Miami Vice! Merely to say the name was to make pulses quicken and eyebrows raise all over mid-80's America: here was a TV series that could bridge the then-considerable gap between lowbrow action-adventure and highbrow art-house cinema, a sizzling expose of sin and fun under the sun with a wake-up call message to America, a show to make law enforcement, chastity and the recovery movement not only hip and acceptable, but sexy. Miami Vice! Debuting in the fall of 1984, and
starring Don Johnson, a man brought back from the brink of death from drug and alcohol abuse by the intervention of his beyond-hip 12-stepping girlfriend (GTO's Patti D'Aubanville) and kept on the straight and narrow by wife Melanie Griffith, he played Sonny Crockett, a newly-divorced vice cop living under deep cover as a cocaine smuggler/dealer on a sailboat with a ticking, stoned alligator named Elvis. In a nearly unprecedented move, the majority of the cast was black and Hispanic, or at least "ethnic": the multiracial, New York-savvy Rico Tubbs (Philip Michael Thomas), his enigmatic boss (the respected stage actor Edward James Olmos), large-but-luscious softie Olivia Brown, and the wisecracking Saundra Santiago, and the director was none other than the edgy, sophisticated Michael Mann, known at the time for the icily sophisticated thrillers Thief and Manhunter.
As a fanfic writer at the time, I was tempted to come out with a Miami Vice Box, in the manner of J. G. Ballard : two dress-up dolls (with costumes), architectural photography of some interesting locales, a book of recipes, some models of cars, boats, furniture, etc., a tape of music, and lastly, almost as an afterthought, a storybook to tie them together. Everything was as austerely elegant as an essay in deconstruction, employing as many postmodern tropes as could be loaded into one show: music, from electronic art-rock to dance music to country-inflected ballads (both as background and standalone music videos within the story) and (some) Latin music, Italian and Japanese designers, Memphis furniture, nouvelle cuisine (both the 'classic' low-carb and the 'progressive' lite version), the emerging worlds of personal computing and video games. Every aspect of the show, from Don Johnson's personal toilette (he shaved with a sideburn trimmer to get an artful stubble) and the costumes of the principals (styled after Amani, among others, with some actual pieces used) to the cars and boats used to the wildly surreal locations were the subject of countless articles and hours of discussion on the air, at parties, and at watercoolers everywhere. As befit a Michael Mann production, everything was hard-edged and chilly-looking in either sun-drenched pastels or the deep black-leather hues of the rain-swept mean streets. Notable scenes and even entire shows were written around interesting camera techniques or technical tricks: I remember one interesting dialog where one actor was between a pair of children in the background playing ball so that the ball went "through" the man's neck, one where Crockett & Tubbs went the whole show without speaking to each other, and one that was nonstop Elvis Presley references. And the guest stars! You never knew who would show up next...Miguel Pinero, perhaps, but...Frank Zappa?...G. Gordon Liddy??...even ...Miles Davis(huh?). For some reason, I always seemed to want to be drinking (wine, or something appropriately sophisticated) or smoking pot when Miami Vice went on, though the Prohibitionist atmosphere of the program always made this problematical: it always seemed to be saying, liberate yourself from all false drugs, and you'll find a true vision and have be permanently high beyond all imagining. (Like I said, I was stoned.)
Except there never was one. The problem was, Don Johnson had the depth of center ice in Anaheim with no zamboni in sight. Aside from being a certified good ol' boy, and having a handful of semi-insignificant movies under his belt (plus one debatably good one) his major draw was his (often obviously mascara'ed and otherwise edited) pretty face and status as recovery-movement cover-boy Lazarus. (I seem to remember quite the basket on the fellow, as well...) The fact that he had exactly four facial expressions (determined and rugged, friendly and charming, seductive and...I forget the fourth...oh, yeah, surprised) tended to be forgotten as did the fact that he never quite seemed to be on-screen or off, really hip to what was going on around him. As the show wore on, it became obvious that the entire franchise was trading on the legend of the era not-quite-past, the hedonistic lassez-faire Seventies, negating it without being able to replace it with anything substantial. Outside of their jobs and cover stories, neither Crockett or Tubbs (or, for that matter, anyone else in the cast) had any "real" lives beyond a voyeuristic moral outrage at the world of surfaces and sensation that surrounded them: religion, old friends, family ties, even those of ethnicity and birthplace were routinely trivialized or turned into tools of the Enemy -- only a life spent in eternal, obsessive vigilance against human pleasure made any sense at all. In other words the show sold
drugs, sex, and consumerism, decrying them all as false paths while pointing out no other direction save to insist on moving instantly beyond them. The show began to run out of steam three years later, and was cancelled after five seasons, an uneasy relic of the Age of Greed and Republicanism in a time of recession and growing political polarization.
Perhaps it's only fair that it promised far more than it delivered. Pretty much no show could have, considering the tenor of the time, and most of the shows that tried to follow in its in-your-face decadence and cinematic virtuosity (Max Headroom, Profit, and arguably the cartoon series, Jem) have been interesting experiments, but yanked before full fruition. Don Johnson went on to other projects, and allegedly back onto liquor and coke (to everyone's great relief), as did Melanie Griffith, who also divorced him, though recovery-movement-themed shows continued through the mid-90's. Olmos got his credibility back, as did Michael Mann. But TV has never quite been the same since. Wow.