Perception Is Reality

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

"Every gangster wants to be in show biz," he sighs. "Sometimes they wanted to tell me too much. I'd just ask them for patterns, what a typical day was like. 'Well, last night at midnight we brought in a load from New Orleans.' No, no, no! I don't want to know specifics -- I don't want to be called in to testify!

"In the end, hanging with these drug kingpins wasn't that interesting," he says. "You know that saying by Hannah Arendt? Evil is banal. Much more fascinating was how the normal people in Miami were being affected by living in that atmosphere."

If the ratings were any guide, those normal people were equally fascinated with the facsimile being beamed back at them -- Miami Vice consistently topped its broadcast time slot in South Florida and across the country. Screenings in Western Europe quickly followed, with a similarly enthusiastic reaction there.

"My hope all along was that it would scare people away from Miami," wryly growls novelist Carl Hiaasen, first a muckraking reporter and then a columnist for the Miami Herald during Miami Vice's run. "I thought that would be a public service at the time, to thin the herd out," he quips. "But it had the opposite effect. I've talked to people from England who saw the show and thought, 'That looks beautiful. We'll just wear shoes we can throw away in case they get bloody, but by god, we're gonna go to Miami.' All the chamber of commerce types were worried about the effect it might have on tourism. Then they realized that if you show people a couple palm trees and a nice beach, they don't really care if they have to step over a couple corpses to get there."

Although Hiaasen's novels are deeply rooted in the same stranger-than-fiction accounts of local con men and hustlers that inspired Miami Vice's writers, he feels little kinship with their approach. And don't ask him if the show managed to accurately depict any of Miami's mid-Eighties vibe. "Was it accurate?" Hiaasen scoffs. "In the same way that Star Trek accurately captured the space program. It's like asking if Hoss Cartwright was your typical cowboy. And I'm sure the folks in Orange County would say The O.C. isn't representative of the way they live either. Sure, there were a lot of bloody days in Miami, but [Miami Vice] was TV." The most he'll grant? "It's fun to watch -- how can you quibble with a show where a guy keeps a pet alligator on his boat? That beats Lassie any day of the week."

Hiaasen, moreover, is wary of anyone trying to romanticize the bad old days. "There are no deep truths there," he says of that period. "It didn't produce a single great novel, a single memorable piece of rock music that I can recall, and damn few movies that are worth watching twice. Sure, it was a time when Miami was getting an identity, partly because of fast money and glitz, and as a place where beautiful young people went to get swept up into it all. But there's not much that's heavy to talk about. There was a lot of drug-dealing, a lot of people died, a lot of people went to jail, and none of that was glamorous at all."

By 1989, Miami Vice's fifth and final season, it was hard to disagree with Hiaasen's critical assessment. The show, as then-executive producer Dick Wolf has admitted, "had run its course. " Don Johnson was clearly anxious to leave for a film career, and the writing staff seemed equally eager to bail out. How else to explain an episode with an extended dream sequence, singer James Brown as a crazed UFO-ologist, and aliens -- yes, aliens -- hovering over Crockett and Tubbs's car?

Just as telling, though, the South Beach that Mann and Yerkovich had envisioned was taking concrete shape. Boarded-up Art Deco hotels they'd once repainted themselves to use as backdrops were now open for business, some of them thriving. An entirely new milieu was forming with the arrival of the film and fashion industries, one that would keep Miami Vice's sizzle but swap out its grit.

Miami author John Rothchild described this turn-of-the-decade shift -- stoked by the media -- in Up for Grabs, his seminal book about Florida's wacky history: "Jon Bradshaw, a bourbon-slugging, safari-jacketed journalist in the Hemingway mode, was sent to town by Vanity Fair," he writes. "He spent a week or so interviewing the usual suspects and wrote a long and intriguing update on drugs, spies, scams, hustles, and the latest indictments being handed down -- in other words, the typical Miami dispatch from the 1980s. Tina Brown, then editor of Vanity Fair, killed Bradshaw's article. She didn't want grist. She wanted glitz.... Michael Caine sighted at the Delano Hotel! Steffi Graf sighted on Washington Avenue! Leona Helmsley buys mansion on Star Island! Madonna blows kisses at Miami Heat point guard!"

As anyone who was even barely conscious during the recent MTV Video Music Awards weekend can tell you, glitz is still the default portrayal not only of South Beach but also of those odd little areas across the causeways. Accordingly it's worth wondering how Michael Mann's upcoming film adaptation of Miami Vice will unfold. Currently shooting all over Miami-Dade County and set for release in July 2006, it holds the potential to remodel Miami once more.

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