Look at this silly damn, dated Miami Vice TV show. Look at the way that guy dresses. Where are his socks? Why does everyone have a mullet? And those sunglasses, and the dated music. Did people really look and act like that back then? What the hell were the people who made this thinking?
They were thinking about making the greatest show of their time and for a long time after. To call it dated is missing the whole point. This show raised itself up over the sea of mediocrity that surrounded it by standing as a representative, a cultural monument—a crystallization of a point in time and a place and the culture that grew of it. You can say it looks silly as a result, but the truth is that there is no higher aspiration for a work of art than to become just that. A landmark, an icon, and one with meaning behind it, of a strange and unfamiliar place where this country once found itself—the “Kilroy was here” carved into the wall of a winding labyrinth by explorers uncertain they’d ever see home again.
Miami Vice is an episodic, buddy cop show that aired among dozens like it—didn’t and couldn’t really break the cage of genre or network format and thus spent its brief life chewing its teeth bloody against the bars. It situated its heroes in a world that grew out of a wild exaggeration of a then modern American culture. This is a show about tense situations, unlikely celebrity guest stars, gaudy fashions, fast exotic vehicles, and high capacity automatic weapons being sprayed by and at bad guys from behind cover—all set to a soundtrack of techno and 80s pop music and visually stylized with a wild use of colors and shapes as previously unheard of, and as ultimately pointless, as a Mondrian painting. With a depiction of the American lifestyle as a fat, greedy parasite gorging itself to the point of rupture, it exaggerated, it ridiculed, and it criticized the nonsensical excess of its generation and in the only appropriate way—by feeding into it.
The show’s setting, 1980s Miami, is a monster the likes of which mythologies have grown around. It is a character of such bizarre charisma and conflicting motivation as Macbeth or any of Shakespeare’s most tragic figures. A city named for a river, itself named for an extinct native people, built on the hot humid beaches of America’s most southeastern tip, that for most of its life has existed in a state as stagnant as the miles of festering swampland that surround it, but now experiencing an industrial boom the likes of which hasn’t been seen since the invention of the automobile. Suddenly springing up out of the murky swamps on a foundation of white powder, leased wholesale by the men who deal in it, and dressing itself in an architecture, fashion, and a culture guided by men who must have been snorting it. Yet at the same time, the United States has just declared a War on Drugs, and there are no heroes here to challenge its ruling. A war must be fought, by Miami, against itself—and though it’s not a war it hopes or intends to win, it is a war recognized twofold as an opportunity. This Miami is one composed of two competing industries, each feeding and growing off the other, and never forgetting to pay tribute to their host—the drug industry, and the drug war industry—like the legendary serpent feeding on its own tail, and somehow growing fat on it. And together they’ll repaint these pastel colored streets with bright crimson blood.
Enter Sonny Crockett and Ricardo Tubbs. Two undercover vice detectives, partners, who cannot possibly complete their jobs without Italian designer suits, a million dollar yacht, a speedboat, and a Ferrari. They need only to ask for these things, and they are instantly granted. How are they acquired? They’re simply picked out of the piles of such loot taken from the drug dealers they’ve blown away. In concept, the vice cops are to 80s Miami as Robocop is to future Detroit—a reckless, godless creation, and a desperate attempt to slow the advance of an unstoppable opponent by out-playing them at their own game. Personalities programmed to be impossibly suave and charismatic salesmen one moment and terrifyingly ruthless and efficient killers the next. They’re prototypes far too expensive and never intended for mass production, whose creators’ best long-term hope is that they will flame out safely in atmosphere before reentry, and whose conceptual drawings date back to the days when American Puritans left the extermination of the savages to men willing to paint their faces and adorn their belts with bleeding scalps—the same concept that gave us SOGs in Vietnam wearing black pajamas and paddy hats and SEALs in Afghanistan today growing beards, wearing keffiyehs, and bombing weddings. To beat an enemy, you must become him.
And so they live the ultimate fantasy—keeping their good guy licenses while enjoying all the best perks of becoming the enemy that America never really could defeat. Neither ever has more than $200 in their bank account, yet each spends at least as much every night on dinner, drinks, and strippers, charging it all to a city that can only afford to support their lifestyle because of its symbiotic relationship with the industry they were themselves created to combat. The underlying, ignored threat beneath this impossibly fun and glamorous lifestyle is that it is very much like the cocaine that fuels it. Once a person gets a taste of it, they are only going to want more. Every other episode ends with a sort of foreboding hint that the vice cops we love—if they live long enough—are not only going to lose this war, but will inevitably be turned to the other side. And never without the acknowledgement that this enemy is one that we ourselves created—that this corrupting influence only exists because we needed it as something to make war on, and that our vice cop heroes are never anything more than pawns in someone else’s rigged game.
Miami Vice’s generation isn’t the one that started this fight, but it was the one defined by it. If there’s a face to put on this war, it’s that former actor turned maniacal world leader, Reagan’s, and unlike every other show of its time, Miami Vice was the only one that saw that goofy, grinning face and not only refused to bow its head in worship but also felt the temptation to take a swing at it.
One episode is directly analogous to the Iran-Contra affair, showing a United States that takes the villain’s side in foreign conflicts for profit. A CIA agent—depicted by none other than former political hatchet man turned actor, G. Gordon Liddy, himself—appears in this and a previous episode. He first smuggles heroin back to America in the coffins of dead American soldiers, dying for no reason at all in Vietnam, and then, in an episode as nihilistically tragic as Chinatown, sells necklaces made of the ears of dead Nicaraguan villagers to US corporate interests and then flies away laughing, off to do further deeds in America’s name. And that’s the last we see of him. Seriously—he just gets away. This is only one of a series of moments in the show when the US government—and the corporations that it serves—are explicitly stated as being complicit in the industry it is supposed to be warring against, supporting and profiting from its worst atrocities. All in the name of protecting these wonderful rights and freedoms we take for granted, of course, and not because someone important and their friends are growing rich off violating the rights and freedoms of others.
Now, having said all that, I do have to add something of a disclaimer here. Just how well the show manages to smuggle any of the above points into its network genre format, and in a large part the quality of the show itself, varies pretty tremendously from episode to episode. The first two seasons, once they hit their stride, can generally be pointed to as masterpieces. The third season, under the leadership of Law & Order’s Dick Wolf rather than Michael Mann, takes a step forward in some ways, in terms of intellectual content, but loses a large part of the stylistic charm so crucial to its essence. And then everything after a point—I think it’s when one of the female vice cops has a dream involving alien abductions that may or may not have been a dream—becomes nigh unwatchable.