IN JANUARY, Universal Studios told Variety that it was going to be a while before the DVDs for the first season of Miami Vice would go on sale. Licensing the soundtrack--with music by U2, Eric Clapton, Phil Collins, and Tina Turner, among others--was proving very expensive. What then explains the sudden appearance of said DVDs only weeks later? What could have sent the permissions process into overdrive? This is just a guess, but it may have something to do with final casting and the beginning of film production for Miami Vice the movie starring Collin Farrell and Jamie Foxx, due out next year. Michael Mann, the TV show's executive producer, is directing the movie, while the TV show's director and creator Anthony Yerkovich, is executive-producing the movie.
Not a bad excuse for rolling out the first 22 episodes of the Friday night drama that made sockless boat shoes, sleeveless Ts, and five o'clock shadows fashionable. The $59.98, 3-disc set also includes a handful of mini features from which Crockett and Tubbs admirers will learn that Don Johnson had appeared in six failed pilots before Miami Vice producers fought to cast him in the lead. Also that the show's unprecedented costuming budget was in the six figures; that Friday night was not actually a desirable slot, because Dallas and Falcon Crest had the schedule all sewn up; that city officials, whose cooperation the producers definitely needed, worried the show's title would hurt Miami's image; and that while legend has it that the show was inspired by a note from a studio executive stating the formula "MTV cops," it was, though influenced by music videos, actually inspired by a newspaper article estimating the size of Miami's underground economy.
But the real question is, Was the show any good? Yes, it was, in a couple of obvious ways. One, it was beautiful; and two, the plots always kept a snappy pace. These two strengths--and some attendant ones--more than make up for the cheesiness of a show whose entire appeal depended on selling the notion of cops as figures of unequaled glamour.
Miami Vice had its weaknesses, too--dialogue and characterization for starters. "Is he still following us?" Crokett asks Tubbs in a chase scene in the show's first two-parter, "Calderone's Return." Says Tubbs: "Like a bad dream." The Philip Michael Thomas character is unfortunately saddled with being the colorful one, a job that requires using the most overdone lingo this side of jive talk. One interrogation scene with a Jamaican drug dealer even has Tubbs adopting, without warning, a "Ja, Mon" accent. Tubbs is of course down with the Rastas; he's got everyone's number.
The Crockett character generates his share of cringe-inducing moments, too, especially as Don Johnson's pastel Bogart lectures his fellow officers, in hoary cop-show clichés, about what's really going on. The self-righteous beach-bum detective in the summer suits is especially tough on his less well-clad colleagues. The show's fashion logic determines its social hierarchy. Basically, whenever some cop walks on the screen looking like he just come from the Barnie Miller show, you know Crockett is going to dress him down for getting in the way of his A-class detective work.
But the team behind Miami Vice learned a few things, and quickly. By the fifth episode, they've improved the tone and characterization. A little less talk between the buddy cops goes a long way. Same with the new lieutenant, played by Edward James Olmos (replacing a likable but redundant Gregory Sierra) who has a dark magic for silent tension. With the coiled intensity of a bull-fighter, Olmos adds a full lower octave to the show's range, laying down a mortal seriousness that goes a long way toward saving the other characters from seeming like so many bimbos and male fashion models.
Among others, casting director Bonnie Timmerman deserves credit for scrounging up interesting actors to guest star, some of them genuine finds. Denis Farina--judging from his IMDB profile, a total nobody before this--makes a gritty appearance as a mobbed-up loan shark. John Turturro, four years before Do the Right Thing, appears as a happy-faced, approval-seeking pimp who turns on his girls with startling quickness. In the same episode, "Rites of Passage," Pam Grier plays a seasoned cop from New York, an old flame of Tubbs, looking for her little sister, who's become one of Turturro's girls.
In the "Ja, Mon" episode--"Cool Runnin'," the best of the earlies, Tubbs' accent aside--Charlie Barnett (fresh from his triumphant appearance as Tyrone in D.C. Cab) does an amusing, over-the-top turn as the manic, fast-talking fence, Neville "Noogie" Lamont, a recurring character. The early episodes were shot while Miami Vice was still negotiating terms with its comic relief. One second you have Noogie, the next you have a Tubbs one-liner: "That woman was so fine she could kickstart a 747." (That joke may seem bad-funny when you read it here, but delivered by the oleaginous and self-admiring Philip Michael Thomas, I assure you, it's regular old bad-bad.)
Mann, who gets a lot of the credit for the show's aesthetic, and Yerkovich seemed to understand that Miami Vice wasn't going to thrive on its wit, though on many occasions it was definitely good for a laugh. Rather the show was carried by the drama of sexy, heroic men who want nothing more than to lock up bad guys. They want justice so bad, in fact, they have to constantly remind each other, in complete earnestness, to "do it by the book." And the key to making drama of all this righteous strutting was the show's cinematic imagery, with lingering silences filled out by lingering camera shots.
One very simple scene has Crockett pretending to be a hit man and receiving payment from the bad guys, a pretty hokey setup. But the shot is beautiful. At the end of a long, tiled counter, under the thatched roof of what appears to be an open-air market of some kind, Detective Don Johnson is handed a suitcase full of cash. But first, for several seconds, we stare at the two silhouettes against the outside horizontal strip of sunlight. The composition is beautiful, the surfaces are beautiful, and the image is expressive enough to suspend disbelief.
Miami Vice's two signature images are, no surprise, vehicular. Cigarette boats sledding over ocean foam is the first. The other is of the detectives' Ferrari convertible cruising with city lights reflecting back over its shiny black curves, as Crockett and Tubbs sit there like a couple of high rollers on their way to the hottest party in town. The routine camera shots of hot female bods on the Florida beach seem dated in comparison.
No discussion of Miami Vice would be complete without touching on the subject of color, as in whites, pastels, and hot pinks. Earth tones were prohibited on set, the costume designer mentions, making a convincing case, with the help of others, that the look of the show depended on coordinating every color from the paint on the walls to silk breast-pockets handkerchiefs. As so much television photography from the pre-widescreen era seems to pale beside today's more expensively shot dramas, Miami Vice remains visually compelling. Shiny pink shirts and all.
Miami Vice is one of very few shows whose look and photography make it deserving of a big screen, though one wonders how it can be updated without parody, intentional or otherwise.