the origins of miami vice 01/16/17

Today's selection -- from Television A Biography by David Thomson. In the early 1980s, NBC programming chief Brandon Tartikoff suggested a cop show that felt like MTV:

"[In the 1980s], Brandon Tar­tikoff was still head of programming at NBC and he was as impressed as most people by the success of MTV, the cable channel launched in 1981 to play music videos -- you have to accept that for more than twenty years rock and roll had got along without accompanying videos. Tartikoff saw that kids had made a habit out of MTV, and its slick, hectic style had af­fected much of television, not least its commercials. Why not a cop show that felt like MTV? he suggested.

"The memo was taken up by Anthony Yerkovich, who had written thirty-four episodes of Hill Street Blues. He became the creator of Miami Vice (1984-90) and the most regular writer on the show, though he soon yielded creative control to the executive producer, Michael Mann. Mann was already a proven movie director and now, for the first time, a television show would be famous for a directorial look and its stress on visual and aural style, or varnish. Mann was not once credited as director, but all the named directors attested to the control he had exercised over color, the skidding sheen of lights after dark, the clothes, the cars, and the pounding music (run by composer Jan Hammer). There were pink flamingos and a turquoise ocean. Ev­ery woman was a knockout, every guy a dude. The show also marked a departure in violence, with the clear suggestion that Latinos were well dressed but cruel-- this was a trope introduced in Brian De Pal­ma's influential Scarface (1983), also set in Miami.

"Miami was of special interest in America then, because of the influx of Cubans and their music and also because of its assertive modern architecture and the fashion shoots being done in Miami Beach's boutique Deco hotels. Tartikoff's wish had been realized. Few remember the stories in the show, but its look had influenced the culture as a whole, and the techno decadence inspired the vari­ous CSI series yet to come, where voluptuous women gaze into vivid wounds. Dick Wolf was there again as one of the writers and a producer on Miami Vice. The two lead cops on the show had been talked about as Jeff Bridges and Nick Nolte, but this was the tag end of an attitude in which movie stars disdained television. So Don Johnson was resurrected (his has been a career of comebacks) and paired with Philip Michael Thomas, with Edward James Olmos as their iconically cool or impassive superior.

"A lot of rock singers (like Sheena Easton), box­ers (Roberto Duran), and spurious celebrities (G. Gordon Liddy) passed by in the slip stream of TV gravure. It seems comical now, but so what? That's all too late; the show was lethally suave in its few years -- the era of crack cocaine and Reagan's forgetful work in Latin America. I'm not saying anyone on the show was on drugs, but they acted as if they were, and this impression was assisted by the premature feeling of film stock turning into something digital. Miami Vice won Emmys for sound editing, cinematography, and art direction, and for Edward James Olmos, and in its second season it rose in popularity. It soon slumped, but it made a fortune for Miami and a host of designers and dealers. If you wanted to be fatalistic, you could say there had never been a television show so co-opted by the slippery ethos and the moneyed glow of commercials. The tide of the show might refer to a police department, but it also imagined a tourist attraction -- like 'Miami Nights.' "


David Thomson


Television: A Biography


Thames & Hudson


Copyright 2016 by David Thomson


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