08 April 2020
Here's a binge candidate I wasn't sure about, but after watching the pilot season, a couple of which I missed the first time around, I'm down with it. Miami Vice.
The show went on the air in 1984, but it didn't crack the Nielsen top thirty until the second season, which was arguably its most influential. After that, NBC began to screw around with its scheduling, and audience numbers fell off. The fifth-season finale drew 22 million viewers.
Watching it thirty-five years later is somewhat of a mixed bag. Certain aspects date badly. Not so much the fashions, as in the clothes, but the fashion of narrative tropes. (There is the matter of Marty Castillo - Edward James Olmos - wearing ties that are less than an inch wide, but that's very much in character.) More problematic is the predictability, that morally compromised good guys are unlikely to survive an episode, for example, or that any fleeting romantic interest is clearly doomed. And why are Trudy and Gina always going undercover as hookers, not even once in a while as, say, lawyers?
On the other hand, once you re-acclimate to the rhythm and conventions of the series, you find yourself moving to some familiar dance steps. You forget that the color palette was a real departure, back then, the sun-bleached stuccoes and desaturated pastels during daylight, and the heavy, deep, silken darkness of night, streetlights a hot, retinal glare. The look is a character. That, and of course the soundtrack. A little Phil Collins goes a long way, but the use of music bridges as structural was transformative.
Granted, you're shooting as many as two dozen episodes a season, they're gonna be uneven. Some of them are, to be generous, no better than pot-boilers. And then, just when your patience is running low, they serve up an episode like "The Maze" (S1, Ep18), which demonstrates how strong the show can be, without its aggravations. The other thing this particular episode points up is that Philip Michael Thomas, who I always thought was the weakest link, is a lot better than you remember, or gave him credit for. "Evan" (S1, Ep22), also from the first season, has a showcase of a scene - as written and acted - between Tubbs and Crockett, that allows Don Johnson to take all the air out of the room with unexpected discipline: the guy's got serious chops.
The idea that Miami Vice was a game-changer is part of its mystique, and it was used to promote it at the time. Was it all that different? If you compare it to Hawaii Five-O or Mannix, or even Hill Street Blues, you'd have to say yes, because Miami Vice used a less linear narrative. It also moved the goalposts for Standards and Practices, for content, and what followed. It's hard to imagine Wiseguy getting past the network censors, if Miami Vice hadn't come first.
I don't want to stake too broad a claim. American commercial broadcast television has never been known for daring, and cable has changed the environment entirely. Not necessarily for the better. The primary instinct for the lowest common denominator, for audience share, is still dominant. But in a landscape that was often vapid and inauthentic, not to mention technically primitive (stuck following the restrictions of a three-camera set-up, like the soaps, establishing shot, close-up, reverse), the surface tension, the urgency, the angles and the edits, the information overload, gave the show an invigorating edge.
In retrospect, it's probably fair to say that we get the TV we deserve. There was in fact a Golden Age, with scripts by Rod Serling and Paddy Chayevsky, directors like John Frankenheimer and Arthur Penn, and a huge stable of actors. But let's be honest, plenty of that live drama was crap. There was at the time, though, a kind of free-for-all, an open market for programing. Locals were by and large network affiliates, and they had to provide a lot of their own content. Then the marketing challenge changed, and the Big Three dominated, and predictability and stagnation set in. I'd guess it lasted from the late 1950's to the middle of the 1970's, but that's also when PBS got legs. As the market fragmented, with UHF and then cable, the audience became more directly engaged. When there was no selection, and only three choices, ratings depended on audience fatigue, or indifference. The yardstick for the broadcast was least offensive - you didn't have to like what you were watching, but you liked whatever else was on less. It made for homogenized material. As a sort of object lesson, a show like Miami Vice could be seen as emblematic. It came along when we needed it.