Thursday, June 9, 2011

Miami Vice: Fighting Crime in Style... and Pastels

Detectives come in all colors: Trench-coat tan, fedora black or gray, calabash pipe mahogany, or, if a member of the vice squad in Miami, Florida, in the mid-80s, a lot of pastels. Created by Anthony Yerkovich and executive produced by film writer/director Michael Mann, Miami Vice premiered in September 1984 on NBC. The series focused on two partners: Detective James “Sonny” Crockett (Don Johnson) and Detective Ricardo “Rico” Tubbs (Philip Michael Thomas).

Reportedly, creator Yerkovich’s starting point was a memo from NBC exec Brandon Tartikoff which simply read, “MTV cops.” The most popular and most memorable aspects of Miami Vice, even over 25 years later, are its colors and music. Whites, pinks, and light blues would cover the screen, from characters’ attire to the cars they were driving and even the main title. Music would propel the narrative, not simply Jan Hammer’s celebrated theme, but a number of popular hit songs of the time appearing in each episode. They truly were “MTV cops,” with the loud, aggressive opening credits sequence and a multitude of transitional scenes looking very much like music videos.

Miami Vice was one of the first TV shows to routinely use current hit songs, a number of them Top 40 hits that many viewers would recognize. These songs were typically incorporated into the narrative: Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight” played during a moody night drive as the cops consider their next move, The Tubes’ “She’s a Beauty” while a pretty young lady exercises in fashionable 80s aerobics gear, and Honeymoon Suite’s “New Girl Now”, a song telling an ex-girlfriend that there’s “a new girl now,” played while Crockett initiates an investigation to help his ex. It was not uncommon to see musicians appear on the show, including Collins, Sheena Easton (as Mrs. Crockett), Glenn Frey, Isaac Hayes, Frank Zappa and Willie Nelson. The series also starred well known actors such as Pam Grier, Dean Stockwell, Eartha Kitt, Tommy Chong and Clarence Williams III, and early performances from future stars such as Bruce Willis, Ed O’Neill, Laurence Fishburne, Jimmy Smits, Charles S. Dutton, Dennis Farina, Kyra Sedgwick, Vincent D’Onofrio, and numerous others. Some of these stars ended up as regulars on other cop/detective shows: Willis (Moonlighting), Fishburne (CSI), Smits (NYPD Blue), Farina (Crime Story; Mann was executive producer), Sedgwick (The Closer) and D’Onofrio (Law & Order: Criminal Intent).

But for all its flash, Miami Vice remained a show about detectives. Sonny Crockett is a headstrong, chain-smoking detective, in spite of his casual dress and perpetual five o’clock shadow. At the beginning of the series, his partner, Eddie (Smits), is killed while the two are working undercover, his estranged wife (Belinda Montgomery) wants a divorce and is planning on moving and taking their six-year-old son with her, and Crockett is engaged in an intimate relationship with another detective, Gina (Saundra Santiago).

Rico Tubbs could sometimes be a hothead, but his infallible undercover work and his grace under pressure made him a reputable detective. Tubbs is in actuality not a detective when he first encounters Crockett, but a New York patrol officer. He’s in Miami having tailed a drug lord, Calderone, whos responsible for his brother’s murder (Rico uses his brother’s detective badge to get assigned to the case). By the second episode, Tubbs is a Miami detective and working with Crockett, having ruined his chances of returning to his old job in New York with his personal and unauthorized investigation.

Crockett and Tubbs are initially and appropriately contrasted via colors. The pilot episode opens with Tubbs sitting in a car in New York, shrouded in the blackness of night. After sending two-bit punks scurrying away by letting them see the business end of his sawed-off double barrel shotgun, Tubbs follows Calderone into a seedy, pitch-black nightclub, and a confrontation leads into a deserted alleyway littered with garbage. The opening credits roll, with rapid-fire images of a bright, bustling Miami, and introduces Crockett dressed in a white jacket and slacks and a pastel blue T-shirt. He and Eddie are working a case, but the drive to a meet is in a convertible, still in the open air and the radiant sunlight. Even after arriving in Miami, Tubbs stands out at the airport, dances wildly at a dimly lit strip club to Rockwell’s “Somebody’s Watching Me” and while adorned in a gaudy T-shirt (almost as if he’s mocking the city he’s visiting), and has his first meeting (and high speed chase) with Crockett at night.
“This is Miami,” Cockett says to Tubbs. “Things are more relaxed.” In terms of fashion, Crockett is most definitely correct. His standard outfit -- light colors, a jacket/T-shirt combo, loafers sans socks -- became an immensely popular Miami Vice trait, not simply a characteristic, but a pop culture stylistic preference. Tubbs, on the other hand, typically wears suits, with more muted colors, double-breasted jackets and button-down shirts. Even if Tubbs wears no tie and has his dress shirt partially unbuttoned to show his chest and gold necklace (which he frequently does), he still looks more formal than his partner. Crockett’s mellow threads, however, don’t seem to carry over to his undercover work, as he sits back and smokes his Lucky Strike cigarettes with attitude, more than a little standoffish. Tubbs, in full suit and tie, is charming and in his element, often seizing the attention of anyone in the room. Tubbs was likely intended to be more straitlaced than Crockett, but something he says to his partner -- “I’m always ready” -- seems to exemplify his personality. His sincere determination makes him trustworthy and valuable, while Crockett tends to wear exasperation on his face, his problems apparent without having to say a word. In this case, clothes do not make the man. They only make him look snazzy.

Other detectives showcased on Miami Vice include partners Gina and Trudy (Olivia Brown), who sometimes walk the beat posing as prostitutes, and Detectives Switek (Michael Talbott) and Zito (John Diehl), who often handled surveillance jobs. Both pairs seem to express Crockett and Tubbs’ strongest characteristics: Gina and Trudy as the hard working, first-rate detectives, Switek and Zito the lighthearted comic relief. When the series begins, Lt. Lou Rodriguez (Gregory Sierra) is the commander, but after hes killed in the line of duty, Lt. Martin Castillo (Edward James Olmos) takes over the unit. Olmos is outstanding in a role he would retain for the remainder of the series (he won an Emmy and a Golden Globe and was nominated again for both). He rarely speaks, opting to stare people down in lieu of making a point with words. In his premiere episode, “One Eyed Jack”, Castillo is confronted by Tubbs. He whispers his line, “Don’t ever come up to my face like this again, Detective,” and it’s more potent than if he had physically assaulted the man. Olmos would lead a much different team in the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica as Commander Adama (and later moving in rank to Admiral).

Though Michael Mann neither created the series nor directed the pilot episode, his gritty style is apparent throughout Miami Vice. The music-video approach and overwhelming colors offset the seriousness associated with cops infusing themselves into the lives of criminals. In 2006, Mann wrote, directed and produced a big screen adaptation of the series, starring Colin Farrell as Sonny Crockett and Jamie Foxx as Rico Tubbs. It also starred popular Chinese actress, Gong Li, and featured Elizabeth Rodriguez as Gina, Naomie Harris as Trudy, Justin Theroux as Zito, Domenick Lombardozzi as Switek, and Barry Shabaka Henley as Lt. Castillo. Mann’s film is decisively darker, both in terms of tone and cinematography. It’s entertaining and well made, though it could have used some pastels.

Movies and TV shows with working partners often employ the buddy formula, pitting two persons together who are seemingly polar opposites but find common ground. Crockett and Tubbs are established as opposites, and this concept is maintained in future episodes as Tubbs will occasionally complain about the Miami way of living. But on the job, Tubbs is impeccable, fitting in just as well as, if not better than, Crockett. Miami Vice sought to please its audience visually, but its greatest strength was as a character study, watching how both of these men would adjust to each new case. Because underneath those pastel blues and pinks and those shiny gray suits were two exemplary -- and highly watchable -- vice cops.


  1. What I loved most about the show was.. how it influenced men's fashions and the very trendy music and guest performers.


  2. If I had to pick one TV show that captured the essence of the 1980s--its style, fashions, and music--it'd be MIAMI VICE. Sark, your excellent review enlightened me on many issues. Because I never saw the first season, I didn't know how Crockett and Tubbs met. And I always assumed that Michael Mann created the series--as you noted, his influence permeates the show. I love how you compared and contrast the two leads. As with any buddy show, the chemistry between those two is key and Don Johnson & Philip Michael Thomas played very well off one another. Still, I think it was the pastel color pallette and the music that elevated the show to classic status. In the history of TV, only a handful of show produced soundtrack albums. But the "Miami Vice Soundtrack" included Jan Hammer's hit theme plus two hit singles from Don Henley: "You Belong to the Cuty" and "Smuggler's Blues." Thanks, Sark, for a great trip back to the 1980s and a marvelous write-up on a trend-setting show.

  3. The COOLEST show on TV in the 80's! I watched every Friday night at 10:00. The perfect way to end the school week. OMG, Don Johnson was a hunk back then! Not so much anymore.

  4. Great review of a fantastic show. I watched every episode every Friday night it was on..and..saw all the reruns too. I loved Don Johnson who was so good looking. I really liked Philip Michael Thomas too. Loved the setting, clothes, plots, style, and have the main theme and You Belong to the City on my iPod. Terrific 80's show and really liked your awesome review, Sark.

  5. I feel like I know Miami Vice down to the last detail, its punch, the influence on clothes, the type of story and the partners' relationship -- best of all, the music. And what's funny is that I never watched one episode! Your article was so good, Sark, I feel like I have! Of course I had seen the partners and their look in TV magazines, commercials and such. Both of them looked good and acted cool...ultra cool. I love your title, and like Rick, I believe it sounds to be the perfect 80's TV.

    When it was on, I was working 2 jobs and raising 2 boys -- most of my viewing time was devoted to escapism in classic movies. I can't think why else I would have missed it. A single Mom on Friday night in my circumstances wasn't exactly out partying! Probably in the ensuing years, I just hadn't started with it and didn't pick up on its run.

    I just LOVE Tartikoff's term "MTV cops". That just says it all, doesn't it? Pretty smart guy. I liked very much your descriptions of the contrast between being a NY cop, then moving suddenly to palm trees, sunshine and a convertible. Boy that sounds good right now!

    You put a lot of work into this one, Sark, and it shows! I may not have been in the right situation or frame of mind when it came out, but I'd love to watch some now, especially the first season. Now I'll have to look and see if I can find it. And it's all your fault! You just wrote too wonderfully about it, and really made it sound worth the hunt! Great job!

  6. I was a devoted fan of "Miami Vice" in its day. It was a trendsetter and a reflection of the times - and it was also extraordinarily well done.
    The series was especially strong in its first two seasons and there are several great episodes that come to mind from those years. One from the first season titled "Milk Train" about two college kids over their heads in a drug deal stands out in my memory. It ends with Sonny sitting on the floor of the airport after the deal has gone wrong.
    Didn't think I would, but I liked Mann's 2006 film very much.
    Excellent write-up, Sark.

  7. Great post. I was a big fan of Crockett and Tubbs. Loved this show once upon a time. I wonder, watching it now, if it would hold up at all for me. MTV cops, even I who know little about modern music then and now, knew what this meant. I always loved the use of sunset colors and the clothing and the panache.

    I remember a particularly powerful episode with Bruce Willis as a cruel thug of a bad guy who gets his.

    My favorite episodes usually featured a sleazy little skinny guy played by Martin Ferrero - an acquired taste. Ha!

    Ferrero also played the doomed lawyer in the early part of JURASSIC PARK. When he is gulped down by the T-Rex (while cowering on a toilet bowl - Ferrero, not the T-Rex)), I turned to my mom who always worried that what she was watching on screen might somehow be real - and said, "Don't worry about it, Mom, he's only a lawyer." It became our favorite lawyer joke. :)