MTV Cops: Celebrating 40 years of Miami Vice

The quintessential pop culture icon of the 1980s turns 40 years old this year – and its impact is still being felt to this day

It’s 1984. There’s a black Ferrari driving through the streets of Miami. The only light on the car comes from the street lights overhead. Phil Collins’s song In the Air Tonight is blasting through the speakers. Audiences are witnessing TV and cultural history unfolding before their very eyes. They’re watching the pilot episode of Miami Vice.

“I can feel it coming in the air tonight, oh Lord.”

Miami Vice made an impact on the world like no other drama series had and it would go on for 5 seasons. Its impact would change the way television is produced and it would be one of the only television programmes that would create a genuine fashion craze. When people talk about the fashion of the 1980s, they will point to the pastel colours, suit jackets over T-shirts, shoes with no socks. All of this was created in the show. The colour palette was designed by series producer, Michael Mann. Mann had a single edict on the colour palette of the show, no earth tones, this meant that the production design leaned into the lighter pastel colours that defined the series look.

With a series that was designed to ooze style and sexiness you needed a cast of characters that could match the tone. Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas were cast as the two leads, Detectives James “Sonny” Crockett and Ricardo “Rico” Tubbs. Johnson and Thomas had an instant on screen chemistry that bled into their real relationship. When interviewed in 2021 Don Johnson spoke of his relationship with Philip Michael Thomas and told the interviewer that they were still in regular contact and had a very close friendship. You can see this bond on screen in every scene that they share. The supporting cast filled out their roles well and whilst in the later seasons they did tend to fall more into the background, they still added something to the series. Miami Vice wasn’t just the Crockett and Tubbs show, each character got at least one episode a season that focused on their character. Many well-known stars had early roles as guest stars on the series, Bruce Willis had his first credited role in the season 1 episode, No Exit. Other stars such as Julia Roberts, Wesley Snipes, Michael Madsen, Liam Neeson, Ben Stiller, Ian McShane, Viggo Mortensen and Bill Paxton had early roles on the series as well.

Don Johnson (Detective Sonny Crockett) and Philip Michael Thomas (Detective Ricardo Tubbs)

Series costumer designer, Jodie Lynn Tillen, was inspired by new European designer Gianni Versaci’s fashions. The series boasted Italian sports coats, linen trousers and slip on shoes, this new style of men’s fashion did not sit well with series star Don Johnson at first. Johnson originally wanted Crockett to have more of a cowboy look, jeans, cowboy boots, V-neck sweaters. However, due to the heat in Miami he welcomed the lighter materials and even began to strip down the costume as much as possible as more of a functional requirement to the heat.

Not only was the series pioneering a new style of fashion, it was also one of the first American prime time television series to take a more cinematic approach to the production design, cinematography and mainly location shooting. Because of the distinct style that Michael Mann wanted from the series the locations in Miami were sometimes so rundown that the production team would repair damaged buildings and repaint the locations. This led to a revitalisation of Miami. Specifically, the Art Deco buildings that were in serious need of renovation.

The famous Pink House featured in the season 1 episode No Exit

The music became as much of a character in the series than any other element. Jan Hammer’s synthesiser score for the first 4 seasons set a style that was emphasised with the use of contemporary hits of the time. Artists such as Phil Collins, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Glenn Frey, Billy Idol, U2, Peter Gabriel and so many others were mined for tracks that fit the tone of the scene they were used in. Sequences in episodes were cut in a way to match the song that accompanied them. The phrase MTV Cops was coined to describe what the series was to be in the early stages of its conception and these sequences had a music video style to them that fit the description perfectly. The music became such an integral part of the series it got to a point that USA Today started printing playlists of the music in the episodes when they aired.

It’s hard to argue about the impact Miami Vice had on film, TV and even video games. With the growing popularity of the Buddy Cop genre which started to pick up steam with the release of 48 Hrs in 1982, Miami Vice leaned into the genre hard. Whilst traditional cop shows had been about the case of the week, Miami Vice started building story arcs into the series. They were nowhere near as intricate and long running as what audiences are used to today with TV series’ that have one singular storyline being drawn out over an entire season. However, the arcs were there. Character and story arcs were built into the series from the first season. In episode 6 of the first season, One Eyed Jack, we are introduced to Al Lombard and throughout the rest of the first season there are references to the character that culminate in the season finale Lombard.

It’s rare for a television series to influence films but there is no denying that Miami Vice’s influence reached the big screen. In 1985 William Friedkin directed To Live and Die in LA, a crime thriller about a counterfeiter of money. Whilst the story itself doesn’t really sound like Miami Vice – they did do episodes on counterfeiting – the style of the film was dripping with Miami Vice. Legend has it that Michael Mann even tried to sue Friedkin for his “ripping off” the style of the series. The relationship between Crockett and Tubbs started to influence buddy cop films like Lethal Weapon and Beverly Hills Cop 2, the latter of which even starts with Eddie Murphy’s character driving a Ferrari in an undercover role.

For me, the biggest and most important influence was on Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. The visual style of the video game intentionally duplicated visual style of Miami Vice, the game taking place during 1986, the height of Miami Vice’s popularity, the titular Vice City was clearly based on Miami and the game boasted story elements that could have been ripped from the series itself. Hell, even Philip Michael Thomas voices one of the main characters. The reason why GTA: Vice City was the biggest influence for me personally is because without that game I probably wouldn’t have sought out Miami Vice to begin with. Through playing the game I became interested in watching the series. I had heard of it but had never seen an episode of the series. Had the game not had the “Vice” in the title I probably wouldn’t have made the connection, but the setting, the title, the overall look, it was enough to trigger something in my memory about the title of the series.

GTA: Vice City’s depiction of Ocean Drive in 1986

I found that a long since defunct channel on UK Satellite TV, Granada Plus, was playing Miami Vice at 4 o’clock in the morning. I videotaped the episodes to watch them and only managed to get 4 or 5 of them before it stopped showing them. To this day the opening sequence of the season 5 episode, Miami Squeeze, is burned in my mind as quintessential Miami Vice. Workin’ On It by Chris Rea pumping out of the speakers as a speedboat glides into the docks, Crockett and Tubbs waiting to arrest the occupants whilst they are watched from a helicopter by the drug dealer of the week. The attempted arrest goes wrong and a gunfight ensues. Hearing Don Johnson yelling, “Freeze, Miami Vice,” and the eruption of gunfire whilst the music blasted away brought a smile to my face. Even then I understood the stylishness of the series. Over the next few years, I tried to get my hands on more Miami Vice. The series at the time had only 2 DVDs available which were a small selection of episodes, mostly from season 1. I bought them and watched this tiny selection of episodes again and again. When the complete season DVD sets were finally released, I bought each one and was finally able to consume Miami Vice in it’s entirety. And I loved it!

Whilst the series does lose its way towards the end, season 4 has a lot of duds in it, I do feel like it improved in season 5. The introduction of Tim Truman as the series composer gave the series a darker, moodier feel in the fifth and final season which mirrored the characters. Crockett especially starts off in season 1 with naïve view that they can make a difference. But after 5 years of seeing no real impact from their sacrifices by the end of season 5 that view is gone. The series ends with a rare, for the time, genuine series finale. An episode that wraps up character arcs and gives a send off to the series.

Crockett and Tubbs final stand from the series finale “Freefall”

People may look back on Miami Vice today and laugh at what seems to be a cliché, cheesy cop show. But what they don’t see is the things that they look at as clichés Miami Vice was actually the first to do. Episodes didn’t always end with an upbeat ending, often they would end on incredibly downbeat notes from the very beginning. When the series took a darker turn in season 3 the darker endings only increased. It’s a series that not only broke the mould, it took a sledge hammer to it and made its own mould in place of the original. If you were to try and define 1980s popular culture in one term, you couldn’t go wrong with “Miami Vice”.

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