Feb. 23: Atlanta, GA: I rediscovered Miami Vice last year buried in this “Mailbag” post from Grantland including four great uses of “In the Air Tonight” by Phil Collins. (The instigating use was last year’s pilot of The Americans.) I sat down at my computer and I watched this scene all the way through and the wonder that is Miami Vice washed back over me. It was high on the list for the Thirty-Three Project.
I first watched this show as a child (I probably shouldn’t have been watching it) and I loved it because it was fun TV. As an adult, as a critical viewer of television with a film degree, as a fan of the later works of Michael Mann, this pilot is just sheer amazing. There is none of the awkwardness of a TV pilot finding its way— it’s like diving right into a feature film. The Miami you see isn’t the pop parody of bikinis and art deco and models waiting to be discovered, it’s ripped straight from the documentary Cocaine Cowboys— murder, police corruption, shitty neighborhoods wracked by drug war crime. At one point in the pilot a small-time dealer tells an undercover Sonny Crockett to “consider the geopolitical implications of it, man. You should sponsor a child in Bogota.” Later he gets blown up. Who was talking about cocaine that way in the eighties? The filmmaking in the pilot is impeccable— the building of tension toward Leon’s assassination with the tight shots of volleyball hits, beach scenery, and Leon’s anxious face. Not to mention that “In the Air Tonight” scene. I love Michael Mann.
My original plan was to watch just the pilot, going into it with the hypothesis that Miami Vice was the 1980s captured in television: glitzy, ironically funny, ultimately disposable. I was wrong. The pilot was so good that I found myself sticking around for more, eventually watching about half of the first season before I petered off. Sure you get distracted by the fashion with a snicker, but then suddenly, inevitably, the show turns dark. Real dark. And that happens about every episode at least once.
I also found a pretty strong personal connection. Sonny Crockett (Don Johnson) lives on a sailboat moored in a Miami marina with a pet alligator named Elvis. He emerges from below deck to go to work in the mornings, he lays out under the stars in the cockpit, he has cookouts with a grill on the dock. This is basically my life from age 6 to age 10. After a year of cruising in the Bahamas, my parents and I settled in a series of marinas on the Florida coast, even living in one in Miami for a short time. (I should also mention we one time kept an alligator as a pet; but that was when I was an infant and in Louisiana.) I would wake up for school in my bunk at the bow, climb out into the cockpit with my bookbag, and then hop over onto the dock to walk to the schoolbus.
I was basically a seven year old Sonny Crockett. No wonder I loved this damn show so much.