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Miami Vice: The Beginning of South Florida “Cool”

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By Passport Miami Editors

If you asked Brazilians today what South Florida means to them, frequently chosen descriptions are: “chic”, “cool” and “safe”. Some Brazilians simply describe South Florida as “heaven”. South Florida has become best known for its welcoming sun, pristine white sandy beaches and blue waters, extraordinary luxury shopping, historic Art Deco District and great nightlife, big time events like Art Basel, the Sony Ericsson Open and Miami Boat Show, and, more recently, the great South Florida real estate values.

For others around the world, many of whom may never have actually visited South Florida, the image of South Florida as a cool place was shaped by one thing and one thing only: the crime drama “Miami Vice”, the ground breaking and incredibly successful 1980’s US television show produced by Michael Mann and starring Don Johnson.

“Miami Vice” portrayed Miami as rife with a flourishing drug trade where drug-dealing hipsters were chased by young undercover tough “seen-it-all” veteran police officers who mixed stealthly among the criminal life, dressed in Armani pastels, drove Ferrari convertibles, and lived on a sailboat with a leashed pet alligator, and who spent their evenings partying with their unknowing criminal prey at South Beach nightclubs””all set against the backdrop of seedy back streets, and the moody dark beat of some MTV-styled music video.

Miami Vice stars Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas

During the six years that “Miami Vice” was broadcast, and the years since where the show grew to have a worldwide audience in syndication, “Miami Vice” became far more than just another fictional crime drama. At least some of its audience members came to believe that life in South Florida was truly as depicted on the show.

Certainly South Florida was a far different place to live at that time than it is today. Then South Florida was far more challenged by street crime stemming from the drug trade. Nevertheless, “Miami Vice” was not intended to be a docu-drama. It was pure fiction and was not intended to mirror life in South Florida.

But the show was moving and emotional, and it gained a certain aura if not power from this. “Miami Vice” was viewed as groundbreaking television because it looked and sounded different from any other show. “Miami Vice” was aimed at a younger “MTV generation” which had become heavily influenced by music videos. Michael Mann played off of this and engaged the audience by depicting a visual world that contrasted bright Art Deco pastel colors during the day, and the dark and moody urban streets of South Florida at night.

This new visual world was set against the amazing music of the day that gave the series its soul. Music from such great artists as U2, the Police, Glen Frey, Phil Collins, Jackson Browne, Peter Gabriel, and Roger Daltry. An iconic scene from the Miami Vice pilot involves the main characters “Crockett” and “Tubbs” driving through Miami at night to Phil Collins’ mega hit song “In the Air Tonight.”

Then there were the gloomy crime stories which unfolded in each episode. Stories which always included a sense of cynicism and futility. Sure “Miami Vice” cops caught the bad guys, but in “Miami Vice” episodes the arrest of the bad guys never led to life getting better on the streets of South Florida. More bad guys and more drugs just kept coming.

The “Miami Vice” show had a lasting impact on South Florida. As for the positive, it shaped South Florida’s image as a cool place to be, drew tourism to its developing hip nightlife and club scene, and was said to have sparked a revitalization of Miami Beach’s South Beach district. On the negative side as a result of “Miami Vice” some people avoid South Florida to this day mistakenly believing that it remains one of the crime capitals of the US.

It is incredible to look back at the impact of “Miami Vice” on the history of South Florida in the 1980’s, and to consider just how much South Florida has changed since then. Drug dealers have long since moved elsewhere, and the crime rate has gone down year after year now for over a decade.

South Beach has been transformed into a great place for a family vacation, with designer shops, a renovated Lincoln Road Mall, world class restaurants and hotels, and new luxury condominiums now dot the skyline. Miami has a new performing arts center and museums. The American Airlines Arena now houses the 2012 World Champion “Miami Heat”. A new wave of Brazilians, perhaps even some “Miami Vice” fans included, have become part of the next chapter of the new and improved South Florida.


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