Miami Vice (TV Milestones series)

Steven M. Sanders,
Miami Vice (TV Milestones series).
Detroit, Michigan: Wayne State University Press, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-8143-3419-5
US$14.95 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by Wayne State University Press)

“Why does Miami Vice matter?” is at once historical, sociological, aesthetic and philosophical. (p. 85)

The Wayne State University Press books in the TV Milestone series remind me of the great BFI books on single films. They are slim but substantial volumes and they have attracted a cross-section of interesting writers who take their chosen television texts very seriously. Steven M. Sanders’ Miami Vice is one of the latest, very impressive additions to this series that also includes Stacey Abbott’s Angel (2009), Jim Leach’s Doctor Who (2009), David Sterritt’s The Honeymooners (2009), Lori Landay’s I Love Lucy (2009) and Deborah Jermyn’s Sex and the City (2009), amongst others.

Sanders is a philosopher, as well as being a prolific writer and editor of popular cultural texts. He has previously written a seminal essay about Miami Vice in The Philosophy of Neo-Noir [1] , and he revises and develops many of these ideas here. One of the guiding questions he asks in this book is “Why does Miami Vice matter?” and his lucid and engaging account goes a long way to answering that question with its examination of the production history, the film noir lineage, the dark and disturbed characters and narratives, the philosophical themes, its critique of the culture and politics of its time, and its many legacies, including Michael Mann’s film version Miami Vice (USA 2006).

Miami Vice stands as an important moment in the history of television storytelling, particularly when it comes to innovations in the television crime genre. It is the series that brought a cinematic approach to television, had a budget of $1.3million per episode, and was characterized by its high stylization. In discussing its importance at the time of its production, Sanders acknowledges these elements but also qualifies them, saying that the “visual and musical appeal, cultural resonance, and topicality, foregrounding the economic, political, and cultural transformations of the eighties made it absorbing entertainment in its […] day” (p. 2). He goes on to say that “its exploration of social, moral, political, and philosophical issues also make it worth watching twenty-five years later…” (p. 2), making several compelling claims for its contemporary relevance.

Inevitably, in any discussion of Miami Vice, the issue of Michael Mann’s authorship and creative involvement is raised. Sanders argues that, while there are evident aesthetic, narrative and ideological similarities between Miami Vice and Mann’s own film work, the issue of authorship behind this series is complicated. His own close study of the series leads him to attribute authorship, and creative vision, to the “Three Voices of Vice”. These three voices are Anthony Yerkovich, Michael Mann and Dick Wolf. For Sanders, the presence of these three voices in the production problematizes doing a “straightforward auteurist study…” (p. 15). While he does say that it seems reasonable to assume that Mann was the “show’s dominant figure” (p. 16), he also says that the thesis of the “three voices of vice” helps explain why different narrative and stylistic elements are evident at different times in the production’s history.

While there is much to recommend about this book, two particular things impressed me. The first is Sanders’ marvelous discussion of the city of Miami as a key character in this series. Sanders actually grew up in Miami so his historical, geographic, architectural and cultural analysis is told, in part, from an insider’s perspective. This also leads him to some intriguing personal observations, including one in which he claims that, for him, the “1980s Miami is encoded on DVD and removed from jeopardy” (p. 18), making the dvds sites of personal and cultural memory.

The other great thing about Sanders’ analysis is the framework he establishes for “Reading Miami Vice through Film Noir”. It is not his intention to undertake a simplistic analysis of this series in which to maps the ways it uses narrative and stylistic elements from the rich tradition of film noir. Nor is it his intention to simplify the complexity of this series by situating it in some period, movement or trend that might be called “noir television”. Instead, he argues that “like film noir itself, Miami Vice is patterned with many shadings of ambiguity that no single generalization about its meaning is likely to do justice to the complexity, variety, and nuance of its one hundred and eleven episodes” (p. 30-31).

However, Sanders does start to develop some of the nuances of what a “noir ways of reading” might look like, in two chapters in which he undertakes some excellent close analyses of several episodes from the series. The first chapter examines the existential and postmodern themes in the series. The second chapter explores themes of identity, authenticity, redemption and politics. Sanders says that the “close readings of key episodes in each of its seasons are designed to correct the misconception that Miami Vice is only about prestige cars, power boats, music videos and pastel T-shirts.” (p. 5) With these close readings, Sanders book sets out some revisionist readings of Miami Vice that demonstrate that this series was always about much more than “style as spectacle” with his insights into some of the cultural, political and philosophical ideas that the text explores.

In the book’s last chapter Sanders traces the continuing legacy of Miami Vice, with some information about what its creative personalities are doing now, as well as a brief discussion of Michael Mann’s film version of Miami Vice. My only criticism of the book is that I’d like to read a much longer analysis of Sanders’ comparison of the television series and the film. I can only hope that Sanders is working on that essay right now.

Anna Dzenis,
La Trobe University, Australia.

[1] Mark T. Conrad (ed.) The Philosophy of Neo-Noir. The University of Kentucky Press, 2007.

Created on: Monday, 23 August 2010

About the Author

Anna Dzenis

About the Author

Anna Dzenis

Anna Dzenis is a Screen Studies lecturer and researcher who has taught at La Trobe University, Victorian College of the Arts and RMIT. She teaches screen literacy, screen criticism, world cinema, film history and theories of visuality. She is a scholar of photography and cinema and brings these two disciplines together in her teaching and research. She is co-editor of the online journal Screening the Past, and has published essays in Senses of Cinema, Screening the Past, Lola, Real Time, Metro, The Conversation, 24 Frames: Australia and New Zealand, The Oxford Companion to Australian Film, and The Routledge Encyclopaedia of Films.View all posts by Anna Dzenis →