Vice Vice Baby
If one TV show defined the 1980s, it would have to be Miami Vice. Sure, cop shows are dime a dozen, always have been, always will be. But this wasn't exactly Inspector Morse. Legend has it that the original concept came to just two words - 'MTV cops'. Writer Anthony Yerkovich and executive producer Michael Mann didn't so much flesh out the idea, they just placed it in the perfect setting. In TV land, as in home ownership: location, location, location. Florida held the key.
Miami was like no other city in the world then, a sneak preview of the shape of things to come: the most porous drug-port in the US, with its influx of refugees from Castro's Cuba (125, 000 of them in a seven month period in 1980), this was where WASP culture rubbed shoulders with a surging Latino population. First World met Third World, North met South, and the land of opportunity became the land of rampant opportunism with cocaine as common currency. Mann called it 'New Casablanca' and 'the northernmost tip of South America'.
The definitive pop cultural record of this moment remains Brian De Palma's 1983 movie Scarface, though the crime novels of Carl Hiaasen widen the net to indict politician, property developers, and pretty much everyone else in arguably the most corrupt state in the Union: 'The Sunshine State is a paradise of scandals teeming with drifters, deadbeats, and misfits drawn here by some dark primordial calling like demented trout,' he writes. 'And you'd be surprised how many of them decide to run for public office.'
In this climate of sunny amorality Miami Vice found the perfect mix of glamour and grime, glitz and graft. The 80s was a decade of gross materialism and conspicuous consumption, and in this show the good guys got a taste of the high life: undercover cops Crockett and Tubbs (Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas) wore Armani suits and drove a Ferrari and a Cadillac Coupe de Ville convertible (when they weren't giving chase in their sleek cigarette speedboat, that is).
There was plenty of action too. Universal eventually turned the show into an attraction at its Hollywood theme park, a showcase for stuntmen to strut their stuff, firing off submachine guns and diving into a giant water tank as Jan Hammer's hit theme song blared on, years after the show's cancellation in 1989.
Filmed on location, this was the best photographed show on television, and one of the first to be recorded in stereo. Michael Mann had learned his trade at London's International Film School, and like the British filmmakers of his generation (Alan Parker, Ridley and Tony Scott, Adrian Lyne, Hugh Hudson) he apprenticed for the cinema by making big budget short films' advertisements. Under his guidance, Miami Vice was a small screen show with a big screen luster. The look was its number one selling point, and it became so popular NBC President Brendan Tartikoff issued a public apology for the number of pot-bellied middle-aged men who adopted the suit and T-shirt combo.
To be sure, the show was often downbeat, but maybe there's something glamorous and alluring about vicarious nihilism too. This was a pastel shade of noir, and it owed more to LA's rock n roll life-style in the early 80s than to anything going on in law enforcement, even in Miami. Guest stars included Gene Simmons as a drug dealer, Frank Zappa as a mob boss, Glenn Frey as a smuggler, Little Richard as a preacher, Phil Collins as a game show host, Willie Nelson as a retired Texas Ranger, and Miles Davis as a pimp. Meanwhile the original pop idol, Sheena Easton, had a featured role for five weeks as Sonny Crockett's ill-fated wife.
How does the movie version hold up? Click here for our review, but don't expect a Starsky and Hutch type piss-take, ripe as the material might be for such treatment. It was filmed in and around Florida during the hurricane season, so be prepared for stormy weather...
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