Miami Vice: Theme and Variations

Theme

I have a friend who lives on the other side of the country. One of the hallmarks of our seventeen year relationship is the exchange of foolish gifts that have no other purpose than to make the recipient laugh. The gifts are typically small, theoretically practical, and feature a figure from pop culture. Prominent examples include a Mr. T air freshener and a Spider-Man super bouncy ball.

On a recent trip to New Hampshire a friend took me to a very dangerous consignment shop and I stumbled on one of the most ridiculous items I will ever send to this friend: an original, hand-illustrated Miami Vice fanzine. I intended to hold this time for no more than 72 hours. I just needed to get it home, write a quick note and bung it in the mail. But after talking and laughing about it with local friends and my brother I realized a) I wanted to read it and b) I have a, perhaps unexpectedly deep, emotional connection to this show.

Miami Vice ran for five seasons from 1984 to 1989. It came on NBC Friday nights at 10 pm. My brother is six years older than me. I admired him from an early age and wanted to anything and everything he did, to the extent that I would sneak into his room when he wasn’t home and read his books and listen to his music. If there was a show my brother liked or thought was cool I was going to watch it, even if it came on past my bed time and had “adult themes and violence” (is there a clumsier euphemism for sex and drinking than “adult themes?”). Miami Vice was the gateway to the weekend. It was the first of two hours (separated by sleep) when I would sit next to my brother on the sofa and try to figure out how to be awesome when I grew up. We watched Miami Vice together, except my mom would call me out of the room when she heard shooting, on Friday nights; and on Saturday morning, though I argued every time because it conflicted with my cartoons, we would watch CNN’s Style with Elsa Klensch.

This Friday night ritual spanned the year before my parents got divorced to the year I entered high school. ‘Impressionable’ barely describes the vulnerability of my consciousness at that time. And stamped deeply into it, every Friday night of Fall/Spring television season for five years was Miami Vice.

This would seem a fitting time to confess that I did 18 months in jail for possession, or that the show shaped my choice to become a substance abuse counselor. Neither of those things are true, though drugs, which were a loud ambient buzzing in the 80s, have always had a curious spot in my life. Two of my friends died of heroin overdose before we were 19, and my life has always included someone with a foot in that world. Though I was a quintessential goody-two-shoes,  I was very invested in being smart. And the lesson I took from Miami Vice was that drugs were something you could be smart about. Not in the sense of knowing not to take them, but in knowing about them. Drugs had a language, slang, patter and swagger. Even today I try to listen (at least to the  media) about drugs and I try to hold on to the words that come from that life, just to be smart.

Miami Vice was also the first time I made an emotional investment in the police drama. More and better has (and will be) written about the history, present and future of the form, and what it means that we are all obsessed with cops (and doctors, firemen etc.). What I want to mention is that the police drama is a personal comfort for me. I seek it out in books and visual entertainment. Some of it is that the cop is the perpetual underdog. Some of it is that their job seems to be about thinking, and I have always related to people who have to (and like to) think. I wonder if those stories are home to me because of Friday nights on the sofa watching Miami Vice with my brother.

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