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Miami Vice: Brother’s Keeper (Pilot)

We’re currently blogging as part of the “For the Love of Film Noir” blogathon (hosted by Ferdy on Films and The Self-Styled Siren) to raise money to help restore the 1950’s film noir The Sound of Fury (aka Try and Get Me). It’s a good cause which’ll help preserve our rich cinematic heritage for the ages, and you can donate by clicking here. Over the course of the event, running from 14th through 21st February, I’m taking a look at the more modern films that have been inspired or shaped by noir. Today’s theme is “a brighter shade of noir” – neo-noir that eschews the dark aesthetic for which the genre is famous.

If I ask you to close your eyes and think of Miami Vice, I’m fairly share I can guess what comes to mind, in no particular order. Speedboats, stubble, sunsets in Florida, the music of Jan Hammer, In The Air Tonight, sharp suits and lots of pastel colours. In fairness, a lot of this is very fair – Miami Vice was a show that had a very polished and practiced superficial exterior, and it’s that aspect of the television show that worked its way into popular consciousness. However, looking back at the show – and especially that first season (and maybe a little bit of the second season) – I think it might also be one of the best neo-noir television shows ever produced. Don’t worry, I’m not being controversial for the sake of being controversial.

Well, not just.

No more Mr. Vice Guy...

Being entirely honest, were I asked to compile my favourite 100 hours of television ever, I think about three episodes of Miami Vice would make the list. In the interest of full-and-frank disclosure, I’ll concede that the show’s pilot (which we’re covering today) would not be on the list. However, I can point to episodes of the show like Evan and Where the Buses Don’t Run as two of the finest examples of television produced in the eighties – and I won’t make a cheap shot about how difficult/easy that may or may not have been.

Evan was ahead of its time in dealing with masculinity and homophobia on network television (and remains a powerful handling of the topic, without ever going overboard). That scene with Crockett and Tubbs in the car park of the gas station is one of my favourite TV moments ever (not to mention Peter Gabriel’s The Rhythm of the Heat juxtaposed against the opening scene). Where the Buses Don’t Run is just a perfect one-hour noir tale about a former police officer trying to make that one case he could never close – with an ending which just knocked the socks off me and a superb guest spot from Bruce McGill.

But we aren’t here to talk about those. Maybe next year, if I’m lucky enough to take part in this. Again. For the moment, let’s look at the template of the series, as defined in that opening two hour episode. Brother’s Keeper isn’t a superb piece of television in its own right – I wouldn’t be lobbying to have it preserved in the Library of Congress or anything as ridiculous as that. The show took a while to get itself fully working (the arrival of Edward James Olmos would help no end after the first few episodes). However, it does well to set the terms of the show that would follow, a show that would pretty much define the eighties (for better or worse). And it does contain one absolutely incredible scene which just drips with atmosphere.

Only Edward James Olmos could rock the skinny-tie and moustache combo...

You know the scene, even if you’ve never watched the show. Crockett and Tubbs are driving to take on a bunch of drug dealers in what might be a last stand. The top is down and their hair blows in the warm evening breeze. Crockett’s eyes are on the road, but his mind is elsewhere. Tubbs is loading up his shotgun (which I’m not convinced is exactly department issue, to be honest). Phil Collins is blasting on the soundtrack at full volume. “I remember,” he assures us, “I remember, don’t worry. How could I ever forget?” Collins knows the score. It’s a damaged world, filled with broken.

I was there and I saw what you didSaw it with my own two eyes

So you can wipe off that grin

I know where you’ve been

It’s all been a pack of lies

He was there. He saw. He knows.

Miami Vice is pretty much the direct spiritual descendent of those noir films. The good guys don’t alway win – hell, they don’t always  get to go home. Corruption is a way of life. The bad guys get off scott free. At times, though our heroes operate on behalf of the system, it seems like it might just crush them. It’s hard not to hear Sonny Crockett’s opening line (“5000 street corners in greater Miami and Gumby here’s got to pick ours”) as an homage to Casablanca.

Tubbs likes to ride shotgun...

There’s an argument to be made (and it has) that noir isn’t so much a genre as a defining style. The notion that a viewer can instinctively recognise a film noir based on the appearance of any number of elements – from particular camera angles to trench coats and fedoras. I don’t necessarily agree with that logic (hopefully I’ll get to jump into that discussion before the event is over), but I’d argue that Miami Vice offers an evolution of that visual style, however it’s defined by contrast to these classical ideas. In places of the shadows and dark alley ways, one finds bright lights and colourful streets.

Instead of trench coats, our characters dress in bright shades. If noir is (as the name would lead you to believe) based around the darkness, Miami Vice consciously developed its own style to stand in stark opposition to that concept. It’s interesting that the very first scene of the series (set on a dank New York street in the night) employs many of the styles that one associates with noir. Tubbs wears a trench coat, for example – and chases his prey down a dark and dirty alleyway. It’s as if the series wants to acknowledge its noir roots before it begins to play with them.

In making the superficial differences so sharply distinct, it helps the underlying similarities become clearer. One may recognise any number of tropes and clichés associated with the classic genre at play here – from corrupt cops, to a police officer forced to work outside the law to achieve “justice”, to sleazy dive bars. These are all elements very closely tied to those original films, and which we’ll see repeated during the series’ runtime.

There's a shady character...

There’s also some rather interesting tonal points of comparison – if you’d argue that noir is more about themes than style. The basic premise of the show is about cops who pretend to be drug dealers. Immediately you hit upon that classic old reliable nugget: the “cops and crooks aren’t so different”, a theme that’s as old as time itself. Crockett’s ex-wife argues that cops are “the flip side of the same coin” from dealers they attempt the bring in. “You’re all players, Sonny,” she accuses him. “You get high on the action.”

There’s also the wonderful notion that Tubbs, a New York police officer, is forced to work outside the system he’s sworn to protect in order to get justice for his brother. The law is impotent against a drug dealer as powerful as Calderone, so the cop must become a criminal in order to catch him. “Not going to shoot me, are you?” Calderone goads Tubbs as he surrenders with his hands in the air, checking his watch to see how long before he makes bail. “It’s against the law.” You know you’re in noir territory when one of the morally compromised police officers is a good guy.

More than that, the very fact that Miami Vice defines itself so strongly by its own aesthetic seems an immediate point of comparison. After all, some might argue that film noir is a style rather than a genre – I’d suggest that Miami Vice is more a style than a television show. The series gets a lot of flack for being shallow and superficial. Some of this is deserved, of course – the awkward celebrity cameos in the years that would follow, for example – but it’s all based on one underlying assumption: the notion that feeling or mood or atmosphere is inherently inferior to plot or premise.

Bird watching...

Being honest, your typical Miami Vice episode isn’t the most complicated plot engine in the history of storytelling. It’s fairly paint-by-numbers. Bad things happen, good guys get involved, more badly things happen and the occasional ninja drops by. However, it’s an aesthetic marvel. The care taken with the visual composition and the soundtrack was unheard of all the time. Jan Hammer’s score was more than capable of going ridiculously over-the-top, but it was also stunningly powerful at times. You didn’t necessarily have to think too hard about any given episode, but you did general feel it. I think Michael Mann’s television show doesn’t get the respect it deserves for demonstrating that this sort of aesthetic could be generated from a television show.

Let’s take, for example, a small scene from the pilot episode. Lionel Richie’s All Night Long plays ironically in the background, as Tubbs comes face to face with “the Columbian”. He’s standing two feet in front of the man who killed his brother. The camera shows us his face, and a flashback to that night, and the smiling (unwitting) drug dealer. There’s no words, no clunky exposition. The music keeps playing, even over the shots of Tubb’s brother getting gunned down. A rational person might ask how Tubbs could logistically fake all the necessary paperwork and documentation to participate in this sting operation, but the sequence strikes the right emotional notes – enough to make you accept that it feels right.

Similarly, there’s Sonny’s history. Like so many noir and neo-noir protagonists, Sonny is a nobody who could have been somebody. He was a promising college athlete with a bright future ahead of him. However, this was derailed when Sonny got drafted to serve in Vietnam. Although only rarely explored in the series (save the superb Back in the World), he personifies the broken American dream – fitting since many see noir as the cynical response to the American dream. This background perfectly establishes mood and tone, but it has one fairly large plot hole which is never explained. If Sonny was so successful in college football that even Tubbs (a New York cop) is familiar with him, how come not a single Miami drug dealer ever recognises that “Sonny Burnett” bears a striking resemblance to former football star “Sonny Crockett”?

The television landscape of the eighties was very different from today. Using pop songs on a soundtrack was unheard of, for example. However, in the two-hour pilot to the television show, Miami Vice demonstrates just how close the small screen can come to matching the big screen. There’s a chase sequence involving a speed boat and a sports car at night through Miami which looks like it could easily have come from a big budget action movie.

In many ways, Miami Vice paved the way for the nineties model of American television – an approach which led to shows like The X-Files trying to churn out “hour-long movies” on a weekly basis. Recent years have moved away from that approach in favour a serialise narrative form as distinct from (rather than in competition with) movies – shows like The Sopranos and The Wire come to mind – but, whether you agree with it or not, you have to concede that Miami Vice made an impact.


I'm still not convinced that shotgun is department issue...

That said, the series is somewhat awkward to look back on these days, if only because of all the ridiculous eighties-isms. It’s almost quaint (rather than threatening) to hear Sonny advise Tubbs to “take a major conversational detour!” The style has dated terribly, although I find something fascinating about the American cultural history documented here. And, I’m going to be honest, I used to own a white suit like Sonny Crockett – so I’m probably not the best judge, I’ll concede.

Some of the humour is just terrible. Take, for example, the scene featuring a blackout at the courthouse. Everybody draws a gun. I get that it’s undoubtedly meant to be a cheap swipe at American gun control laws (and various stereotypes about Southern law enforcement), but it sits rather awkwardly. It’s the only really overt satire which makes it into the episode, so it seems even stranger. It’s be like watching The Godfather and suddenly inserting a pie fight. Yes, I just compared Miami Vice to The Godfather. Let’s all move on and pretend that it never happened.

Miami Vice has a bad reputation. I think nostalgia has somewhat trivialised it, to the point that the recent film adaptation was so embarrassed of its source material that it felt it had to go out of its own way to avoid any resemblance to the television show. I think that’s unfair. There are, of course, moments of excess – but there are also moments of excellence. The show had a visual style that looked like nothing else before or since. I can’t think of a television show that has ever used popular music in a stronger fashion.

It’s easy to overlook, but I think that’s unfair. It’s a piece of television history, right there.

If you enjoyed this post, please make a donation to the blogathon if you can. All funds go to help restore the classic The Sound of Fury, a very worthwhile cause and a wonderful contribution to make to the arts. Click the image below to donate.

2 Responses

  1. Great article about my favorite show, thanks. The pilot episode is probably the best way to introduce anyone to MV, as it sets the tone of the series. As good as this episode was, the series improved over time. You’re possibly the only person comment on that scene of Tubbs crossing the club to meet Calderone while “All Night Long” plays in the background. A classic scene with several layers of subtext and emotion, following the old rule about filmmaking, “show it, don’t say it”.
    I have just a couple nit picky corrections, not criticisms. I believe Sonny Crocketts alias was always Burnett, and during the show’s first line Sonny calls the dancer Gumby. That was a reference to the animated clay character Gumby, still popular in 1984. Again, a great read, thanks.

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