U.S. Police Drama

Miami Vice earned its nickname of "MTV cops" through its liberal use of popular rock songs and a pulsating, synthesized music track created by Jan Hammer. Segments of it closely resembled music videos--as quickly edited images, without dialogue, were often accompanied by contemporary hits such as Tina Turner's "What's Love Got to Do With It?" As with music-oriented films such as Flashdance (1983) and Footloose (1984), Miami Vice was a program that could not have existed before MTV began popularizing the music video in 1981.

Originally aired from 1984 to 1989, Miami Vice incorporated both current music and musicians (e.g., Phil Collins, Ted Nugent, Glenn Frey, Sheena Easton), dressed its undercover police officers in stylish fashions, and imbued every frame with an aura of moral decay. It succeeded in making previous police programs, such as Dragnet, look stodgy and old-fashioned.

In Miami Vice, the city of Miami was virtually a character in its own right. Each week's episode began with a catalogue of Miami iconography: sun-baked beach houses, Cuban-American festivals, women in bikinis, and postmodern, pastel-colored cityscapes. Executive producer Michael Mann insisted that significant portions of the program be shot in Miami, which helped to give Miami Vice its distinctive look. In this tropical environment, two vice detectives combated drug traffickers, broke up prostitution and gambling rings, solved vice-related murders, and cruised the city's underground in expensive automobiles.

Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas played the program's protagonists: James "Sonny" Crockett and Ricardo "Rico" Tubbs, respectively. They were supported by Edward James Olmos as their tough, taciturn lieutenant, and Michael Talbott, John Diehl, Saundra Santiago, and Olivia Brown as their colleagues on the squad. The program's narratives circulated among these characters, but Crockett was at its center and Johnson received the lion's share of the press about Miami Vice.

Miami Vice was less about the solving of mysteries then it was a contemporary morality play. Indeed, Crockett and Tubbs were often inept detectives--mistakenly arresting the wrong person for a crime. Instead of Columbo-like problem-solving, the program stressed the detectives' ethical dilemmas. Each week these temptable men were situated in a world of temptations. They were conversant in the language of the underworld, skilled in its practices, and prepared to use both for their own ends. It wouldn't take much for them to cross the thin line between their actions and those of the drug lords and gangsters. One such ethical dilemma frequently posed on the show was the issue of vigilante justice. Were the detectives pursuing the evil-doers out of commitment to law and order, or to exact personal revenge? Often it was very hard to distinguish the law breakers from the law enforcers. Indeed, one Miami Vice season ended with Crockett actually becoming a bona fide gangster--his ties to law enforcement neatly severed by a case of amnesia.

The Miami Vice world's moral ambiguity linked it to the hard-boiled detective stories of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, and characters such as Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe; and the film noir genre of the theatrical cinema. Television, with its demand for a repeatable narrative format, could not match the arch fatalism of these antecedents (a protagonist could not die at the end of a episode, as they often do in hard-boiled fiction), but Miami Vice adapted the cynical tone and world-weary attitude of hard-boiled fiction to 1980s television. Moreover, one of the most striking aspects of Miami Vice was its visual style, which borrowed heavily from the film noir.

As Film Comment critic Richard T. Jameson commented, "It's hard to forbear saying, every five minutes or so, 'I can't believe this was shot for television!'" Miami Vice was one of the most visually stylized programs of the 1980s and it drew its stylistic inspiration from the cinema's film noir. It incorporated unconventional camera angles, high contrast lighting, stark black-and-white sets, and striking deep focus to generate unusually dynamic, imbalanced, noir compositions that could have been lifted from Double Indemnity (1944) or Touch of Evil (1958). Miami Vice looked quite unlike anything else on television at the time.

Miami Vice (along with Hill Street Blues and Cagney and Lacey) was one of the ground breaking police programs of the 1980s. Its influence can be tracked in the moral ambiguity of NYPD Blue and the visual experimentation of Homicide. Moreover, its incorporation of music video components has become a standard component of youth-oriented television and cinema.

-Jeremy Butler


Miami Vice


Detective James "Sonny" Crockett............. Don Johnson Detective Ricardo Tubbs.............. Philip Michael Thomas Lieutenant Martin Castillo......................... Edward James Olmos Detective Gina Navarro Calabrese ..........................................................Saundra Santiago Detective Trudy Joplin................................. Olivia Brown Detective Stan Switek............................ Michael Talbott Detective Larry Zito (1984-1987) .....................John Diehl Izzy Moreno............................................. Martin Ferrero Caitlin Davies (1987-1988) ......................Sheena Easton

PRODUCERS   Michael Mann, Anthony Yerkovich, Mel Swope

PROGRAMMING HISTORY     108 Episodes 3 2-Hour Episodes

September 1984                                Sunday 9:00-11:00 September 1984-May 1986                 Friday 10:00-11:00 June 1986-March 1988                         Friday 9:00-10:00 April 1988-January 1989                      Friday 10:00-11:00 February 1989-May 1989                      Friday 9:00-10:00 June 1989-July 1989                   Wednesday 10:00-11:00


Butler, Jeremy G. "Miami Vice: The Legacy of Film Noir." Journal of Popular Film and Television. (Washington, D.C.), Fall, 1985.

Grodal, Torben Kragh. "Potency of Melancholia: Miami Vice and the Postmodern Fading of Symbolic Action." The Dolphin: Publications of the English Department, University of Aarhus (Aarhus, Denmark), 1989.

Inciardi, James A., and Juliet L. Dee. "From the Keystone Cops to Miami Vice: Images of Policing in American Popular Culture." Journal of Popular Culture (Bowling Green, Ohio), Fall 1987.

King, Scott Benjamin. "Sonny's Virtues: The Gender Negotiations of Miami Vice." Screen (Glasgow, Scotland.), Autumn 1990.

Ross, Andrew. "Masculinity and Miami Vice: Selling In." The Oxford Literary Review (Oxford), 1986.

Rutsky, R. L. "Visible Sins, Vicarious Pleasures: Style and Vice in Miami Vice." SubStance: A Review of Theory and Literary Criticism (Santa Barbara, California), 1988.

Schwichtenberg, Cathy. "Sensual Surfaces and Stylistic Excess: The Pleasure and Politics of Miami Vice." Journal of Communication Inquiry (Iowa City, Iowa), Fall 1986.

Seewi, Nurit. Miami Vice: Cashing in on Contemporary Culture?: Towards an Analysis of a U.S. Television Series Broadcast in the Federal Republic of Germany. Heidelberg, Germany: Winter, 1990.


See also Police Programs