So Far from God, So Close to “Miami Vice”

So for reasons best known to my confessor, I decided to watch the premiere of Snowfall (a new drama on FX, set in 1983 LA, about “how crack began”) right after watching the premiere of Miami Vice (an NBC procedural, do I need to tell you guys this?, made and set in 1984 Miami). This viewing strategy is not flattering to the new show.

I don’t mean to beat up on Snowfall too badly. It’s adequate and I’ll watch more if I can figure out our TV code. But it really underscored just how great, and I am not exaggerating even slightly, just how genuinely excellent the two-hour Miami Vice premiere truly was.

Miami Vice stars Don Johnson, the white male equivalent of a saxophone solo, and Philip Michael Thomas, with whom I’m suddenly in love. Thomas is ex-Broadway and he’s phenomenal. There’s a constant feline intelligence to him, a wary watchfulness and gallows humor. His favorite trick is the thing where he’ll laugh wholeheartedly and then drop the mask in a split second. If you want to see a racial element in that double-edged, dancing-skeleton persona I think you’re not wrong, and it also plays perfectly off Johnson’s more ordinary crusty cop. (Snowfall stars Damson Idris, who is noticeably good in a role where he is just sort of a good dumb kid swept up in sociopolitics.)

The thing everybody knows about Miami Vice is its aesthetic: neon, New Wave, music-video sequences, everything stylish as a punch in the face, from the Art Deco credits to the iconic ice-cream-colored sport coats. And if you watch the premiere (why don’t you?), you will be overwhelmed by the purity of the substance, the 1984 of it all. “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” “Somebody’s Watching Me,” “In the Air Tonight.” Turquoise, orange, black and cream. A city with two moods, sun-soaked and neon-splashed. Everything shifted just a half-mile south of reality, into a paradise of machine-gun fire and speedboat chases. Seriously, this is the most stylish show I’ve ever seen.

Supposedly its origin is a mix of a TV executive who scrawled “MTV cops” on a memo, and a Hill Street Blues alum who got the idea to do a show about (wait for it) asset forfeiture. And one of the many thrilling surprises of the Miami Vice premiere is that its geopolitics are the only subtle thing about it.

So yes, unlike in Snowfall and other post-Wire type shows, the cops are real (for certain values of “real”) humans whereas the criminals are cartoons. There’s no attempt to see the world from a drug dealer’s or drug user’s perspective. Crockett (oh my gosh, I’ve forgotten to point and laugh at the fact that these buddy cops are called “Crockett and Tubbs,” I thought those were dog names, anyway so Crockett) has an estranged wife who tells him he’s indistinguishable from the criminals he chases. I thought that was just a line, but–the plot of the premiere, and vague spoilers for the premiere of Miami Vice I guess?, the plot does in fact show cops becoming indistinguishable from criminals. On the surface this is just a plot twist, what if we were chasing our own guys? But on a symbolic level I think it vindicates Mrs. Crockett. (That’s a brand of butter, right?) Ditto the phenomenal car vs. speedboat chase–the chases on this show are amazing–which not only includes weird identity “who is the criminal?” stuff but also parallels cop and (presumed) robber. I don’t know, I’m in no way claiming Miami Vice is a critique of ’80s drug policing. It’s the opposite of that. It’s closer to being a glamorization of ’80s criminality, frankly, though it isn’t that either. But it does borrow from the vocabulary of ’70s paranoia; there’s a feeling of moral quicksand. Despite its pointed promises to explore inequality and CIA machinations, Snowfall‘s premiere (maybe this will change later in the series) doesn’t feel as unsettled, as unconvinced of its own moral stance.

Second-to-last but not second-to-least I’d like to talk about the setting. Snowfall is set in LA and fine, good grief, I obviously care more about the crack era in the District but nobody’s ever gonna make a DC show that isn’t about politics, but must everything be LA and New York? Nothing against these places but I’ve seen all these people and these scenes a hundred times. Whereas Miami! Miami, all sweat and salsa music! Miami, where a drug dealer carols, “Nowhere else on earth does Cuba feel–so far away!”

That isn’t a moment I’ve seen on other shows. It’s unexpected, it’s unnecessary to the plot, it’s nostalgic and anti-nostalgic, it’s American and anti-American (Miami as the adrenaline heart of capitalism), it’s fun. Miami Vice is just a lot of fun. It’s got a pet alligator! You know what Snowfall doesn’t have? A) a pet alligator but also B) unnecessary individuality.

Snowfall is a drama. I’m expecting these characters to change, to rise or sink; they will have “arcs.” Drama is a lot more prestigious than Miami Vice‘s cheesy genre, the procedural. But procedurals are a great vehicle for studies of endlessness, the permanent problems, futility. The emergency room ye shall always have with you. The unending battle against an adversary who can’t ever be defeated. Our cops spend this first episode chasing a drug lord named “Calderone.” I hope you will not be mad if I tell you, Calderone escapes. I think the final episode of the first season is called “Calderone Returns,” and so maybe he’ll be captured then, but even if so… somebody will take his place. Rates of drug use rise and fall, and even our constant friend alcohol has her ebb and tide. As long as people are desperate to step outside themselves and outside a grueling reality (whose only defense is that it’s given, and must be accepted), any story about the flow of drugs will fit more easily into procedural than into drama.

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