The Miami Vice movie premieres this month.
The eponymous television series made its debut on NBC in September of 1984. That same month, on the same network, The Cosby Show also appeared for the first time.
The latter show won immediate praise that it never seemed to relinquish. Vice, on the other hand, was almost universally derided for having many of the same qualities for which The Cosby Show was praised — namely, none-too-credible story lines and characterizations. Critics could not comment on Miami Vice without using the words "shallow" and "vapid."
Miami Herald columnist Edna Buchanan was correct in pointing out if any real-life cop were to shoot as many people as Sonny Crockett and Ricardo Tubbs clipped, he or she would be under investigation. Then again, how many families besides the Huxtables (in which Bill Cosby played the patriarch) hold conferences in which everyone’s smiling and following Robert’s Rules of Order when deciding whether or not their teenaged daughter should be allowed to spend a summer in Paris?
The Cosby Show was praised for portraying an upper-middle-class family that just happened to be African-American. It may very well have expanded some people’s understanding of the world to see a black nuclear family consisting of two professionals and four children in a prime-time program. If that is the case, then the show’s producers deserve commendation. However, a plot of any given episode was really no different from, and no more credible than, its counterpart in an episode of Father Knows Best.
In other words, The Cosby Show was to network television what My Big Fat Greek Wedding would later be for the big screen: ethnic comfort food.
In contrast, Miami Vice portrayed some aspects of modern American society that many people, particularly policy-makers, still will not face.
Of course, it had a viscerally hypnotic audio-visual style that no other show has replicated. Many people tuned in every week for that reason alone. However, contrary to what so many critics said, it was not the only reason to watch the show.
One might say that the show’s style was its substance, so to speak. But the same may be said for any number of other TV shows, films or videos. For that matter, one could say the same thing about basketball or much of dance.
However, the show’s style conveyed and portrayed truths that have not been seen in TV shows before or since.
In the daytime scenes, the tropical fluorescent and pastel hues of Crockett’s clothing and his surroundings refracted the light of shifting sun and clouds in much the same way as flaking paint on down-at-the heels Art Deco houses transmutes, but does not transform, the seemingly liquid heat of summer air.
The nighttime vistas, more often than not, showed blaring neon and glaring green fluorescent reflections on turbid inky pools and ripples. One didn’t see the clichd images of the bright full moon against a clear obsidian sky or, in the daytime, of a perfectly refulgent sun in a turquoise sky reflected off sapphire pools of softly undulating waves.
In other words, Miami Vice may well have been the first work in any visual medium besides "art" photography to capture the essence of post-industrial America.
But the show did not mourn the passing of factories and blue-collar work, any more than it celebrated another phenomenon — and a class of people — it so saliently portrayed.
As fate would have it, Miami Vice appeared on the cultural landscape at the same time that one of the most unfortunate developments in the history of the United States was taking shape: namely, the so-called War On Drugs. And, whether or not it was the producers’ intentions, the show portrayed some of the consequences of it.
The narcoficantes who profited so handsomely (as long as they managed to stay alive) from yuppies’ seemingly insatiable appetite for cocaine were a regular feature of the show. When they didn’t appear explicitly, they were driving much of the social and economic fabric portrayed in the program. Things were such that at times, it was difficult to distinguish them from the constables who were ostensibly trying to collar them. In the liquid heat and the desultory glare of color, one didn’t have to be color-blind to have difficulty telling the white hats from the black hats, so to speak.
Miami Vice visually conveyed what many of Lew Rockwell’s contributors have long said: When governments regulate people’s behavior (e.g., by telling them they can’t have their drugs of choice), the state’s representatives become as, or more, mendacious and violent than those who provide people with what they’re not allowed to have. While I do not use, or endorse the use of any illicit substances myself, I do not think that any adult should be barred from using them. History shows us that no such prohibition has ever stopped people from using substances, and there is little if any reason to think that it ever could. The only predictable outcome of outlawing substances is that innocent people are hurt or killed and that non-elected criminals rake in the cash.
Leave it to Miami Vice to, intentionally or not, to show us that criminals should thank government regulations for helping to make them so!
Justine Nicholas [send her mail] teaches English at the City University of New York.