Saturday, December 8, 2012

80s Month Week 1: Miami Vice

To me, nothing says Christmas like neon, blazers with rolled up sleeves, and gratuitous shoulder pads.  So as the weather gets colder and the sound of jingle bells waft in the air, here at Progressive Scan we'll be spending December with some of the best stuff 30 years ago had to offer. First up, the most 80s of 80s things there is: Miami Vice!

When I fired up the pilot episode of Miami Vice I fully expected to love it, but in an ironic “oh my god look at what he’s wearing!” kind of way. Now, halfway into the first season I must admit that my affection for this show is totally without irony.

Miami Vice deals with the exploits of Vice Squad detectives Sonny Crockett (Don Johnson in all his often-shirtless glory) and Roberto Tubbs (Philip Michael Thomas) as they bust pimps, loan sharks, and drug dealers in sunny Miami. It’s no Wire style realistic police procedural, though. Most cases seem to be solved by speed boat chases, automatic weapons fire, and running red lights in a black Ferrari.

For such an old show, the first thing that you notice is how fresh everything feels. Executive Producer Michael Mann (director of such badass films as Thief and Heat, which will probably be covered on this blog soon) brought the full might of his dark and gritty neon aesthetic to the show, making it one of the first TV series to go out of its way to look less like TV and more like a movie. In 2012 it feels contemporary, so I can only imagine what it must have looked like back in 1984. Heads likely exploded.

Part of Miami Vice’s recipe for success is the music. Somehow NBC was able to wrangle usage rights to basically the entire 1984 top 40 chart for the show, and they put it to good use. There are usually three or four awesome music cues per episode often accompanied by great mood-setting montages that take full advantage of beauty of Miami.

The best (and probably most famous) example of this is in the pilot episode, where Crockett and Tubbs drive through the neon drenched Miami night towards a probably fatal confrontation accompanied by the slow burn of Peter Gabriel’s In The Air Tonight. I immediately recognized it as the granddaddy to the opening credits sequence of last year’s Drive.

Aside from the music the real draw of the show, then and now, is the action. There is an awful lot of it. A normal episode will have an action beat every 15 minutes or so, and you can rely on the hour ending in a big gunfight of some kind. Lucky then that the action directing is so expert throughout. Gunplay in this show has a palpable sense of danger and deadliness. Part of that is the attention to detail. For example, in the series’ fifth episode Crockett and Tubbs go head to head with a highly paid Argentinean assassin who is wiping out Miami’s drug dealers one by one. In this scene the silicone gloves, the clinical way he holds the shotgun, and that crazy quickdraw all paint a picture of methodical danger for our protagonists.

It’s also worth mentioning that the performances are top notch all around. Don Johnson (despite his insistence on being shirtless whenever possible) does an excellent job of teasing out the quiet desperation behind Crockett’s white blazer and fancy gun, and Philip Michael Thomas brings a kind of crazy unpredictable energy to Tubbs. The march of stars and up-and coming stars in the guest roles don’t hurt either (Ed O’neil as a FBI agent on the edge! Bruce Willis as a psychotic arms dealer! Edward James Olmos as the cigar chomping lieutenant!).

Then there’s the clothes…but maybe the less said about them the better.

Anyway, anytime you are up for a ride in a Testarossa followed by a gunfight on a drug kingpin’s yacht, all of Miami Vice is available on Netflix.


  1. That detail in gunplay is why some firearm guys really go for parts of this show. The Argentinian assassin was played by the firearms instructor for the show, and is credited with inventing the details like the gloves on set. More here -

  2. That's fascinating. More wiki-ing reveals that Michael Mann is a bit of a stickler for firearm authenticity, going so far as to send James Caan to gun camp before the production of Thief so that he would look like he knew what he was doing during that final gunfight

  3. I think it's more fascinating there's a whole wiki devoted to Miami Vice.