Perception Is Reality

Drugs, guns, violence, beauty, style, and the illusory world of Miami Vice

Legend has it "MTV Cops" was the show's original title, deriving from a two-word formula scrawled on a napkin by Brandon Tartikoff, then-president of NBC. Mann, who had also begun directing noirish films such as Thief, and Yerkovich, riding high on his hit Hill Street Blues, were given free reign, including a weekly $1.4 million budget. It was an unheard-of sum for a new TV show, and it was vastly greater than the allotment doled out to the Miami Police Department's actual vice squad, which had to manage on $1.1 million for the entire year -- hardly enough to buy the designer suits and flashy sports cars of Don Johnson's Det. Sonny Crockett or Philip Michael Thomas's Det. Ricardo Tubbs.

Shortly after the show's September 1984 launch, Tartikoff remembered asking Mann about the secret to the show's rapidly growing popularity. "He said, 'No earth tones,'" Tartikoff recalled for the New York Times. "He said the colors are different from everything you see on television. With other action-adventure shows the producer tells me: the story line. Here, Michael Mann says no earth tones."

Jan Eliasberg directed several key episodes of Miami Vice and later helmed episodes of Party of Five and Dawson's Creek as well as feature films such as Past Midnight. She's quick to agree that the show's unique visual palette was crucial. "I was like a kid in a candy store," she says of the expensive cameras, long lenses, and predilection for lengthy tracking shots that Mann encouraged, all elements more common to her film experiences. "It was like shooting a feature each week." Also important was an edgy mindset. "When I got the call that I was booked to do my first episode," she recounts, "I had my boyfriend at the time take me out to the desert and teach me how to shoot a gun." She adds with a laugh: "I just couldn't see walking onto the set without knowing how to fire a weapon."

Author T.D. Allman believes that same frisson often traveled over the airwaves and right into viewers' living rooms. "It wasn't simply that, each Friday night, you entered a fantasy world," he wrote in his book Miami: City of the Future. "The fantasy entered you. For sixty minutes, life became fast, mellow, and dangerous -- while all the time it was safe as the remote control on your TV set. Intuition always superseded logic; language itself lost meaning.... It was the cocaine aesthetic successfully translated to prime-time TV, it was the audiovisual equivalent of the biochemical experience of getting high." Naturally some fans opted to double-down as well: "People all over the country told me it was their regular Friday-night ritual," Allman noted. "First roll the joints or lay out the lines of coke. Then get high watching Crockett and Tubbs blow the drug dealers out of the water."

Despite the emphasis on its imagery -- a fixation that endures to this day -- director Eliasberg insists the show's resonance derived from a deeper place than mere neurology. "Everybody puts so much importance on the visuals of Miami Vice, the MTV-style cutting, the pastels, the architecture, the use of music," she says. "That was all there, and it was certainly cutting-edge for its time on television. But I feel what distinguished the show, especially in the third season, was the subject matter -- the stories that took on moral issues."

By the third season, the fall of 1986, Mann had tired of plots that revolved around chasing cocaine cowboys, Eliasberg says. Now the directive was to be as fresh as that day's headlines. For the episode "Contempt of Court," featuring a then-unknown Stanley Tucci as a crime boss on trial, Eliasberg says she looked to the "farcical" trial of mobster John Gotti: "We showed how corrupt and rigged the judicial system is. You just need to know how to play the system and you get whatever justice you want."

In a small way, Eliasberg was able to similarly prove this offscreen: After she fell in love with the ornate main courtroom in downtown Miami's old federal courthouse (where Manuel Noriega would later stand trial), her location manager persuaded judicial officers to rearrange their dockets, allowing her to shoot uninterrupted in the courtroom for three consecutive days. When it came to Miami Vice's scheduling needs, so much for a citizen's right to a speedy trial.

There was some occasional pushback from outside of Florida. For the episode "God's Work," Eliasberg focused on the Catholic Church refusing to help AIDS victims because of its moral stance on homosexuality. "It was pretty tough stuff for prime-time network television," she recalls. Maybe a little too tough for 1986. "The Catholic Church was in constant conversation with NBC about what they would and would not accept. I was in Miami, so I wasn't privy to those conversations, but I watched the script keep coming back more and more watered down."

Gustave Reininger, currently directing a biopic of beat poet Gregory Corso, began his career by writing several Miami Vice episodes. He shared Eliasberg's interest in moving beyond the tried-and-true cocaine tales. Effortlessly switching between quotes from Aristotle and Starsky and Hutch, Reininger remembers his own research trips to Miami, meeting FBI agents and drug dealers at Coconut Grove's Mutiny Hotel -- many of whom were more than willing to share their experiences with a Miami Vice writer.

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