Crockett! Get Me a CBC, Chem-7! Stat!So there I was lounging about Philip Michaels' sofa, zipping through the channels while Phil fended off yet another of Collier's bizarre, late-night transcontinental calls, when I came to something called fX. That car... that electro-pop Jan Hammer soundtrack... that skinny guy named Izzy...
"Cripes!" I shouted, startling Michaels into dropping the phone. "Switek! Zito!"
Phil looked at me like I'd suggested we rent another Anna Nicole Smith film.
For true television fans, of course, Switek and Zito need no introduction. They were the other detectives on "Miami Vice," the groundbreaking mid-to-late '80s NBC series starring Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas that set the world ablaze in a pastel-colored hue. Fashion, looks (no TV show has done more for the five o'clock shadow), visual style, music, name it--"Miami Vice" set trends the way you and I set clocks.
Or maybe that's "sets." Sure, most of the trends "Miami Vice" inspired have long since passed from "cool" to "Aaaack! Put that away!" But while revisiting Crockett, Tubbs, and--lest we forget--Crockett's pet alligator, Elvis, it occurred to me that certain lingering effects of the show can be seen even today. To wit:
Before there was "Miami Vice," there was no antonym for the happy ending. All TV shows worth a damn ended the same way: with a wry bon mot wrapping up a small, yet humorous side-plot whereby the geeky, white- clad mechanic claims once again to have successfully fixed some doohickey, only to have it misfire to the pearly-white amusement of Ponch and John.
We might call this "CHiPs" syndrome.
"Miami Vice" ushered in a new era--the "Depression Is Hip!" era. Consider one of my favorite episodes wherein NBA legend Bill Russell plays a judge with a gambling problem. (Never mind the credibility obstacles of having Russell, a man who once steered the Sacramento Kings to eighth place in a seven-team division, play someone charged with safeguarding the very foundation of our nation's legal system.) Eventually Russell is forced to confront his demons in the form of a bookie played by a pre-Kramer Michael Richards. Before "Miami Vice," the episode probably would have ended with Russell weaseling his way out of Richards's clutches, then dryly remarking, "Say this: I was a better gambler than I was a coach." A good laugh would be had by all.
Frivolity of that sort had no place on "Miami Vice." Instead, faced with a choice between asking his basketball-playing son (played by former NBA star, Bernard King) to throw a game or going to the police with his problem, Russell opts for door number three: He wanders into Richards's bedroom late at night, plugs him once in the chest, then blows out his own brains as Johnson watches in horror. Roll credits.
Poignancy like that just can't be beat.
Nowadays, though, these endings are fairly common. Just a few weeks back, "Homicide" ended an episode with a murder suspect committing suicide in his holding cell. "NYPD Blue" annually has someone pitch off the wagon--much to the dismay of the New York City police union, I'm sure. And on many a "very special episode," "ER" has closed on a down note, be it Anthony Edwards's Mark Greene killing a woman while saving her baby or Sherry Stringfield's Susan Lewis grabbing a man's heart, throwing it to the ground, and grinding it with her boot heel--mine.
Who said anything about Greene?
Gloomy endings aren't the only thing "Homicide," "NYPD Blue," and "ER" gleaned from "Miami Vice." It also inspired the quick-cut visual style currently so in vogue.
"Now just hold your horses," you're probably screeching loud enough to break glass, "I don't remember much about the show--I certainly don't remember who played Gina, Trudi, or what was Trudi's last name--but I do remember this: 'Miami Vice' was slow. Painfully slow. It had to be, because that was how it created the 'moody' atmosphere for which it was renowned. So all this nonsense about 'Miami Vice' influencing the quirky, moving camera style--that's just you spouting useless gibberish!"
To which I respond: Saundra Santiago, Olivia Brown, Joplin, my point exactly, and so? All my gibberish is useless.
Seen "Miami Vice" lately? It's like watching grass grow, or paint dry, or some other horrible, time-tested cliche. If "ER" was shot in the same style, it would... well, it would be "Chicago Hope." No programming executive worth his corner office could look back at "Miami Vice" and think, "We need to make more shows like that." People have things to do, lives to get on with, useless pieces on TV to write. These are the '90s; patience is not an American commodity. Try pulling another stunt like "Miami Vice," and you're likely to end up fetching flies for Wellington Frog. Quick cuts and moving cameras weren't just the natural reaction, they were the only reaction.
Minorities in Command
Everyone... well, maybe most people... okay, some folks... all right: The Olmos family and certain members of the Mexican Mafia no doubt remember the yeoman work turned in by Edward James Olmos in his portrayal of Lt. Castillo. Several times an Emmy winner, Olmos did for stoicism what entire nations of Asians couldn't: He made it hip.
But Olmos's work had another, often unappreciated effect: He blazed the way for minorities to play characters in position of authority.
Look around: These days, minorities are falling all over themselves to play characters who call the shots. "Nash Bridges" has Lt. A.J. Shimamura. "Homicide" has Lt. Giardello. "NYPD Blue" has Lt. Fancy. "Law & Order" has Lt. Van Buren. "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine" has Capt. Sisko. And, perhaps most importantly, the newest captain on "Baywatch" is Nancy Valens.
Things weren't always this way. Think back to before "Miami Vice." "The A-Team," for instance. George Peppard barked orders, Mr. T said, "Yassuh?" Or "CHiPs." Who gave Erik Estrada his orders? Sgt. Getrear, that's who. "Benson?" He was the butler, ferchrissakes. "Star Trek?" Capt. Kirk, not the Vulcan. "Mission Impossible?" Phelps said jump; Barney said, "How high?" "The Love Boat?" Two words: Capt. Steubing; three more words: Isaac the bartender. "Hawaii Five-0?" On a land mass bursting with Japs and Chins, the big cheese is Jack Lord. Need I say more?
"Miami Vice" gave us the ultimate in wacky pop culture references. The importance of this one cannot be understated. Just think: Without "Miami Vice," there's no Philip Michael Thomas. And without Philip Michael Thomas, there are no Philip Michael Thomas jokes.
Kind of a scary thought, isn't it?
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