watching now? Find out in the Binge or Purge? Miami Vice edition.
Miami Vice, currently streaming on Hulu Plus
Miami vice squad detective Sonny Crockett (Don Johnson) poses undercover as Sonny Burnett, a flashy drug dealer who lives on a yacht, drives a Ferrari and wears designer suits. His partner Rico Tubbs (Philip Michael Thomas) is a former NYPD street cop who came to Miami in search of the drug lord who killed his brother. Along with their colleagues Gina Calabrese (Saundra Santiago), Trudy Joplin (Olivia Brown) and Lieutenant Martin Castillo (Edward James Olmos), Crockett and Tubbs investigate local drug trade, prostitution, gambling rings and underage pornography, trying – often unsuccessfully – to bring the chief perpetrators to justice.
Miami Vice is practically a synonym for 1980s pop culture. Premiering thirty years ago this fall, the show earned 15 Emmy nominations in its first season alone.1 Known for its groundbreaking visual style, popular soundtrack and handsome stars, this NBC show was an enormous hit. It was also the first TV show broadcast in stereo. Acclaimed Hollywood director Michael Mann produced the series and later directed the 2006 film version starring Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx.
What’s to Love Now
Having never watched Miami Vice during its initial run, I went into it expecting a stylish, testosterone-pumped procedural that glorifies the War on Drugs, embraces ethnic stereotypes, sidelines women characters, and features lots of exploding cars. I was right. But what I didn’t expect is that, at it’s best, this show is profoundly entertaining. I sometimes want to live inside of it.
Let’s start with our excellent lead. Back in the 80s, Crockett’s iconic image always struck me as super cheesy – the fluorescent top under the Hugo Boss suit, the moussed up hair, the muscle car. But beneath that neon veneer is a lovable, forthright tough guy. From his gravelly smoker’s voice2 to the way he begins every other sentence with, “Listen, pal!”, he’s a grumpy old man in drug dealer clothing. A former college football star, he’s hyper-masculine but in that cornball way where he refuses to ever dance and gets uncomfortable in the presence of artsy types. Playing pretend with underworld creeps thrills him (a point made by his estranged wife in the gritty pilot episode), but he also really believes that criminals are bad, cops are mostly good, and bad cops are the worst. He can’t stand seeing a lady get roughed up and, yes, he has adorable dimples. Crockett definitely won me over. But more than being attracted to him, I daydream about living his high adventure yacht life.
Escapism is the core of Miami Vice‘s appeal. And for fans like me who love New Wave culture, the first three seasons represent a sort of demented paradise. Jan Hammer’s synth-driven theme song and score, plus the artful use of contemporary music3 account for much of the entertainment value. It’s also beautifully shot, capturing the fluorescent colors, art deco architecture, and bold animal print fabrics that defined that time and place. The 96 minute pilot is both visually and sonically superior to most films of its era.4
Finally, the long list of notable guest stars – including up-and-comers (Bruce Willis, Helena Bonham Carter, Chris Rock), music legends (Frank Zappa, Willie Nelson, Leonard Cohen) and gifted character actors (Steve Buscemi, Dan Hedaya, Giancarlo Esposito) – pretty much guarantees that most pop culture nerds will love something about this show.
What Makes Us Groan
Again, I wasn’t surprised to find that Miami Vice accepts the War on Drugs as a necessity, that many of its bad guys are heartless, shifty Latino guys, that Trudy and Gina are less like characters and more like window dressing (dressed as hookers, no less), and that every season has its share of long, boring chase scenes. What I did find a bit surprising is that there’s little demonstration of how drugs hurt people. I watched 20 of the 111 episodes and only the one featuring Helena Bonham Carter as Crockett’s pill-popping physician girlfriend5 dealt explicitly with addiction. The human impact of the drug trade is minimized to the point of irrelevance, which makes rooting against the villains that much harder.
Then there are the improbabilities, like Crockett being able to maintain his showy cover after busting so many crooks, or the fact that none of his enemies can aim for shit when they’re shooting at him. But for me, that silliness is just part of the fun. If you can’t get past those logical leaps, you will certainly have a very hard time enjoying this over-the-top show.
I can binge so hard on some Miami Vice. Add it to the long list of problematic pop culture things that I can’t help loving and criticizing in equal measure.6
It definitely falters in season 4. Once Jan Hammer left and the ratings went down (they couldn’t compete with Dallas at the new 9:00 hour), so did the overall quality. For the best music and guest appearances, seasons 1 through 3 are where it’s at. I chose several episodes according to the soundtrack, which is how I came across my favorite – season 2’s “Bushido”, a fantastic Castillo story featuring Dean Stockwell as his rogue CIA agent friend and a thrilling cat-and-mouse chase set to Kate Bush’s “Hello Earth”.
- as well as four well-deserved wins for cinematography, art direction, sound editing and supporting actor Olmos ↵
- “if Jack Nicholson had been raised a Florida redneck who wound up in Miami” ↵
- a murder scene set to “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun”, are you kidding me? ↵
- not to mention that today’s high definition viewing experience is certainly way better than the tube-and-rabbit-ears setup I had in 1984 ↵
- Season 3 Episode 16 “Theresa” ↵
- the list also includes Elvis movies, Beverly Hills 90210 and the Van Halen song “Jamie’s Cryin” ↵