'Miami Vice': 10 Ways the 1980s Series Changed Cop and Crime Shows

·Contributor
Don Johnson as Det. John 'Sonny' Crockett and Philip Michael Thomas as Det. Ricardo Tubbs
Don Johnson as Det. John 'Sonny' Crockett and Philip Michael Thomas as Det. Ricardo Tubbs

To be sure, Miami Vice started a fashion revolution, but its most lasting influences have little to do with pastel suits and loafers sans socks.  

On the occasion of the series' 30th anniversary — it launched via a two-hour TV-movie on Sept. 16, 1984, and aired its first regular episode nearly two weeks later, on Sept. 28 — it's time to look at how Sonny Crockett (Don Johnson) and Ricardo Tubbs (Philip Michael Thomas) changed the game for cops and crime shows:

1. Stubble wasn't just for bad guys anymore. In the pre-Miami Vice world, Hawaii Five-O's Detective Danny Williams (as played by James MacArthur on the original series) was as clean-cut as a Jack Webb recruit. After Crockett made barely-there beards heroic, Danno (as played by Scott Caan on the current Five-0 reboot) got as unshaven as a Charles Bukowski character. (Note: While we acknowledge Crockett wasn't the first good cop to sport stubble — the likes of Bruce Weitz's Mick Belker got there before in Hill Street Blues — we argue he was the first leading-man cop to do so.)

2. The cinematic look wasn't just for movies anymore. If it's true that Gotham looks like Gotham because of the Christopher Nolan Dark Knight movies — and it is — then it's also true that Miami Vice helped lay the groundwork for all TV shows to look like movies. Hill Street Blues and Cagney & Lacey might have been good cop shows for their time — and they were — but they looked like TV shows (the latter more than the former). It took Miami Vice to add sweeping shots to crime sweeps.

Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas
Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas

3. The flashy life wasn't just for P.I.s anymore. The rule was: A cop drove a patrol car with the occasional Ford Gran Torino reserved for maverick types like Starsky and Hutch, while the independently-backed private detective, like Magnum P.I.'s Thomas Magnum, drove a Ferrari. Enter Crockett with his Ferrari. By the time CSI: Miami came along, Lt. Horatio Crane (David Caruso) ruled the road in a can't-miss-it Hummer.

4. TV cops immediately got better looking. Consider this an outgrowth of Crockett's beard, such as it was. One season, the middle-aged T.J. Hooker (William Shatner) was the stud-liest cop on the beat. Then Tubbs and his partner made the scene, and pretty soon, the young Ken Wahl (Wiseguy) the young Michael Paré (Houston Knights), and the positively baby-faced Johnny Depp (21 Jump Street) were hitting the street.

5. TV cops shows eventually got sexier. In terms of showing skin, Miami Vice was no NYPD Blue, which it preceded. But it was a lot sultrier than Hunter, of which it was a contemporary. Crockett's bare ankles were the bridge to NYPD Blue's bare backsides and the eventual cable-ization of broadcast network TV.

Philip Michael Thomas as Det. Ricardo Tubbs and Don Johnson as Det. John 'Sonny' Crockett
Philip Michael Thomas as Det. Ricardo Tubbs and Don Johnson as Det. John 'Sonny' Crockett

6. Location suddenly mattered. Before TV productions routinely started fleeing Los Angeles to keep down shooting costs, cop shows started moving out of town to keep up with Miami Vice, which, as the cliché goes, made a character out of its namesake city. A 1985 Orlando Sentinel feature cited the Miami Vice effect as a factor in then-new shows such as The Equalizer and Spencer: For Hire using authentic New York and Boston locations, respectively. Fast-forward to today, and it can be argued that every city-centric CSI incarnation owes a debt to Miami Vice (even if, granted, only certain outdoor scenes from those shows are shot in their namesake cities).    

7. Rock music became the TV-cop show soundtrack. Remember how officers Malloy and Reed cruised the streets of Los Angeles to the sounds of Jefferson Airplane? If you don't because Adam-12 didn't roll like that. But after Miami Vice spawned hits as much as it became a hit, the series that was sprung from the phrase "MTV Cops" encouraged other cop and crime shows to delve into their producers' music collections. Crime Story had Del Shannon's "Runaway." The Sopranos got going to Alabama 3's "Woke Up This Morning." Cop Rock featured original tunes by Randy Newman. And lest we forget: Booker — Richard Grieco's Booker had Billy Idol's "Hot in the City."

8. Old-school cop shows got really, really old-looking. Post-Miami Vice, there was still a market for the jokey, buddy-type cop show that had long policed primetime. In fact, Johnson made one: Nash Bridges, and — guess what? — it ran longer than Miami Vice (six seasons versus five). But after Miami Vice (and, to a degree, Hill Street Blues) a line was set, and you either tried to go boldly past it, or you went the other way and just hoped to rack up episodes on the backs of audiences who'd made CHiPs a long-running hit.

9. It (indirectly) begat Crime Story, which (indirectly) begat the golden-age of the TV drama. While Michael Mann was an Emmy-winner and film director (Thief) prior to writing and producing Miami Vice, after he did so he was a brand name who had the juice to get Crime Story on the air. The 1960s-set, Dennis Farina series offered audiences early glimpses of Julia Roberts, Kevin Spacey — and, most important, the TV drama as novel.

10. Or, it directly changed everything. In a 2006 appreciation of Miami Vice, TV critic David Hiltbrand argued there was through line from Miami Vice to today's era of acclaimed TV. Without the series, he wrote in praise of its stylistic and tonal flourishes, "there is no ER or The Sopranos or CSI."