HomeReviewReview: Miami Vice, “Brother’s Keeper” (Series Premiere)

Review: Miami Vice, “Brother’s Keeper” (Series Premiere)

Miami Vice
Season 1, Episode 1: “Brother’s Keeper” (Pilot)
Original airdate: Sept. 16, 1984

“MTV Cops.”

At this point, most of us are familiar with that expression and are likely aware of the largely inaccurate narrative surrounding the creation of Miami Vice.

The tale goes that Brandon Tartikoff, who was the president of NBC at the time, penned those two words during a development meeting, and the outcome of that utterance was the birth of Vice.

Certainly, the actual story is quite different. The individual credited with the true creation of Vice, Anthony Yerkovich, formerly associated with Hill Street Blues, indicates that his inspiration came after delving into the details of how law enforcement utilized confiscated assets from drug dealers.

Yet, even Yerkovich’s account overlooks the show’s most influential creative force: Michael Mann. Mann, the renowned film director known for his distinct artistic vision, may not have directed any episodes of Vice, but he took his role as a producer very seriously.

It’s widely reported that Mann was the driving force behind the show’s pioneering visual style, which notably included the establishment of the “no earth tones” rule.

Remarkably, by the sixth episode of the inaugural season, Yerkovich had departed and was no longer associated with Miami Vice.

The confusion surrounding the show’s journey to the airwaves and its survival through its initial season underscores the unconventional nature of television management practices.

However, it also implies that, on occasion, chaos or controversy can lead to the creation of exceptionally compelling art.

This initial two-hour installment of Miami Vice certainly lives up to the hype. The term “MTV Cops,” while legendary, is remarkably apt in describing this pilot episode, conjuring a level of sophistication and coolness that I can hardly recall encountering previously.

Granted, there are a few hiccups along the way, largely because of its extended runtime, something I’m not particularly fond of. Nevertheless, it’s evident why Vice left such an indelible mark on popular culture during the mid-1980s.

If you’ve been following my discussions about the show on Twitter, you likely noticed that I was sharing my thoughts on it last Sunday.

Honestly, the pilot episode makes it incredibly challenging not to become engrossed in the intoxicating blend of intensity, vice, vibrant sounds, and distinctive style it offers.

Before I get too carried away, let me take a step back and explain why I’ve embarked on this journey of watching and writing about this show.

For some reason, I’ve taken it upon myself to chronicle the transformation of the police drama genre since the 1980s. While I acknowledge that the genre may have received some criticism or seems a bit worn out by 2012, I have a genuine fondness for it.

I’m particularly intrigued by the process that led to the dominance of shows like NCIS and CSI on our screens today. I have a broad understanding of how and why this shift occurred, but I’m eager to gain firsthand insight into the evolution.

To kick off this exploration, I began with Hill Street Blues, a series often hailed as the progenitor of contemporary quality television and a trailblazing force in the realm of police dramas.

It seems only fitting to delve into the following significant show that made its mark. Miami Vice stands out as dramatically different from Hill Street Blues, which adds an extra layer of excitement to this journey over the next dozen or so weeks.

At any rate, as I embark on my journey of watching Miami Vice, it’s worth noting that I come to it with absolutely no prior exposure to the series.

I possess a rudimentary understanding of the characters and the show’s distinctive style, having seen the 2006 film adaptation directed by Michael Mann (a director I happen to admire).

Perhaps I’m jumping the gun here, but it appears to me that in 2012, the show doesn’t enjoy the same warm regard in collective memory. Instead, it’s often regarded as a relic that epitomizes the 1980s (and apparently, this is seen as a negative aspect).

While I don’t intend to suggest that Miami Vice lacks contemporary fans, it doesn’t seem to generate the same level of discussion as series like Hill Street Blues or even Law & Order do.

Given those expectations, I genuinely anticipated that this pilot episode would be laden with a hefty dose of silliness and cheesiness. Naturally, I assumed it would be awash in an excessive amount of pastel colors and synth-heavy music.

To my pleasant surprise, “Brother’s Keeper” defies those presumptions entirely. Astonishingly, it manages to strike a balance where it neither comes across as silly nor cheesy.

What’s even more remarkable is that it incorporates the expected* pastels and synths but in a measured manner.

To add to the intrigue, the episode begins with an unexpected twist, commencing in the gritty and somber setting of New York, where Tubbs tails Calderone, who might as well be twirling his mustache.

However, as the narrative transitions to Miami, Mann’s distinctive visual style and the music become more prominent.

*Fascinatingly, the decision to commence the story in New York City subverts my expectations as a viewer, particularly when considering Miami Vice with the benefit of hindsight. I can imagine that viewers in 1984 were likely less taken aback by the choice to start the show in a location that aligns with the typical setting for most cop shows.

A lot of attention has been directed toward Miami Vice‘s distinctive visual style and its use of music, and even for someone who hasn’t seen the show before, they remain remarkably impressive.

While “Brother’s Keeper” may not boast the most intricate or intellectually challenging narrative, and the characters’ dialogue occasionally veers into excessive pop culture references, the strength of the visuals and the music compensates for any narrative shortcomings, elevating the pilot to another level.

The show was known for its iconic fashion, including pastel-colored suits and T-shirts.
The show was known for its iconic fashion, including pastel-colored suits and T-shirts.

Nearly all of the episode’s standout moments are driven by striking imagery, whether it’s the captivating shots of Miami’s locations, the artful camera angles and editing, music, or a combination of both. Dialogue plays a minimal role in these memorable sequences.

The most striking illustration of this dynamic occurs in the sequence near the conclusion of the second hour, where Crockett and Tubbs race through Miami in pursuit of Calderone, all set to the backdrop of Phil Collins’ “In The Air Tonight.”

Despite the impracticality of Crockett stopping at a payphone for a (undeniably impactful and stripped-down) conversation with his ex-wife when they have just 25 minutes to reach Calderone, this scene is a masterpiece.

Remarkably, despite prevailing cultural perceptions of both Collins and Miami Vice, the two elements harmonize seamlessly in a four-minute segment that radiates the kind of unapologetic coolness that’s seldom encountered in today’s popular culture.

Miami Vice isn’t “in” on a joke because there is no joke; it approaches the subject matter with precisely the right amount of gravitas.

While the climax scene is undeniably the standout moment, it’s not the sole instance of its kind in this episode. Early in the narrative, Crockett and Tubbs encounter each other for the first time while both are undercover, assuming the roles of drug dealers.

This leads to a thrilling sequence where Tubbs races away in a high-speed boat (though it’s regrettable they aren’t referred to as “GO FAST BOATS” here), with Crockett in hot pursuit in his car.

The scene effectively utilizes the nighttime ambiance of Miami, alternating between the two future partners in a dynamic visual display.

Throughout this two-hour episode, Crockett and Tubbs find themselves visiting numerous seedy docks and alleyways, engaging in their fair share of high-speed chases along highways and coastal roads.

The pilot’s nighttime scenes provide a more captivating visual appeal, but the moments bathed in sunlight on Crockett’s boat and at the beach also offer a pleasant aesthetic contrast.

The impact of the music in the pilot is similarly noteworthy, as the soundtrack manages to strike a balance between being on-the-nose and undeniably awesome.

For instance, “Body Talk” accompanies Tubbs’ early altercation with Calderone, “Somebody’s Watching Me” provides the score for Tubbs’ undercover operation at the strip club, “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” enhances the scene in which informant Leon meets his demise at the hands of a man disguised as a woman, and, of course, there’s “In The Air Tonight.”

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The pilot maintains a relatively straightforward tone, so one could assume that these musical selections weren’t necessarily intended to be excessively self-aware, yet it’s challenging not to interpret them as such. Regardless, they undeniably enhance the viewing experience.

Collectively, the fusion of visuals and music indeed bestows Vice a music video ambiance that would have seamlessly fit into the MTV landscape of 1984.

While the pilot follows a fairly conventional narrative structure, it’s during these moments when these two elements converge to deliver brief, dialogue-light storytelling that the show transcends mere conventionality.

These interludes are neither superfluous nor tangential; instead, they actively propel the storyline forward in a stylish yet efficient manner.

While Vice’s storytelling style undeniably elevates the tension and lends more weight to the unfolding events, it also aids the two leading actors in transcending their characters.

Regrettably, Philip Michael Thomas requires that kind of assistance, especially in light of his portrayal of Ricardo Tubbs, which, over the course of these two hours, is inconsistent.

It’s apparent that he’s often working undercover, but Thomas delivers his lines with an array of accents and inflections, and although his high energy is an asset, there are moments when it feels like he’s overexerting himself.

In this case, less dialogue might have been a wiser choice.

Don Johnson, on the other hand, requires very little assistance, and as a result, the show’s style amplifies his portrayal of Sonny Crockett, making him come across as The Coolest Man on the Planet.

Sonny is a character who, despite occasionally dispensing folksy advice in one scene and dropping youthful pop culture references in another, manages to feel complex and compelling.

Much of this credit undoubtedly goes to Johnson’s performance.

While Tubbs may have the weight of a darker past, haunted by the death of his brother, Sonny garners immediate sympathy because Johnson infuses the character with a greater depth and humanity than Thomas does with Tubbs.

Even though Sonny exudes coolness, whether he’s behind the wheel of a fast car or an even faster boat, he’s also an emotional mess who acknowledges his flaws and doesn’t rely on them as a crutch.

To put it bluntly, if you were to tell me that Don Johnson had literally romanced every woman in America between 1984 and 1985, I’d find it entirely believable.

The shift from Hill Street Blues to Miami Vice provides valuable insights. The former excels primarily due to its strong writing, complemented by adept editing, while the latter emerges as a stylistic powerhouse.

Although I’m not an expert, it’s quite evident how Hill Street Blues serves as a bridge to the 1970s, rooted in character-driven narratives, whereas Miami Vice signifies the dawn of a new era in television storytelling that places a heightened emphasis on visual aesthetics and musical selections.

Don Johnson played Detective James "Sonny" Crockett, and Philip Michael Thomas portrayed Detective Ricardo Tubbs.
Don Johnson played Detective James “Sonny” Crockett and Philip Michael Thomas portrayed Detective Ricardo Tubbs.

I would contend that the success of Hill Street Blues paved the way for something like Miami Vice to emerge, thanks to its advancements in both narrative and aesthetics.

However, while Hill Street employed editing and documentary-style camera techniques to support its written narrative, Miami Vice entrusts its style to bear the weight of the storytelling.

Certainly, leaning heavily on style is effective for a pilot episode. However, as Miami Vice progresses, it may require additional elements to attain the storytelling excellence of Hill Street Blues.

Otherwise, the label of “MTV Cops” could shift from being a badge of celebration to becoming a burden that hampers the show’s potential. I’m eager to see how this journey unfolds.

Other thoughts:

Reesav Niraula
Reesav Niraula
Reesav is a entertainment freak who enjoys spending his time immersed in the arts and entertainment world. In his free time, he is delved into entertainment as well, i.e. playing his guitar and singing songs.

Expertise: Story Arc Analysis Psychological Themes


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