by Kathleen Karlyn
Cut, no. 33, Feb. 1988, pp. 20-27
Florida juts like an arm into the Caribbean, pointing toward the tropics and the exoticism of Latin America. Of all parts of the United States, it ventures farthest into strange waters. Miami is its heart, and it beats with rhythms both irresistible and unsettling for the stolid heartland of the country. Teeming with images of nature —parrots, flamingos, water and speed, women's bodies flaunting sensuality — Miami is our heart of darkness.
Across the continent, Los Angeles rises like a steel and glass monument built on a plain. Like Dallas, Houston and other cities we have constructed on what before had been arid wastelands, it is a monument to our culture. Los Angeles represents law — the rule of reason and patriarchy that controls nature and exploits it for its own purposes.
Together they map the U.S. psyche in terms of power and ideology. Shown back-to-back on Friday nights the fall of 1986, we have seen the whole vision that as a pair they present: first the alluring violence, the seductive dreamlike world of MIAMI VICE, the underside of power that one hour later is tamed, humanized and "yuppified" in L.A. LAW. In the terms of anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, the power that is raw in MIAMI VICE is cooked with platitudes and ideology in L.A. LAW; the law of the streets and the jungles of South America refined into leather-bound legal volumes and robed judges.
The raw and the cooked
Extravagant images of nature and glamorized exoticism fill the opening sequences of MIAMI VICE, in which powerboats and sailboats, jai alai pelotas, greyhounds and thoroughbreds race recklessly across the screen. L.A. LAW, on the other hand, shows us first a California license plate, paying homage both to the cult of the automobile and to the licensing and numbers that play so large a role in our culture. Then, as in DALLAS, we're shown the skyline on a plain (with only a hint of smog-veiled mountains behind); frozen shots successively nearing the city; shots from below of towering glass skyscrapers; then interiors filled with elites who through language are working the system to what we will be told is everyone's advantage. We aren't shown so much as a blade of grass that seems to exist apart from this constructed world of artifice and logocentrism. Law, after all, is language reaching toward its heights of abstraction, far from its roots in labor (Rossi-Landi 24) and its imprecise richness in poetry.
While MIAMI VICE is the unconscious, the world of Dionysus, L.A. LAW is consciousness, Apollo, the reason that keeps it under control. Later in the season L.A. LAW was rescheduled to another night. But before it was, we could be confident when we topped off our Friday's evening's viewing with the 11 o'clock news that the weirdness and danger we'd flirted with at 9 o'clock would be neatly repackaged at 10 o'clock and disposed of by the end of the hour. That year, 1986, especially, MIAMI VICE has ventured more strongly into narrative. While it hasn't sacrificed its visual and aural style, it has enhanced its power by exploring through narrative the contradictions it merely evoked before.
In several powerful episodes, which I'll discuss later, it has left these contradictions unresolved. L.A. LAW, on the other hand, tends to sanitize the contradictions it deals with and wrap them up neatly. It touches on such current "hot" media issues as missing children, yuppie kids dealing drugs, sex discrimination cases, and so on — but with a vision and tone that diffuse their intensity. Hotshot lawyers offer our best chance at protecting this best of all worlds, after all.
Both shows support the view that the world is threatened by lawlessness. In MIAMI VICE this lawlessness is represented by the "marginals" of our society. Marginals people MIAMI VICE — indeed, Miami itself is painted as a world on the fringe. From that fringe it ventures even further into the margin, into the underworld of crime kings, voodoo, and Latin America, but that margin is usually glamorized and thereby rendered safe. Lawlessness in L.A. LAW is more abstract and represented by threats, usually in the form of "bad values" like greed or lack of idealism, to the sanctity of The Law.
Marginals exist in L.A. LAW as well, but there they are rendered safe by institutionalization. During the season, after McKenzie-Brackman law firm hires a Chicano lawyer, not only is the firm able to move on to its main business — making obscene amounts of money — but we begin to worry that the lawyer will lose the edge that sets him apart from his establishment colleagues. In fact, money and its counterpart, machismo, have a lot to do with both programs. The worlds of MIAMI VICE and L.A. LAW, like the social world in which they exist, are driven by the pursuit of money and the exercise of machismo.
MIAMI VICE and L.A. LAW are both about power. Together they show our fascination with it — with the bloody violence of the streets and the bloodless violence of the courts. Together they form a symbolic representation of the U.S. psyche. They show how power exercises itself over the marginals of our society, either by relegating them to an exotic fringe to which we can pay brief, titillating visits, or by seducing them into our institutions with the offer of money and prestige. Most of all they show how power upholds our ideology by controlling the threat of lawlessness and disorder.
MIAMI VICE and style
Whatever one may think of MIAMI VICE, the program's style is unmistakable. It is perhaps the strongest element in glamorizing the margin and representing a dream world of the unconscious. In MIAMI VICE, image and music take the place of language. This style has drawn both criticism for its emphasis on sensation over intellect and praise for its exploitation of the medium of television. Michael Pollan wrote in Channels that it has brought a
It isn't only images, however, that contribute to this style but music as well. In fact, producer Michael Mann believes that the show's use of music is what most sets it apart from other TV shows. He uses the example of an episode from an earlier season, "Smuggler's Blues," in which Glenn Frey's song is used almost in operatic counterpoint to the action. When Frey sings, "It's the lure of easy money. It's got a very strong appeal," Mann says, "It's like a Greek chorus, coming in to chant, 'Fear him, fear him!'" (Benedek 62). Music helps tell the story subliminally. Mann acknowledges MIAMI VICE's relation to music video. He also traces a more significant link to their common ancestor in film, especially the films of Eisenstein, who pioneered the concept of using music as a counterpoint to visual images (62). Pollan, on the other hand, says that the show's immediate ancestor is HILL STREET BLUES which, with its "gritty" style of verité documentary, was the first successful prime time show to develop a self-conscious visual style. That style, according to Jeremy G. Butler, is closely identified with film noir, which defines itself more by its anti-traditional visual style than by character and theme.
Style allows MIAMI VICE to frame violence in beauty and turn appearance and reality upside down. Both the lushness of the natural settings and the opulence of the manmade ones (the Italian clothes, Ferraris, and spectacular interiors) make this exotic world a gorgeous one, which the camera emphasizes whenever it lingers over a perfectly framed shot. Mann's well-known dictum about the series, "No earth tones," points to its initial use of color (lavenders, turquoises, pinks) to paint a world visually foreign to mainstream United States. The hues may be darker this season, but their impact remains as strong.
Furthermore, this is a world in which reality and fantasy are casually and easily intertwined, as evident in the program's use of cameo performances by such public figures as Lee Iacocca and G. Gordon Liddy. Even Vice President Bush tried, unsuccessfully, to get on the show in a role that presumably would toughen his prissy image. However, unlike earlier shows in which public figures appeared as themselves, on MIAMI VICE they can re-create their personas. (Critic William A. Henry III raises the disturbing question of who is using whom when this happens.)
Pollan raises even deeper questions about the moral implications of the show's emphasis on style above narrative. After praising HILL STREET BLUES because it is a "writer's show," he continues:
"You cannot, however, 'read' MIAMI VICE in this way, interpreting its visual style in terms of its writing to uncover a fairly coherent view of the world … It goes to war each week with the entire tradition of Western dramaturgy. The result is television that offers less for the mind than for the eye."
He places such television, with its emphasis on sensation, in "the province of sensation" for the pleasure of people who have come to "enjoy images not as windows on the real world but simply as images" (26-28).
While Pollan has much of interest to say about MIAMI VICE, I question the extent to which he privileges narrative and realism. MIAMI VICE has paid more attention to narrative this season and unquestionably has benefited from doing so. But although narrative, with its linear causality and closure, has indeed dominated Western dramaturgy, it is not the only way of conceptualizing and explaining the world. More important, I believe that the success of the program results more from its vision than its style — from how it uses style to play on our desires and fears. Two programs that were based simply on imitating its style, HOLLYWOOD BEAT and THE INSIDERS, failed.
Verbal world of L.A. LAW
L.A. LAW, on the other hand, is a continent away from MIAMI VICE in style as well as setting. L.A. LAW is reason to MIAMI VICE's emotion, so it situates us back in the familiar world where language dominates and controls the unruly, sensuous elements of MIAMI VICE. There are no Caribbean colors to be found here, and the program is shot almost entirely in closed spaces. "The practice of law is inherently complex, and it isn't inherently visual," producer Steven Bochco says. "It's a verbal world, and rather than run from words, we have chosen to embrace them" (Schwartz 62).
The camera, the artifice of the program, become invisible on L.A. LAW, thereby making its representations seem all the more true to life. Narrative is employed in the program in the serialized fashion found in HILL STREET BLUES and ST. ELSEWHERE. This allows the program to develop many characters and plot threads, which it eventually resolves. But by including as many as five or six of these threads in each episode, the power of each thread is diffused. In effect, the program uses narrative in its own way to tell us its message about power: The world may be complex, it may have such problems as poverty, AIDS and incest, but none of these problems is overwhelming and this complexity is manageable because the law is in control.
According to Bochco,
This statement points to the first of two major aspects of ideology reproduced in both shows: money. Both shows glorify money and consumption by centering so strongly on the lives and lifestyles of the wealthy. In both, wealth is the fruit of the disorder each battles: the violent drug empires of MIAMI VICE and the white-collar intrigues of L.A. LAW. This wealth is flashier, more nouveau, more fantastic, in MIAMI VICE, as one would expect from the margin. In a class corollary to the psychological view of the two shows, the world of the irrational is also shown as the world of the working class — of cops who may drive Ferraris and wear Armani suits but are cops nonetheless.
These people have no real place in the world of reason, which is ruled by the yuppies and old boys (with old money) of L.A. LAW. Real power in our country isn't wielded by the cops and crooks of Miami but by the social class represented by L.A. LAW. Money in L.A. LAW is patrician and tasteful. While in MIAMI VICE value can still be shown by action, by macho confrontations with danger, in L.A. LAW this value is totally intellectualized and transformed into money. The firm presents lawyer Ann Kelsey with a check for $86,000 "to show your value to us." Chicano lawyer Sifuentes notes the importance of a lunch meeting by its $100 price tag. And short, sweet, dumpy Markowitz suddenly gains new stature as a sex symbol when over a candlelight dinner at his house, which Kelsey has seen for the first time ("It's stunning — like out of House and Garden"), he tells her, "I have a confession to make. I'm rich."
Discussions about money dominate nearly every meeting of the law firm and every divorce case we see on the show. One episode begins with a group of law students questioning patriarch McKenzie about starting salaries and perks. Later he barks at his secretary,
They aren't the only ones who do, yet the program veils this obsession by parodying it in a laughable character, Brackman, who in one unbelievable episode tries the unthinkable: reducing the boss's salary.
Later one of the "little snots" who outraged McKenzie approaches him and says, about the law:
McKenzie hires him on the spot. By casting McKenzie as an idealist and Brackman as the realist, and by poking merciless fun at Brackman, the show suggests that rich firms indeed do more than defend the interests of the ruling class, and that idealism about the law still prevails.
Powerful controlling male figures
Cops, criminals and courts — this is male turf, whether in Miami or Los Angeles, and this turf calls for a powerful male to control it. Thus the second major value that underlies both programs is patriarchy, and contrasting the two patriarchs is instructive. In MIAMI VICE that person is Lt. Castillo, the epitome of machismo, the man who knows the alien world of lawlessness because he is an outsider himself. There is romance and tragedy in his past — in Southeast Asia, where he learned mysterious things — but this past is shrouded in secrecy; he never speaks of it. Castillo is a powerful presence. Dressed always in stark black and white, he stands out in glittery Miami, and we often see him silhouetted or dramatically paired with Crockett or Tubbs. He seldom speaks, and when he does, he speaks monosyllabically. He is never flustered. He never shows emotion. He never makes a mistake. His authority rests entirely on his brute, inarticulate power.
Leland McKenzie in L.A. LAW, on the other hand, is the antithesis of Castillo. While Castillo is young, dark and foreign, McKenzie is an aging WASP. While Castillo radiates power through his silence and stillness, McKenzie bustles around, chirping, complaining, scolding and preaching. Whenever he opens his mouth, a platitude pops out: "Blaming others for your frustration is easy, doing something about it is hard," he says, patronizing his secretary of many years. However, while Castillo has all the codings of a strong male, McKenzie's power far outreaches his. He has command of the institutions shaped by language. Castillo is only a police lieutenant, and while his power keeps the disruptive forces of Miami under control, that is child's play compared to the power wielded by McKenzie. Castillo only enforces the law; McKenzie and his class make it.
Each patriarch commands troops suited to his mission, and these troops can be studied by the opposition of gender. In MIAMI VICE, the Crockett/Tubbs pair dominates the show, with another male pair that backs them up. Women are primarily adornment in this unabashedly macho show; women's only role in nature is biological. L.A. LAW, on the other hand, shows a world at least beginning to make more room for women. Two are tested and make the grade: they are admitted to the all-male law firm. Others appear as judges, and one has a major role as a district attorney.
Crockett and Tubbs
The Crockett/Tubbs pair, which is at the heart of MIAMI VICE, works because it plays on keep concerns and identifications in our culture. The most obvious is racial. Crockett and Tubbs are not the first black and white team to appear on television. Twenty years ago Bill Cosby and Robert Culp starred in the top-rated series I SPY (Moore 59). Even farther back, in such pairs as Huck and Jim, Ishmael and Queequeg, Americans have tried to resolve in fiction the racial contradictions we experience in reality.
In addition to these racially mixed pairs, there are untold numbers of simply male pairs — Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and other cowboys through whom our culture has expressed its romance with the freedom of the West. The fact that these deep bonds seem to occur more readily between men than between men and women suggests the misogyny of our culture, its fear and therefore exclusion of women. Crockett and Tubbs, whose lives revolve around their jobs and whose dependence on each other as partners is, as all police shows tell us, quasi-mystical, are heirs to this tradition.
Black Tubbs, as one would expect, plays second fiddle to white Crockett. Indeed, the racism implicit in Tubbs' subordination to Crockett is one of the most serious charges leveled at the show, which peoples its representation of the world of nature with racial and ethnic minorities. Interestingly, however, it's not Tubbs' race but his sophistication that the program uses to place him a little off its off-center center. He's from the Northeast, from New York — a sign of the establishment world of L.A. LAW. He knows about wine, about culture. When Crockett fell in love with an upscale architect, it was Tubbs who really understood the gap between her and Crockett and who knew simply by glancing around her apartment (or condo, most likely) that she would never fit into the blue collar world of cops, even cops who masquerade as high rollers as convincingly as Crockett and Tubbs do.
Crockett, on the other hand, grew up in the South. He played football. He's white, blond and handsome. He's not strange or threatening. He's a hero most of the United States (or most middle-American males) can identify with, If Crockett can tame those fierce drug barons of South America, then we too are similarly empowered over "strangeness." Yet taming them isn't easy. It keeps both cops, but especially Crockett, on the edge. The thrill of watching the pair venture out of control into the forbidden terrain where the ego no longer reigns accounts, I believe, for the appeal of the program. It expresses our fascination with and ambivalence toward violence, lawlessness and the foreign.
Sexuality is almost caricatured in MIAMI VICE, consistent with the program's orientation toward the unconscious, and women exist as they probably do in the repressed dreams of most U.S. men. Masculinity for Crockett and Tubbs equals physical prowess and thriving on danger. Crockett's famous stubble is a sign of masculinity, of flaunting the "sissy" conventions of the establishment. Femininity, according to the show, is embodied in Trudy and Gina. Like Zwiteck and Zito, the peripheral male cops, they are ethnic types — Gina Hispanic, Trudy black. And like good women, they know their place. They back up Crockett and Tubbs and mostly follow orders, but they do enjoy friendly camaraderie with the fellows. Only rarely is an episode based on them, and then only when they need to be rescued or when the episode is about a "women's" issue (for example, baby-smuggling). More to the point, they are there for adornment and to reinforce society's role for women. When men go undercover, they can play at running crime empires; when women do, they must play at prostitution. Gina and Trudy know all the angles on selling one's body. Whether on the streets or in high-class parties, they are articulate in the body language of trading on their sexuality. Mostly they dress in outrageously sexy clothes — glittery, sprayed on, plunging-neckline outfits and spike-heeled shoes.
Depiction of gender in L.A. LAW is predictably more subtle, civilized and contemporary. In its first season the program included a large number of characters who were still barely formed. Yet from the first episode the contrast between the men in MIAMI VICE and L.A. LAW was obvious. For the lawyers in McKenzie-Brackman law firm, violence and physical danger hardly exist. They fight their battles with their minds, their educations and connections. And because society's power resides in them, the greatest threats to its order they face are often among and within themselves — their conflicts, failings, and errors in judgment.
A bunch of lawyers
In addition to great white father McKenzie and greedy Number Two man Brackman, L.A. LAW's dominant males are represented by the following quartet: Becker, Kuzak, Markowitz and Sifuentes. Becker is portrayed, mostly sympathetically, as a womanizer who can't resist the charms of the rich, beautiful women he represents in divorce cases (McKenzie-Brackman generally doesn't help poor or homely women get divorces). He is, however, blind to the devotion of his pathetic secretary. Professionally, what he most wants is to be allowed to practice entertainment law; he, unlike the stuffy other members of the firm, believes that entertainment is "where it's at."
Kuzak is probably the Crockett of L.A. LAW — meant to be the point of identification for most viewers. As a young, handsome lawyer on his way up, he has the fewest obvious flaws. He is the one who pursues beautiful prosecutor Van Owen and "wins" her away from her dull but decent fiancé. And he is responsible for bringing Sifuentes, the token minority, into the firm. Sifuentes is a hustling, hard-hitting, smart Hispanic lawyer who joins the firm on the condition that he be allowed to do as much pro bono work as he wants. By taking him in, the firm (or the program's writers?) can appease its conscience both about its own priorities in the kind of law it practices and about its WASPISh makeup. The firm's token minority before Sifuentes was a black man, who quit when Sifuentes was hired because of his frustration with how the rest of the firm had excluded him. McKenzie's sanctimonious parting words to him: "It was both our faults." Finally, the most original of these characters is Markowitz, the short, paunchy middle-aged man who is aggressive only in wooing lawyer Ann Kelsey. What is most appealing about him is that he shatters several male stereotypes: he is not driven about his career, and his sexiness is based not on machismo but on genuine respect and love for a woman.
Women in L.A. LAW
Women are making inroads into the reasoned world of L.A. LAW, but they and the problems they face are still depicted somewhat ambiguously. Women appear in one of several groups: young professionals, secretaries, and everyone else. It is in the second two groups that stereotypes appear most problematically. Secretaries are shown as either victims or fools, taking abuse from their male bosses which neither party seems to recognize. McKenzie's secretary Iris, after a lifetime of service to him that included an affair when she was younger, angrily speaks back to him in one episode when he yells at her because the coffee she served him is too strong and in a china cup he doesn't like. When she expresses her frustration to him, he tells her to go to night school if she wants to change her situation — but in the meantime, not to blame him for her problems.
Becker's secretary Roxy, on the other hand, would probably never dream of speaking sharply to him (at least early in the series); she is devotedly, mindlessly in love with him. "Everyone else" is basically upper class and beautiful — the wives Becker represents, a female journalist, other women in the legal profession. In one episode we meet a bag lady and in another an "average" U.S. mother (whose husband has been raping her daughters), but the portrayal of them is shallow. One has to be a professional woman to get serious attention on this program.
L.A. LAW does raise a few familiar questions about these professional women: To what extent must they become like men to be accepted by the male establishment? Must they, too, sacrifice personal lives for their work if they are to "succeed"? Abby Perkins' husband leaves her and abducts their child — because, he says, he won't take second place to her work. Kelsey and Van Owen have no private lives until their suitors wear them down. When Kelsey insists that Perkins leave her personal grief over the loss of her child outside the office, Perkins accuses Kelsey of not knowing what it's like to care for something outside her work and of sublimating all of her energy in her work. Van Owen, on the other hand, gives up her professional goals because of her romance with Kuzak. His clownish courtship costs her a chance at a judgeship, which she finally accepts as being for the best: "All my life I've tried to be what everyone else wants me to be," she says. It seems that women alone have to deal with these hard choices.
At the same time, women are shown as able to support each other in ways that men cannot. If one of the threats to the law is the cynicism of lawyers like Brackman, L.A. LAW also suggests that the idealism of the outsiders — the women and Sifuentes — is its best defense.
All of these characters enact dramas that in various ways seek to uncover and deal with contradictions involving power in our society. In MIAMI VICE the plots are generally based on drug crimes from abroad, but this season the series has explored new territory with a stronger emphasis on narrative and a harder look at problems that originate within our own borders. In L.A. LAW, the plots are based on problems that are domestic — and essentially domesticated.
By early in its first season, L.A. LAW had racked up a long list of subjects unusual for fictional programs on prime time television: incest, transexuality, breast cancer, sexism, racism, AIDS, child abuse, child abduction, euthanasia, capital punishment, tax fraud, slum lords, the homeless, even polygamy. Most of the attention has gone to subjects that will titillate rather than disturb or threaten its viewers. The deeper, structural problems of our society, those problems that are subtler and more complex, are essentially ignored. While L.A. LAW shows the struggle of women and minorities to become a part of the establishment, and even questions the cynicism and greed that exist there, it never suggests the need for major reform to end the inequities of our society.
This can be seen in several examples. Van Owen faces the dilemma of prosecuting a homosexual for shooting his lover, who was dying from AIDS. She must uphold the principle of the law that euthanasia is wrong, but knows that prosecuting the man, who himself has AIDS, is inhumane. She wins her case — but in the following episode works out a deal that will tie an appeal up for at least a year By then, the man will be dead anyway. So we see this as a victory.
Next, Kuzak must defend a man known to have raped, tortured and killed children. Because Kuzak doesn't believe in the death penalty and is committed to giving his clients the best possible defense, he gets the man out of jail and on the street. Everyone fears that the man, who is incorrigible and disgusting, will kill again. Instead, police follow him and kill him when he holds up a store. Again, this is presented as a victory of sorts; the law is upheld, and no innocent people are hurt. Finally, Brackman, who is slumlord on the side, is being sued by the tenants of some of his property. These tenants are represented by the black lawyer who quit the firm. By the end of the hour, Brackman is forcibly taken on a tour of his property, sees the squalor and repents. It's as easy as that. This is not to say that the series solves all problems so tidily; compared to most prime time shows, it has a high degree of ambiguity and complexity. But essentially things do work out for the best. Our heroes may be flawed, but the law is not.
The law in MIAMI VICE
In contrast, on MIAMI VICE the law — or the institutions of our society — is flawed indeed, according to several recent episodes of the show, which have refused to resolve the contradictions they have explored. In the first a journalist friend of Crockett's has returned from Nicaragua with footage of Contras murdering civilians. The journalist pleads with Crockett to help him get the tape to a TV station; powerful forces are trying to destroy the tape. In the end, he is killed. The tape, though, has been delivered so we feel that at least the journalist has given his life for a worthwhile cause. Then we watch the news broadcast. Not a word is mentioned, not a sign appears of the tape.
The second episode, "Walkalone," takes a brutal look at the inside of prisons. Here we see the law entirely inverted. Here, within our own geographic boundaries, not in some foreign jungles, we are as far removed from the order of L.A. as we can get. If in Miami the law of L.A. becomes a kind of anarchy, in the prison it is reconstituted, but upside down. The guards have total power and are totally corrupt. Tubbs must venture into this underworld (to avenge the death of a woman who had him "walking on air" for two weeks — women also serve as motivators for action), and the camera follows his journey as if it were a journey into hell. He begins speeding alone out of the city in his expensive car. First we see him stopped and arrested, then loaded with others on a bus, then stripped first of his diamond earring, then of his expensive clothes, and then herded through gate after clanging gate until he reaches his target: D Block, or "hell on earth." By this time he is a number on a mug shot, all visible traces of his individuality stripped away. We see shots angled up at the guards, close-ups of prisoners' faces, and other carefully composed shots of groups of prisoners in their blue uniforms. Against the sound track of hard rock, loudspeakers droning and bars clanging, these images powerfully evoke aspects of law, power and order repressed.
Prison life is patriarchy in its most unmediated condition, where with no women to dominate, the stronger men force the weaker into submission. Order is strictly and hierarchically maintained by brute power. The guards have the guns so they are at the top of the hierarchy, followed by the Aryan Brothers, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Cuban Muittos. "God help you if you're a Rican," someone tells Tubbs.
When the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood steps forward to defend Tubbs, he is killed in cold blood by a rifleman in a guard tower. There is no outcry at this brutality. "It's the will of Allah, Brother," another black prisoner says
MIAMI VICE ventures into another underworld of sorts in an episode called "The Good Collar." As in "Walk Alone," this underworld, the urban ghetto, is of our own making, not a threat from outside. This episode presents as bleak a vision of what can be done about racism and poverty as I have seen on television. In it, Crockett tries to help a young black athlete, Archie, who made one mistake in trying to pull himself out of the ghetto. His big chance was a football scholarship, and he needed a new pair of shoes for the crucial game. Because he was too proud to ask for a handout, he made a delivery for a local gang member. Crockett arrests him, but when the cop hears his story he arranges a clean slate for him. The two connect especially because of Crockett's background as a football player; Crockett gives him a new football, money for new shoes and a promise to be at the big game.
As McCane, a tough, old black social worker who knows Archie well, explains, "Archie's no rogue." But he also says:
McCane also gives us a sense of the hopes riding on a boy like Archie when he says he knows what it's like to
Even in the lush MIAMI VICE style, the portrait of this 'hood is graphic: mountains of trash, graffiti-covered walls, a man about to urinate on a sidewalk, children watching people being beat up, children jumping up to catch drugs showered on them by a 15-year-old Count Luther, the worst of the gang leaders.
At first it looks as if Archie will get his chance. But then, the gang warfare goes out of control. The cold-eyed young prosecutor Pepin feels pressure to do something about it ("I need something for the 6 o'clock news") and decides to go back on his word to Crockett and Archie. We have already seen a clue to his cynicism when Tubbs asks him why he is so unmoved by the body of a kid who overdosed on drugs. Pepin explains that he has been working with kids for sixteen months and couldn't cry every time he saw a dead one. Archie feels that he has to accept responsibility for what he did and agrees to wear a wire to help indict Count Luther, even though Crockett and McCane plead with him not to let himself be used.
McCane bitterly tells him, "That ticket out isn't real anymore. They're just holding it out in front of you." In the end, Count Luther gets arrested, but not before he discovers the wire and kills Archie. When a bitter Crockett goes to Archie's house, McCane won't let him in, and Archie's grandmother hurls the football out the door at him. Another cop congratulates him on making a "good collar" in getting Count Luther. (Earlier Crockett had suggested that inspirational McCane should get a collar and a congregation, but the real "good collar," of course, was Archie.) Crockett just drops the football in a trashcan.
When Crockett throws away that football, he's throwing away hope and dreams. The program says that even for the best — those with the greatest integrity, talent and youth — there's no way out of a social situation like the one into which Archie was born. The "ticket isn't real." Almost as bitter is the fact that Crockett was unable to do anything about it. The racism and class division that build ghettos also build walls, which not only keep the Archies in but keep the Crocketts out. Archie's family hates Crockett, and he knows why. One could argue that MIAMI VICE tends to present the social problems it deals with more as the tragedy of sensitive Crockett than of the real victims, but in this case I don't believe that is true. This episode could have emphasized the victory over the gang leaders, but instead it looked at the social situation that gave rise to the gangs. It could have congratulated itself on the success of the law, but instead it lamented the larger failure of the society that created it in the first place. Prosecutor Pepin is a far cry from L.A. LAW's Grace, and this ending far from Brackman's fairytale change of heart in the squalid halls of his tenement.
Finally, in trying to place these two series in their social contexts, we're left with some difficult questions about the vision presented by each. L.A. LAW gives us some "positive images" of women and minorities and tries to expose the contradictions within the institution and practice of the law. But it blunts those contradictions. In effect, its tone and vision are comic — what Northrop Frye would describe as social and integrative. It isn't very clear just what we are meant to think of the foolish secretary and the playboy divorce lawyer, or even how we are to react to McKenzie, who after all has many of the trapping of the "ideal father." The tone of the program, which is essential in determining how viewers are meant to perceive types like these, just isn't that clear.
MIAMI VICE, on the other hand, is woefully lacking in positive images and reinforces many of the most problematic aspects of U.S. mythology. Yet, in the 86-87 season, at least, it has confronted some of the most difficult problems in our society and looked boldly at them. Even critic Pollan, who has few good things to say about the series, grants that it may provide a "serviceable metaphor for its times." It suggests "quite by accident," he says, that Miami's prosperity, which rests on the unsteady foundation of drug money, is like our country's dependence on credit:
This may be true, but I think we have to look elsewhere for the key to whatever truths the series reveals. It may seem farfetched to describe the vision of MIAMI VICE as tragic — or even to insist that it has a vision. Part of its appeal, however, rests on that quality we also associate with tragedy — vicariously watching people explore the forbidden. Critics argue that the series makes crime seem attractive, that Crockett and Tubbs are no more than crooks working on the right side of the law. But Ahab, Lucifer and Faust weren't exactly good guys either.
Benedek, Emily. "Inside MIAMI VICE." Rolling Stone, March 28, 1985: 56-62+.
Butler, Jeremy. "MIAMI VICE: The Legacy of Film Noir." Journal of Popular Film and Television 13.3 (1985): 127-38.
Henry III, William A. "Who's Using Whom?" Channels, June (1986): 8.
Lévi-Strauss, Claude. The Raw and the Cooked. Trans. John and Doreen Weightman. New York: Harper and Row, 1971.
Moore, Trudy S. "Philip Michael Thomas and Don Johnson: TV's Hottest Detective Duo." Jet March 31, 1986: 5861.
Pollan, Michael. 'The 'Vice' Look." Channels July/August (1985): 25-28.
Rossi-Landi, Ferruccio. "Language." Contact: Human Communication and Its History. Ed. R. Williams. London: Thames, Ltd., 1981: 21-39.
Schwartz, Tony. "Steven Bochco Goes from HILL STREET to the Taut Glitz of L.A. LAW." New York September 15 (1986): 62.