If there was one cop series that summed up the 80s, it had to be Miami Vice– and from this week it’s being re-screened on MBC Action. But far from just being another cop series, it was hugely influential in shaping the way the decade looked – both on and off TV. Words Matt Pomroy
Television programmes from the 80s are rarely as good as you remember them being, if indeed, you remember them being any good at all. More often than not, when you see them again after 20 years they seem horribly dated, unsophisticated and vastly inferior to what we have today. It’s like unplugging Halo 3 on your Xbox360 and cranking up the Sinclair Spectrum 48k for a few rounds of Horace Goes Skiing. Accordingly, if you tune in and watch Miami Vice, you’ll probably find it clichéd and kitsch. But the reason you’ll think that is largely because this series created what would become clichés in future. Its influence was vast – not just within the world of television but right across global culture. At the time, it was cutting edge and very much central to the zeitgeist of the decade that spawned it.
When Miami Vice first aired in 1984 the world was a very different place: The Republican President of America was calling for weapons of mass destruction to be banned, while simultaneously having the world’s biggest arsenal at his fingertips; there was political controversy ahead of the Summer Olympics; England failed to qualify for the European Championships football tournament; a new Indiana Jones film was on the way; the music industry was predicting doom and gloom because people were copying music off their mates instead of buying it; Duran Duran and Madonna were selling out on tour and The Daily Mail was obsessed with Princess Diana… Alright, maybe things weren’t that different – but Miami Vice really was fresh.
MTV had launched three years earlier; by now it was a phenomenon, and that would be the jumping off point or Miami Vice. Brandon Tartikoff, the NBC executive (who had already given us Knight Rider, The A-Team and Hill Street Blues, among others) wanted a new, hip, cop series and sent out a memo that simply said ‘MTV Cops’.
Tune in this week and you’ll see he got just that. The use of music in the series is key, to the point where at times it’s hard to tell if it’s a cop drama or a music video, but people loved it. The soundtrack album for the series spent 12 weeks at number one in America and is still the most successful TV soundtrack of all time. Accordingly, the detective duo who would front the series were specifically cast and dressed to look like they were in a music video.
The plots usually involved Sonny Crockett (Don Johnson) and Ricardo Tubbs (Philip Michael Thomas) cracking down on drug smugglers, vice and prostitution. But along with the stylised glamour and gun battles it did look at these issues is a slightly wider social context – although it’s hardly a deep, multi-layered series like The Wire.
That said, it’s well worth watching the pilot episode if only for one particular scene. Crockett and Tubbs are driving in a Ferrari Daytona Spyder though a wet Miami at night on their way to a showdown with drug dealers. They’re in silence – aside from the sound of guns being loaded – while a soundtrack of Phil Collins’ ‘In The Air Tonight’ plays over the top for a full three minutes and 20 seconds. It’s near perfect. The shots of the car’s wheel, the moody looks and the reflection on the wet streets would be commonplace in the series. But more significantly, it could be argued, that this scene is the point where the 80s started. Obviously not in terms of the date, or even in terms of many things that shaped the decade, such as Ronald Reagan becoming President, but at least in the way that rent-a-quotes on retrospective television programmes reminisce about it. This is the start of the 80s that is most loved by people who grew up during that time. The looks, the fashion, the imagery and the glitz.
A year later, one of the directors told Time magazine that ‘the show is written for an MTV audience, which is more interested in images, emotions and energy than plot and character and words.’ This is pretty much a spot-on summation of the series. While it’s fairly shallow, it would be one of the most influential series ever created (see panel on the right) and as well as having a huge lasting effect on television – higher production values, camera angles, stereo sound, etc. – it would go on to become one of the defining cultural touchstones for the decade.•
Miami Vice’s far-reaching influence on the 80s
The popularity of pastel shades for men in the 80s was largely a result of this series. Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas would wear up to eight different outfits in each episode, with pastel pinks, blues and greens being used to match the Art Deco architecture of the location. The idea was down to producer Michael Mann (who later directed films such as Heat, Ali, Collateral and the 2006 Miami Vice film) and he can largely take credit for many of the huge fashion trends during the 80s. Also popularised by the show was wearing slip-on shoes without socks, Ray-Ban Wayfarer shades (whose sales doubled), T-shirts under suits and designer stubble. The latter came about after Don Johnson spent the night with a real vice squad to help understand the role. He came into a production meeting early the next morning straight from a stakeout and had heavy stubble. The producers decided that this was exactly how an undercover vice cop should look.
The soundtrack albums of music from the series were so popular, record companies would make a huge effort to get their musicians’ songs used on the show. It was one of the first high-profile examples of product placement with music that we now see commonly on TV, adverts, in films and on computer games. Musicians were also given acting parts in the series including Phil Collins, Glen Frey, Sheena Easton and
many more. The theme tune went to number one in the charts and even the incidental music used was notable, with one instrumental piece from the first series, ‘Crockett’s Theme’ by Jan Hammer, being released as a single and reaching number one.
FILM AND TELEVISION
It was a huge starting place for many actors that would go on to big things in the 80s and beyond. If you watch the series you’ll see very early career appearances from the likes of Steve Buscemi, Stanley Tucci, Ving Rhames, Liam Neeson, Viggo Mortensen, Bruce Willis, Ed O’Neill, Wesley Snipes, Ian McShane, Bill Paxton, Julia Roberts, Melanie Griffith, John Turturro, Chris Rock, Ben Stiller, Lou Diamond Phillips, Michael Madsen, Dennis Farina, Terry O’Quinn, Kyra Sedgwick, Benicio Del Toro and more. Almost every episode is a game of spot the future star. If you count all the guest appearances in all five seasons, it’s hard to think of a TV series that can boast a better collective cast.