The birth of cool: Miami Vice, 35 years later

I can feel it comin’ in the air tonight, oh lord …

In the money scene of the premiere episode of NBC’s “Miami Vice,” Detectives Sonny Crockett (Don Johnson) and Ricardo Tubbs (Philip Michael Thomas) cruise the midnight streets of Miami in Crockett’s shiny black classic Ferrari on their way to a showdown with the drug dealer responsible for the death of Tubbs’ brother and Crockett’s partner. The scene is thick with portent, new partners Crockett and Tubbs warily eyeing each other. The wind blows through Crockett’s dark blond hair. Tubbs checks his gun. The scene keeps cutting to caressing shots of reflected streetlights breaking like waves off the Ferrari’s hood. In the background, Phil Collins’ atmospheric “In the Air Tonight” builds and builds. It’s the most erotic depiction of platonic buddies since Paul Newman and Robert Redford smoldered at each other in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”. And then Collins hits the drum riff heard ’round the world and a pop cultural phenomena exploded.

I came of age as a TV critic with “Miami Vice”. A review of that September 16, 1984 premiere episode was one of the first pieces of TV criticism I wrote for the alt-weekly newspaper the Boston Phoenix:

“Not only is it easily the season’s best new show, it features some of the most sophisticated direction and editing and some of the most visually sensual, and downright gorgeous, photography ever seen on a network action series. And I’d bet NBC wouldn’t have let it see the light of prime time if rock video hadn’t already eased cryptic kinkiness and art-school flash into the mainstream. … [Michael] Mann and [Anthony] Yerkovich use rock-video style as a foot in the door that enables them to sneak in all the fancy film theories and techniques that used to be considered too outre for the average TV series — or rather, considered too good to waste on the average TV viewer. Miami Vice is the most groundbreaking prime-time show since Hill Street Blues, not just because it isn’t afraid to be different, but because it isn’t afraid to be brilliant.”

The series that was commissioned by then-NBC programming chief Brandon Tartikoff  with two words — “MTV cops” — became a standing Friday night obsession for its first couple of seasons. It influenced ’80s men’s fashions (linen blazers, pastel T shirts, no socks) and men’s grooming (stubble). It busted Phil Collins out as a solo artist and made Jan Hammer’s electronic instrumental theme song a radio hit. Musicians lined up to act in it: Willie Nelson, Little Richard, James Brown, Leonard Cohen, Suicidal Tendencies, Glenn Frey, Vanity, Sheena Easton. Phil Collins. Miles Freaking Davis. Anything “Vice”-related sold, even Don Johnson’s album “Heartbeat” (17 on the Billboard 200 album chart). Well, almost anything: Philip Michael Thomas’s album “Living the Book of My Life,” which was released before Johnson’s, failed to chart.

But the show’s contributions to television were hardly superficial or ephemeral. Reverberations of its seductive, shades-of-gray depictions of good guys and bad guys could be felt in cult-cool broadcast TV series that soon followed it, like NBC’s “Crime Story” and CBS’s “Wiseguy.” Its dark portrayal of governmental lies and malfeasance cleared a TV path for “The X-Files.” The grown-up storytelling and MTV flash of “Miami Vice” brought people who thought they were too smart and cool to watch TV back to the medium. In doing so, it was an important link in the chain that eventually brought us “The Sopranos” and “Mad Men,” “Deadwood” and “The Americans.”

And your humble critic was there to chronicle all of it, from the blazing first two seasons to the flame-out years when the ratings dropped and the threat of cancellation loomed. She even dutifully reported on Don Johnson’s post-Vice career (although now she can’t remember why).

And here I am, on the 35th anniversary of the show’s premiere, still marveling at how thoroughly “Miami Vice” defined its time, both pop culturally and politically, while proving to be so far ahead of it.  I continued covering “Vice” when I was TV critic for the San Francisco Examiner. Here’s the appreciation and eulogy I wrote for the series when it aired its May 21, 1989 finale, “Freefall.” (Click images to enlarge.) I wouldn’t change a word of it today.  The plot of the finale depicts Crockett and Tubbs uncovering the shadowy alliances between a lawless executive branch, scoundrels-for-hire and anti-democratic regimes in another part of the world. Only the fashions have changed.

(Reruns of “Miami Vice” can be streamed on NBC.com. They also air on the premium cable channel Encore/Starz. Thanks to Dan Brekke, for his help retrieving the Examiner piece.)

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2019