Ten Things That Make Miami Vice Awesome

My favorite television show of all time: Miami Vice.

No, really. I own the box set on DVD, which, naturally enough, comes in a white faux-alligator box lined with seafoam-green velvet.

Miami Vice, which aired for five seasons on NBC from 1984 to 1989, now exists as a pop culture punch line. It’s mostly remembered as a relic of the hyper-stylized Eighties. That’s a shame, because there’s more to it than that.

For example:

1. Edward James Olmos. Miami Vice kicked off its first season looking like a fairly traditional cop show, albeit one with terrific production values and a whopping budget for music rights. Then Edward James Olmos joined the cast as Lieutenant Martin Castillo, and everything changed. In his cheap black suit and skinny tie over a white short-sleeved shirt, his face obscured by a gigantic bushy mustache, Castillo is physically unprepossessing, especially compared to the glamorous Vice cops under his charge. The perpetually-somber Castillo speaks so softly it’s often difficult to hear him. He seldom makes eye contact. He sleeps in his office. At times, he seems self-contained and introverted almost to the point of being autistic. Don’t be fooled: he’s crazy, in the best possible way. Throughout five seasons, bits and pieces emerge about his background: he’s a former DEA agent with ties to the CIA who worked extensively in the Golden Triangle. He dabbles in Santeria. He runs afoul of the KGB. Also? He’s a ninja.

Olmos scooped up a Best Supporting Actor Emmy for the role, and deservedly so: it’s a hell of a character and a hell of a performance. He’s still a skilled performer, though I respectfully disagree with fans who feel he’s been robbed by the Emmys for his current work on Battlestar Galactica: it may be only because he set the bar so high in his earlier performance, but compared to Castillo’s mix of profound stillness and coiled energy, Olmos sometimes seems to be phoning it in BSG.

2. Crockett and Tubbs are downright adorable. I feel like I’m damning the show’s leads with faint praise by listing them after their costar Olmos. This was not the intention; yes, they take second place, but it’s a pretty tight race. The pilot episode played up the differences between white southern Vice cop Sonny Crockett (Don Johnson) and his brand-new partner Rico Tubbs (Philip Michael Thomas), a black cop transplanted from New York. The whole odd-couple conceit soon became irrelevant: Crockett might be more intuitive and impulsive, whereas Tubbs might be smarter and more skeptical, but the two are much closer to a matched set than a study in contrasts.

At heart, Crockett and Tubbs are a couple of nice guys in the process of being destroyed by their line of work. Stuck in deep cover as loathsome drug runners Burnett and Cooper, it bothers them to no end that much of Miami thinks of them as scumbags. They’re not coming out of this with their souls intact; the show makes it clear it’s only a matter of time before they become crazy or corrupt or both (it’s no accident that a handful of episodes – “Evan,” “Out Where the Buses Don’t Run,” and “Payback,” among others – feature corrupt, burned-out, or certifiably insane undercover cops who serve as Bizarro-world versions of Crockett and Tubbs).

The oft-imitated and oft-derided fashions of Miami Vice -- the unstructured pastel suits over t-shirts and the loafers without socks -- are undeniably silly, but Tubbs and Crockett are sleek and polished and handsome enough to turn them into a coveted and iconic look. The casting is dead on: Johnson and Thomas have sparkling chemistry together, they’re both immensely likeable and sympathetic, and they anchor the series.

3. It was a breeding ground for future film and television stars. Pick an episode, any episode: someone you recognize will pop up in a supporting part. A significant percentage of today’s working actors earned some solid early exposure by guest-starring on Miami Vice: Viggo Mortensen, Michael Chiklis, Liam Neeson, Wesley Snipes, Bruce Willis, Chris Rock, Helena Bonham Carter, Annette Bening, Kyra Sedgwick, Ving Rhames, Stanley Tucci, John Leguizamo, Dennis Farina, Julia Roberts… The list goes on.

4. The stunt casting. Miami Vice featured an insane panoply of bizarre and entertaining guest stars: James Brown, Ted Nugent, Willie Nelson, Little Richard, Frank Zappa, Miles Davis, Penn and Teller (who appear on separate episodes – the perpetually-silent Teller even speaks!), Lee Iacocca, G. Gordon Liddy, George Takei, Eartha Kitt. Madness! In the best possible way!

5. The set design. I’ve never been to Miami, and I’m not sure I ever want to visit. The reality, particularly twenty years on, can’t possibly live up to the aggressively unfriendly and uncomfortable awesomeness of the Miami Vice sets. Here, everything’s either a blinding white or an unending vista of washed-out pastels. (As demonstrated by Castillo’s sickly salmon-pink office and the institutional pale green wall of the Vice squad room, pastels aren’t always demure and pretty). Houses rise up from stilts in the water, while monstrous structures of concrete and sheet metal with round windows and jutting balconies dot the shoreline. The interiors lean toward weird pop-art, bizarre architectural flourishes, and off-putting color schemes, all of which telegraph a clear message: things ain’t right in Miami.

6. The music. I once watched Miami Vice with a music-savvy friend who expressed his concern that the collision of so many wildly diverse types of music – in this particular episode, Depeche Mode, Guns N' Roses, and Willie Nelson – would rip open a vortex in the fabric of the universe.

7. The weirdness. Oh, lordy, Miami Vice is weird. It’s as bleak as it can get without becoming outright post-apocalyptic. Episodes are jam-packed with characters with unfathomable motives, loopy romantic interests, off-kilter encounters, sudden violence, and boatloads of free-form insanity, as though the brightness and heat has boiled everyone’s brains and turned the entire population of Miami into deadly, feral lunatics.

8. It’s escapist television at its finest. Bleak, yes. Hostile, absolutely. Still, Miami Vice should never be mistaken for a gritty depiction of reality. Some elements of the show are nothing short of gratuitous wish-fulfillment. Take Crockett, for instance: He drives a Ferrari. And lives on a boat. With a pet alligator. To the best of my knowledge, series creator Anthony Yerkovich was not fourteen when he dreamed up this character, but it sort of seems like it.

9. Gina and Trudy. Long-suffering, under-appreciated, and totally hot. I have much love for Vice cops Gina and Trudy (Sandra Santiago and Olivia Brown). They never get much action -- mostly, they pose undercover as hookers and carry out thankless drudge work for Crockett and Tubbs -- but they’re pretty awesome anyway.

10. It (almost) pulls off the whole “Crockett loses his memory and becomes crazy and evil” plotline. Some background is required here: at the conclusion of the fourth season, after suffering a severe personal tragedy (I’d go into greater detail, but it would involve invoking the words “Sheena Easton,” which is a topic one should take pains to avoid whilst extolling the awesomeness of Miami Vice), a grieving Crockett gets caught in a boat explosion, develops amnesia, and becomes convinced he’s his murderous drug-running alter ego, Sonny Burnett. This kicks off the fifth and final season in grand style, as Crockett murders his way up the ranks of a crime family, shagging Julia Roberts and trying to kill Tubbs along the way. This is a ridiculous, preposterous, overwrought, impossible plotline, but it works. Johnson, who has a tendency to over-emote, reigns himself in and delivers a cold, manipulative, emotionally-bankrupt performance that helps sell this nonsense; it helps that he’s surrounded with heavy-hitting (and downright weird) guest stars, including Matt Frewer and Jon Polito. Yeah, it’s absurd, but near the conclusion of this arc, as Crockett wanders around Miami, his marbles slowly returning to him while Peter Gabriel’s “Don’t Give Up” wails in the background, then drifts into Vice headquarters only to find his horrified friends and coworkers holding him at gunpoint, I defy you not to be fully emotionally invested in this mayhem.

Comments

Jason Gilman said…
Miami Vice usually ran on Friday nights after Knightrider didn't it? I think initially it aired past my bedtime and then later in its run when I had more free reign to stay up on a Friday night I never really got into it. I do remember watching a few episodes here and there, but clearly there are nuances that would have completely escaped my unrefined early teenage mind. I'm going to have to file this away as a show to give another try at some point.
Ingrid Richter said…
Excellent article, Morgan - made me want to dig out my Miami Vice DVDs and watch the old episodes again.

Much like Max Headroom, what I remember most about Miami Vice was the bleakness and despair (and jai alai and "Little Miss Dangerous"). Strange, since now it's pretty much synonymous for "extreme 80's fashion and pretty - but vain - men"...

Any chance of a "Top Ten Miami Vice Episodes" article in the future?
Jason Gilman said…
Incidentally, tangential sidenote. I watched one episode (plus the two hour special/pilot that preceded it) of the new Knight Rider (love the the fantastical tech/car hate everything else) and was horrified to see the role Paul Campbell had ended up with after leaving BSG. Thankfully based on the trailer, Play The Game looks like a more worthy and entertaining vehicle for his talents.
Ingrid Richter said…
You know, I was seriously tempted by the new Knight Rider, Jason. Just never got around to watching the pilot episode. Good to hear what you liked/didn't like about it.

Looks like Hulu has a handful of full-length Miami Vice episodes up at: http://www.hulu.com/videos/search?query=Miami+vice
Jason Gilman said…
For those that want to check it out for free it looks like Hulu has the first three seasons of Miami Vice available for our viewing pleasure.
Jason Gilman said…
Oops didn't see your last post Ingrid.

Yeah, I was really hopeful for the new Knight Rider, but came away disappointed. I did enjoy that they took things up a notch with the nanotech transformable car (it's a truck too!) and also made things international by having a cargo plane rather than a semi truck.
Ingrid Richter said…
Heh. Great minds think alike :-)
Morgan Richter said…
Yikes! I go for a brisk walk, and the Miami Vice discussion explodes without me!

Any chance of a "Top Ten Miami Vice Episodes" article

Funny you should ask, Ingrid, because that's one of the ten or so half-written blog essays stored on my laptop that I haven't gotten around to finishing. I lack follow-through. My totally arbitrary picks: Pilot (Jimmy Smits gets blown to smithereens), Evan (gosh, that nice dad from Boy Meets World can sure be a dick), Junk Love (a heartwarming tale of drug-addled incest), Bushido (Ninja Castillo vs. the KGB), Out Where the Buses Don't Run (mostly for the use of Dire Straits' "Brothers in Arms", and also because it's in my head because Boy-Morgan and I watched it when he was over here on Friday), Payback (Frank Zappa!), Definitely Miami (Ted Nugent), Red Tape (Lou Diamond Philips and Viggo Mortenson as Crockett & Tubbs version 2.0), Hostile Takeover (insane Crockett pt. 1), and Redemption in Blood (insane Crockett pt.2). Although now that I think of it, the death-by-jai alai episode should be on the list. And Little Miss Dangerous as well.

Jason, I've been sort of deliberately avoiding the new Knight Rider, though it's good to see Paul Campbell getting work post-BSG. I hear he even plays a character named Billy...
Ingrid Richter said…
Billy! I keep hoping that he'll be the final Cylon...

What about the Ed O'Neill Miami Vice episode, just for that fantastically melancholy ending? Or the Santeria episode with Eartha Kitt? Great stuff.
Jason Gilman said…
Morgan, I definitely understand Paul Campbell's need to find work post BSG, but my understanding was that he left BSG because he was getting some interest for more prominent roles/opportunities. His role on the new Knight Rider did not fit that bill, so I wonder if some of the other things fell through.

Ingrid, speaking of great minds, it actually crossed mine that Billy would be a good unlikely twist for the final cyclon.
Morgan Richter said…
but my understanding was that he left BSG because he was getting some interest for more prominent roles/opportunities.

Yeah -- he left to do a pilot, I believe (though I could be entirely wrong).

Okay, I just checked Battlestar Wiki, and yeah, that's more or less much it. I'd heard whispers that it was a somewhat acrimonious split, which the Wiki entry seems to maybe bear out. Thus, I'm thinking he's not going to emerge as the Final Cylon. But he seems to be working steadily, at least.
josh jackson said…
I had the Miami Vice soundtrack. Well, music featured on the show, anyway. It was a cassette tape. Remember those? Good times.

This is off topic, but if I hear tell right (I've been living in the south waaaay too long), someone has a birthday coming up. *cough*Morgan*cough*
Ingrid Richter said…
Right you are, Josh: it is Morgan's presidential birthday on Friday! I'm coming out to visit on Saturday, a day too late to properly celebrate, but I think we'll try to make up for lost time.

Happy birthday week, Morgan!
Morgan Richter said…
Presidential birthday = the age where one can legally become a US President. I was a hair too late for 2008, but I'm already gearing up for my 2012 campaign.

Boy-Morgan is still in town, so last night we watched the "Ninja Castillo battles the KGB" episode, mostly to prove I wasn't making this up. He was duly impressed. The lead KGB agent is naturally named "Surf", which gave Crockett a chance to quip, "Surf's up, dude," right before opening fire on him.

Weird show.
josh jackson said…
I'll have to Hulu that episode. I only remember Morgan's birthday because it occurs about a fortnight before mine. Since I'll be on the road for the historic occasion, let me now say Happy Birthday Morgan!
Morgan Richter said…
Thank you, Josh, and I hope your cross-country move goes as smoothly as humanly possible. If I don't get the chance closer to the actual day, I'll wish you a happy birthday now as well.
Morgan Dodge said…
Finally, a moment to actually read this puppy.

It's cool to see that in our sporadic Miami Vice viewings we've covered most of your best-of list. The notable exception would appear to be the insane Crockett ones. Maybe next time?

1. Olmos is awesome. I probably saw 1.5 episodes back in the 80s, so I had no idea. But the man hangs from the ceiling. Come on. He uses a sword, apparently only leaves his office when he needs to drink tea, and he saves orphans (that he orphaned). What's not to love?

2. How many people can look ok in peach loafers?

3. You forgot my favorite of the bunch, Steve Buscemi. Young and fresh-faced.

4. I have no idea who was in charge of this but I love it, even if it's kinda sad that The Power Station didn't make it into a better episode.

5. Yes. Bizarre.

6. This is where I could go on for ages but all that really needs to be said is that they used all the original songs for the DVD set, thankfully.

7. Yes. Bizarre.

8. No, really, it's true. For the run of the episode I completely forget all my worldly woes.

9. I'm a little confused about the jobs in that office. I'd like to see an org chart or something. But doesn't every cop show need really good fake hookers?

10. See, now I have to see it!

Ya, I missed it back in the day. Shame really.
Morgan Richter said…
Heh. Well, Boy-Morgan, I sort of suspect my list is comprised mostly of episodes we've recently watched mainly because they're currently fresh in my brain.

To address your points:

1. Yes. It's the moment when Castillo dangles from the ceiling whilst lying in wait for the KGB that really puts his character squarely on the side of awesomeness. The best part is how Miami Vice always plays the absurdity totally straight -- there's no ironic wink to the audience: "Hey, straight-laced Castillo is really a ninja! Isn't it kooky???" Nope. He's dangling from the ceiling and running amuck with a katana. Accept it and move on.

6. Yes. I would have cried if they'd replaced all the music on the DVDs with cheaper sound-alike versions. I'm sure securing all the music rights (again) was a beast, but I'm so, so glad they bothered.

9. I always wanted either Gina or Trudy to point out to the boys that they were kept plenty busy posing as fake hookers, and thus Crockett and Tubbs could fetch their own damn files, thank you very much. But no. They were much too good-natured for that.

10. During your next visit, we'll watch Crockett go insane and evil. It's a hoot.
Morgan Dodge said…
9. I always wanted either Gina or Trudy to point out to the boys that they were kept plenty busy posing as fake hookers, and thus Crockett and Tubbs could fetch their own damn files, thank you very much. But no. They were much too good-natured for that.

You mean "pull their own jackets," no?

Q: Hey, Trudy, could you pull a jacket for me next time you're in the file room? Hey Gina, mind getting a jacket on a guy for me next time you're down town?

A: I'm sorry guys, we have to go shop for more good hooker clothes. This time we're going to play rollerskating hookers for the sting!
Morgan Richter said…
You mean "pull their own jackets," no?

Yeah, but I didn't want to be tossing around hard-boiled cop lingo and making all the non-MV viewers around here feeling insecure and out of the loop.

By the way, everyone really, really needs to check out this post on that cute Brea Grant's (aka Daphne) blog, in which she answers a question from a reader named Morgan, who is most definitely not this Morgan, but who may very well be some other Morgan who comments up a storm around here. In any case, it's from someone who has a keen interest in turtles. Narrows it down, no?
Ingrid Richter said…
Shelley and Skulky are so very, very similar in name. Good for Brea Grant for answering her fan mail!

No idea which Morgan you could possibly be talking about, though. I'm clueless...
Morgan Richter said…
As I was explaining to Boy-Morgan last night, a turtle actor named Elvis and/or Shelley can certainly play a turtle character named Skulky the Turtle Wonder. So everyone (Dan) can rest assured the Skulky legend is still intact.

Brea Grant is kind of awesome.
Morgan Dodge said…
Brea Grant is kind of awesome.

Not only does she answer her own email, but she answers even the most absurd of questions. What's the name of the turtle? There she is, to set the record straight. I'm a little bit in awe.

No idea what Morgan is out there asking such questions, however. Perhaps we should check in with the Morgan-Turtle coalition? They must have records or something?
Dan said…
Merry Presidential Birthday, Morgan. Excuse my shameful ignorance, but is the Presidential Age the age at which you are allowed to become President, or the age at which you are allowed to run for President. Because if it's the former, you could still have run last year, knocked that Obama chap off his high horse and turned the right age just in time for inauguration.

(If it's the latter, this wouldn't work.)

I'd read the first ten or so comments on this item, but hadn't responded, due to

a) complete Miami Vice ignorance, never having seen a full episode

and

b) see a)

However, Morgan Freeman's questioning of Brea Grant has certainly piqued my interest.

And I agree with Girl-Morgan, Elvis The Turtle Actor certainly plays a magnificent role as Skulky The Turtle Wonder.

I smell an Emmy...

At least I hope it's an Emmy. If it's turtle soup, I'll be cross.
Morgan Richter said…
(A huge thanks to Jason, Lou, and Dan, each of whom independently presented me with birthday greetings featuring various incarnations of Mohinder -- respectively, Mutated Elvis Mohinder, Shiny Pretty Mohinder, and Almost Certainly Naked Below The Waist Mohinder. It's like the best line of prospective action figures ever! You guys are awesome.)

Well, Dan, per Article 2, Section 1, Clause 5 of the US Constitution, "...neither shall any person be eligible to that office who shall not have attained to the age of thirty five years". So I interpret this to mean that I'd have to be 35 upon inauguration, not election. And since I turn 35 today and inauguration is Tuesday... blast it, I could have squeaked in under the wire this year after all! Still, the 2012 dream is alive.

(Not related, but funny: Ces Marciuliano's awesome comic strip Teenage Girl President.)

complete Miami Vice ignorance, never having seen a full episode

I find it bizarre that any eighties-loving individual who uses "One Night in Bangkok" lyrics as his Facebook status updates and freely confesses his love for "Walking on Sunshine" would have so little interest in Miami Vice. Strange.

However, Morgan Freeman's questioning of Brea Grant has certainly piqued my interest.

See, I was just assuming it was noted turtle afficianado Morgan Fairchild. But I suppose it could just as easily be Mr. Freeman.
Dan said…
I find it bizarre that any eighties-loving individual who uses "One Night in Bangkok" lyrics as his Facebook status updates and freely confesses his love for "Walking on Sunshine" would have so little interest in Miami Vice. Strange.

I am a riddle wrapped in a Rubik's Cube inside a pair of leg warmers
Rob said…
There were a few groundbreaking things that happened in the eighties that made the world what it is today. Many of them are under -appreciated. All you have to do is look "pretty" to be dismissed.

That's extremely unfortunate because Miami Vice was a revolutionary police show. For the first time in my life - ever, I saw a show that wasn't all tidied up in the last 5 minutes. I member shows where we watched Crockett and Tubbs chase someone for the whole show just to watch the "bad guy's" boat drive away in the sunset at the end, totally unable to catch them. Sometimes the shows would end with no ending. They just left you hanging. But it was on purpose. Because in real life, sometimes you just can't solve everything. Sometimes a file goes in the "unresolved" drawer at headquarters. That was unreal at the time. I remember feeling ripped off - then feeling that this show was pure genius!

Not only were the episodes more intense than have ever been seen, here are some other grounbreaking accomplishments that wouldn't have happened without Miami Vice.

Ever heard of South Beach? Of course! Everyone goes there to party. It's a huge hangout for Hollywood and the Fashion industry. No one had heard of when Miami Vice started. It just had nice Art-Deco architecture that fit a look they were using as a backdrop. The location scouts found it. Now it's known world-wide. There would be no CSI:Miami without Miami Vice, because Miami used to be just another beach city like San Diego, etc.

People used to describe it as "gritty". That's a good term. We also wouldn't have had the more realistic cop shows (Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue, Law and Order, The Shield, etc.) without Miami Vice.

The show also convinced a lot of TV exec's that if you pay good money for a really nice set and good music, it can pay off because people view it as more realistic. That had never happened before, but has always happened after Miami Vice.

People in TV Communications fields should write their master's thesis on this show. It had an impact that few acknowledge, but all imitate.
Morgan Richter said…
Good comment, Rob, and you're exactly right: it's not an exaggeration to state that Miami Vice changed television -- and changed South Beach. It was, quite legitimately, groundbreaking.

As you point out, the episodes would often end in medias res, with no neat, satisfying conclusion, which was (and still is) disorienting. For all its popularity, it's not a user-friendly show. These days, when people wax nostalgic about the show, they usually remember the pretty actors or the fast cars or the set design or the soundtrack -- what's often overlooked is that it was aggressively bleak and hostile, too. Really remarkable television, and for all the imitators, it's never been matched.
John Portillo said…
What episode was Teller in of Penn and Teller? I don't ever recall seeing him in an episode. Penn on the other hand was interesting as a drug pusher in The Prodigal Son. Too bad for his unfortunate end in the episode.
Morgan Richter said…
John -- Teller is in season four's "Like a Hurricane", where Crockett first meets Caitlin. He plays a corrupt lawyer, and yep, he speaks. Penn was pretty great in "Prodigal Son."

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