Eric Hynes on Miami Vice (1984-1989) and Miami Vice (2006)

Many factors have played into the fashionable opinion that television is enjoying a creative peak, and that that peak is related, or at least coincides, with an inverse dip in cinematic quality. I’m not hot on this take—there are still many great movies and many terrible television shows, and in turn there have always been great television shows and terrible movies—but regardless of its supportability, or lack thereof, the prevalence of the narrative gives it an undeniable force. The one thing that can be completely verified, and therefore productively explored, is that this perception of quality TV has coincided with the expansion of standard television sets from boxy 4:3 concave tubes to 16:9 flat LED screens. Whether or not TV shows have gotten markedly better than movies, my naked eyes tell me that the screens they play on have gotten measurably reminiscent to the rectangles upon which contemporary movies are projected.

There hasn’t been a perfect overlap between the current TV renaissance and the normalization of the flat widescreen monitor. Of the two shows most cited in discussions of the arrival of this golden age, The Sopranos was presented in widescreen, even though for the majority of its run it was transmitted to predominantly 4:3-sized screens, while The Wire stayed with 4:3 throughout its run even though it bridged the old and new eras. The recent decision to “upgrade” The Wire to widescreen for reruns and a new Blu-ray package confuses matters even further. Is there something now degraded about the original, intended aspect ratio? Is such an upgrade necessary in order to make The Wire more cinematic, less TV-like (or less what we once thought of as TV-like)? Of course the answer is no in both respects. But now that TV has closed the visual gap that movies widened in the 1950s with Cinemascope—itself a survivalist ploy to counteract TV’s popularity—it’s as if no good shows can be left behind. Now that we’re fully used to widescreen TV presentations, it’s harder to accept the big vertical rectangles of black on each side of a 4:3 show. Memory serves that just a decade ago the inverse was a problem, when many viewers loathed to watch “letterboxed” presentations on their 4:3 screens.

In 2002, Eriq Gardner wrote in Slate: “Widescreen has become a great fad. It doesn't seem to matter that unlike movies, there is no technical reason to prefer the format for a TV show. Widescreen is great at showing the expanse of a landscape, but majority of TV shots are interiors and close-ups.” And in 2004, on a blog tellingly called “Petty Annoyances,” blogger Rowsdower wrote: “So enough of the bullshit reasons for widescreen-Sopranos. Are you ready to hear the real reason why The Sopranos is filmed in widescreen? Here's the secret: The decision to air a TV show in widescreen is an attempt to fool you, on a subconscious level, into thinking you are watching a superior piece of entertainment.” That Rowsdower cited a show as great as The Sopranos here is obviously unfortunate, not just in retrospect but at the very instant of his writing. But substitute, say, Two Broke Girls into this passage and his point is harder to dismiss.

Rather than pursue an argument against the ascendancy of widescreen TV, or against television’s 21st-century golden age, I’d instead like to direct your attention to a time when ambitious television shows didn’t have recourse to the widescreen mode, distinguishing themselves within the 4:3 standard. This was a time when the idea of TV as being qualitatively analogous to cinema had nothing to do with aping cinema’s geometric shape, but instead involved negotiating with motion picture grammar, storytelling, picture, and sound—and furthermore with combining cinematic and television tactics to create something new. In 1984, Anthony Yerkovich’s Miami Vice didn’t just smuggle film style and grammar onto television: it was a television show that would prove to greatly influence feature filmmaking. Legend has it that the show was born when NBC head Brandon Tartikoff wrote “MTV cops” on a cocktail napkin—somehow every good idea was fossilized onto a cocktail napkin in the 1980s—but such televisual provenance was matched by Yerkovich and executive producer Michael Mann’s movie-besotted ambitions. It was the most expensive show on TV ($1.3 million per episode during the first season) and the budget was conspicuous from the beginning.

The two-hour pilot for Miami Vice aired on NBC on Sunday, September 16, 1984. It was preceded that night by a repeat of Knight Rider, and before that, the debut of Punky Brewster. Within the first ten minutes of that first episode, loitering David Hasselhoff fans were confronted by a long take, a tracking shot, an expressively lit location shot, and a prolonged, largely wordless cold open filled with diegetic music and no identifiers for characters (or even professions).

Most outlandishly, there’s also a split diopter shot, in which foreground and background are thrust into the same focal plane. Among visual ploys, split diopter isn’t the most amenable to narrower formats. Traditional adherents, such as Brian De Palma, took advantage of cinema’s wide scope with the technique, utilizing two sizeable rectilinear planes in which to convey information. But in Miami Vice, it was used to wring depth and elasticity out of TV’s 4:3 frame. Yes, it makes for an image that’s a bit showy and visually crowded, but then so is Miami Vice. It heralds a TV show with the formal ambitions of a movie, and with a penchant for maximalist, brazenly expressionistic gestures.

In the shot in question, James “Sonny” Crockett (Don Johnson) lights a cigarette at left, while a youth breakdances about twenty feet behind him at right. Crocket’s stubble, raffish coif, and pastel shirt, coupled with the street dancing and Caribbean pop emanating from his ghetto blaster, herald something edgy and hip as well as cross-generationally dubious—that distinctly 80s quality of corporatized underground aesthetics, of opportunism bedding down with unconventionality. But the quality of the shot heralds something else entirely: that Miami Vice was making great pains to adopt the rules and tools of cinema, not television.

The rest of the pilot swings back and forth between formally hubristic and standard cop show ploys. On the one hand you’ve got a gorgeously symmetrical nighttime shot on a rail bridge, in which pre-partnered Crockett and Tubbs (Philip Michael Thomas) stand tantalizingly on either side of the tracks; on the other you have canned office interactions, atonal humorous interludes, and rote scenes meant to establish recurring characters and locations. After the series found its footing (in large part thanks to the introduction, in episode 6, of Edward James Olmos’s mumbly, glowering, existentially aggrieved Lieutenant Castillo—one of the least clichéd characters ever installed in a fictional police department), the series would lean decidedly toward atypical characterizations and narrative conceptions. Yet for all of the innovation and novelty of the series, which ran for five seasons through June 1989, Miami Vice’s most celebrated sequence actually detonated in that very first episode, setting a tone and authoring a blueprint for the series, as well as the larger culture.

Crockett has just finished admonishing his colleague and former partner Lt. Scott Wheeler (Bill Smitrovich) for being a criminal informant—for betraying the Vice squad to a drug kingpin for cash. They’re in Crockett’s black Ferrari Daytona coupe, and the scene is captured from three set-ups: straight on through the windshield, and via dual reverse shots from outside either door. Each man raises his voice and gets emotional, and their dialogue is frankly overwritten, their performances more than a touch histrionic (at one point Johnson delivers his lines through demonically clenched teeth). It’s the kind of scene that usually comes toward the end of an episode, in which the truth is won out, the moral higher ground is obtained by the protagonist, and the stakes of a finale action sequence are clearly established. Yet what follows isn’t an action sequence—at least not in the traditional sense. In fact what follows doesn’t progress the plot at all. Instead, we’re guided into the headspace of our beleaguered protagonist, and invited to luxuriate in emotion.

The music starts as the preceding scene ends, the heartbeat drum machine and sustained guitar chord rising over a wide shot of the car parked in front of Wheeler’s house at dusk. Then just as the music takes over, there’s a cut to night, and to a shot of the car from off the side of the front bumper. The camera bounces and vibrates along with the car, maybe a foot and a half above of the pavement, as the headlights and streetlights cause lens flares and 2/3 of the frame is chromium in close-up. There’s no evident point of view, and no attempt to pretend that a camera isn’t present. We’ve clearly entered another space, and it’s a goddamn beautiful space. On the soundtrack is Phil Collins’s “In the Air Tonight,” a song that in 1985 was already three years old and past its radio run, and yet here is reborn as something sublime, elevating the images it accompanies. Cut to a Persona-like shot from the extreme driver’s side, with Tubbs’s profile peaking out from behind Crockett’s, two stolid profiles staring past the windshield and into the abyss of night. Tubbs loads his rifle, and the foley metallic sound echoes as if it were happening on stage—they’re speeding through Miami streets in a convertible, but this is the only non-Collins sound we hear, signaling a departure from realism into a dreamy, expressive realm.

Then Tubbs turns his head to look at Crockett with more eroticism than either actor would muster in the entire run of the show—a look of camaraderie, of understanding, of nocturnal heat. (The only thing that came close was Thomas’s aspirational A-game smolder whenever Pam Grier came on the show.) Then there’s an overhead shot of the car’s hood, with the reflected lights darting from front to back in a V-shape, an ostensible cutaway held until its photographic abstraction becomes conspicuous. They speak briefly about how much time they have until a climactic showdown—again, we’re in a time out of time—before Crockett pulls into a perfectly ridiculous landscape, in which a neon diner sign looms at left and a phone booth awaits at center. He calls his estranged wife to ask if “what they had was real” before things between them went sour. Before she can answer in the affirmative, the Collins song intervenes with the lyric well, I remember, a reminder that we’re in an inner space, not to mention a filmic space in which images, sounds, music, composition, light, and emotions are modulated and composed. The song’s famous acoustic drum break sends them back into the racing car, to more shots of the car from the front, the back, and above, and finally, for the first time, of the erratic, seemingly destination-less road ahead. The cut away from the sequence, to a commonplace establishing shot of the partners running toward a boat, jerks us back to supposed reality, but in effect accomplishes the opposite.

The sequence doesn’t serve as a mere stylish interlude. It’s not meant to simply showcase an atmospheric song and signal the show’s coolness, though it does accomplish those things. What’s basically a digressive sequence emerges as the show’s primary dramatic moment. It makes such a strong impression that the rest of the show recedes in relation to it. We’re invited into Crockett’s headspace, and from that moment forward it’s impossible to watch the show without waiting for moments when we can return—which, thanks to the music industry hipping to the marketing and sales potential of such sequences, we do (Phil Collins and homoeroticism do too: the finale of the second season’s feature-length, New York-set debut ends with Tubbs romantically racing through the airport to rejoin his pastel-clad partner while “Take Me Home” pounds away). Drug dealers come and go, informants are found and lost, love affairs rise and fall, but the real matter of Miami Vice happens in those interior spaces, with moody electronic pop music playing as cops stare inchoately into the middle distance.

When Michael Mann adapted elements of several episodes into a theatrical movie seventeen years after the end of its run, he effectively focused only on that headspace. As cinematic as the movie Miami Vice clearly is—in some ways it’s the apotheosis of Mann’s pop Antonioni artistry—it’s also an exquisite distillation of what made the TV show extraordinary. The movie employs tactics that were no longer formally avant-garde within the vernacular of film in 2006, and certainly not within the widescreen ratio of 2.35:1, but it nevertheless embraces them with an intensity and sincerity worthy of the source. Consider the scene in which Crockett (Colin Farrell, channeling and surpassing Don Johnson by ditching the 70s hangover cop machismo for all-emo, all-undercover-interiority all the time) hops in a go-fast boat with Isabella (Gong Li, a great actress transcending a flimsy part), lighting out for Havana, Cuba. Very little about the scene makes plausible sense—they’ve barely spoken, they’re tenuous business partners at best, and then there’s the impromptu trip to Cuba in 2006 factor—which isn’t helped by the stilted-on-the-page “I’m a fiend for Mojitos” dialogue. But as with the “In the Air Tonight” sequence, we’ve entered an in-between space that’s signaled and shaped by music.

Moby’s “One of These Mornings” is introduced quietly while they’re on land, but once they’re in the boat it dominates. There’s a shot from the driver’s side, then from the passenger side, and eventually there’s an array of cubistically arranged helicopter shots while sampled singer Patti LaBelle’s It won’t be long transports us, and them, into a faraway, self-contained, temporary space. In a departure from the pilot’s
sequence, we’re in a headspace built for two, in which both characters’ emotions are accounted for and explored. Buoyed by the feature length, Mann extends things beyond a single tune while maintaining a song-scored interiority. On land the Moby song yields to diegetic salsa music as they briefly court on the dance floor, which is conspicuously overtaken by Audioslave’s “Wide Awake,” which scores the innerspace of their subsequent, strikingly impassioned lovemaking. (The sound mix is so conspicuous as to be physically present—as if we were viewing the levels being toggled on a studio board behind Farrell and Li—and recalls the bumpy camera clung to the Ferrari, the manipulation only enhancing the magic). Throughout, Mann makes hay with the wide frame, but the trajectory of the sequence is toward two bodies coming together at the center of the frame. The intimacy of this sojourn—which of course ends, along with the wallpapered song score, once they return to the States—is in direct contrast to the rest of the film’s exploration of negative space, color-coded vistas, and impositions of light, urbanity, and digitized noise onto isolated characters.

What matters within the widescreen frame of this sequence could work just as well on 4:3, and at moments might have worked even better—imagine narrowing in on Gong Li’s tear-streaked face as she realizes how alive, and doomed, she feels to have Farrell in her arms. Such matters have long been the domain of film, via irising, matting, film stock, etc. But what this sequence owes to that of its TV forebear, and which a lot of both cinema and TV borrowed in the years following “In the Air Tonight,” is a self-conscious, and at its best subjective, exploration of the cinematic moment. In striving for cinema, the Miami Vice show did more than raise the game in terms of professionalism, formalism, and self-seriousness—it helped to introduce a bracketed-off sense of the cinematic. It’s a notion that actually made perfect sense within the larger spectrum of TV—since not all TV was trying to ape film, these cinematic moments could be easily recognized and appreciated as such. But since movies adopted the technique—think of any number of 90s films with suddenly requisite moody pop-song-scored interludes, from Fearless to Reality Bites to, lord help us, When a Man Loves a Womanroughly synchronous with so-called MTV-style editing, we’ve had to sort through the silliness of certain cinematic moments being considered more cinematic than others. By considering the Miami Vice TV show we can locate at least one source of that evolution.

The series indulged in actualizing the movies of our minds, the movies that we carry around with us while we move through the world, the movies without plot or purpose that nevertheless teem with whatever mood we’re in, the movies we feel ourselves into as we walk, jog, or drive through the city, the movies that played in our minds more frequently and distinctly as we adapted to headphones and car stereos and home viewings, the movies that arrived along with Michael Mann, the movies that couldn’t care less about TV or widescreen, cinema or living room, the movies that emerged from the inside out, and never went back.