Miami Vice (25 years ago today)

Miami Vice premiered on NBC 25 years ago today, on September 16, 1984.  The show that became synonymous with the decade of the 80s both reflected the visual and emotional aesthetic of its times as it simultaneously shaped them.

It was a seemingly superficial concept, encapsulated by Brandon Tartikoff’s two-word vision of “MTV cops.” But the end result was much more than that.  While music and stylized cinematography provided high-profile features of the show, its stories helped reshaped what adult TV looked and felt like.  Michael Mann, executive producer of the series, chose to set the show in Miami, giving it ample opportunity to showcase women in bikinis, neon lights, and nightclubs.  It also provided a dark, gritty, urban backdrop and the specter of drugs.

And Latinos.  Latinos (as actors or characters or both) figured prominently in the show from day one.  Lead actor Philip Michael Thomas was not Latino, but he played “Ricardo Tubbs,” a former NYC cop who has Latin roots of some kind.  In the first four episodes, Lieutenant Lou Rodriguez was played by Gregory Sierra.  He was replaced with Edward James Olmos in the role of Lieutenant Martin Castillo.  Saundra Santiago played Detective Gina Calabrese; while bit player Martin Ferrero appeared frequently as Izzy Moreno.  Taking place in Miami, and frequently revolving around the business of drug smuggling, Latinos appeared in most episodes as shady, dark figures and other kinds of criminal-looking types.

Surprisingly, the show never finished a season higher than the ninth spot in the overall ratings, achieving that feat in its 2nd season.  It tapered off big time in the ratings after that, finishing 23rd, 36th, and 53rd in the final three seasons, respectively.  But the ratings don’t reflect the show’s impact on the culture.  Don Johnson became a household name after 1984.  The theme song by Jan Hammer went to number 1 on the charts.  The show spawned original hit singles from Glen Frey, and made bigger hits out of songs by Phil Collins and Dire Straits.

And the stories!  My favorite episode just might be “Out Where the Buses Don’t Run,” the third episode of the second season.  From beginning to end it suggests what made the show great–the style, the music, the actors.  And the plot is just about as dark a story as I had ever seen on TV.  The complexity it represented stuck with me, but not half as much as the final scene.  I can still remember watching it.

If you want to spend the time, the entire 48 minute episode can be viewed below from Hulu.
Vodpod videos no longer available.

Read more LATINO LIKE ME.

Manny Ramirez and Baseball’s Soul

Today is a scandalous day in Los Angeles, but not a surprising one. Fan-favorite Manny Ramirez, the cornerstone of the Los Angeles Dodgers, and the resident “star” of the team, has been suspended for 50 games for testing positive for a banned substance.

The profound lack of surprise in this matter has little to do with the Dodgers or with Ramirez. Really, it has everything to do with the reality of baseball. You can only be truly surprised at today’s news if you continue to hold on to some fantasy image of the sport as being untainted from drugs and money and “business.” At the risk of sounding too pessimistic, let me paraphrase a Jim Rome analysis: just assume EVERYONE did it and then be surprised when you learn one of them did not.

This isn’t an apology for Ramirez. Not at all. As a fan, as a Latino, and as somebody with a small obsession for popular culture, I got as excited as anybody last year when he arrived. I was both pleased and moved by his ability to turn to the Spanish-language press and become a bona fide “Latino Dodger,” like one we haven’t seen since the days of Fernando. L.A. loves cultural movements and fads, especially when it is tied to wining, and Manny didn’t let us down. Now, we have to share in the burden of his failure because we, as fans, don’t get to see him play for fifty days.

Still, my disappointment is tempered by the way I see the sport now versus the way I see it as a fan, as a historian, or “as it was.” I don’t pretend to think the game of baseball was “pure” or more “wholesome” in an era long since passed. There were addictions, immoralities, and just plain bad shit that followed the game. You see, baseball—like any enterprise involving people—is human. Ty Cobb was an asshole. Mickey Mantle an alcoholic. Babe Ruth was an asshole and an alcoholic. I’m sure it wasn’t just fans who threatened to kill or hurt Jackie Robinson. And these are just the easy ones!

Baseball was and probably always has been all-too human. The Ramirez controversy, perhaps, is a reflection of that. But I think it is something more, too.

Steven Rubio, a friend of mine who maintains one of the most interesting and diverse blogs out there, wrote an interesting piece yesterday. As an avid fan of the SF Giants (the Dooku to my Yoda) he wondered whether or not professional players are more fans of their team or of the game they play. You can read my comment to his piece, where I probably gave in to the romance and sentimentality of the sport more than anything else. Because, my dear friends, I fear most professional players today are fans of themselves before their team or the game itself.

Again, I don’t mean to sound overly pessimistic, but this is the “business” of baseball. High contracts are but infinitesimal slices of the big pie of money that comes with modern-day baseball. The business side of the sport has been fucking up the human side of it for a long time now. You can see the small instances of it just in my lifetime, from the players’ union fights of the 1970s up to the drug scandals of today.

For the Dodgers, that change came quickly but much later than it did for almost everybody else.  When the O’Malley family finally reliquished control and sold the team in 1998, the era of the family-owned team came to an end.  For goodness sakes, from 1954 to 1996 we had only two managers!  How many popes were there in that period?  Dodger stadium–with it signature colors and blank spaces free from advertising–changed.  The team culture changed.  The ways decisions about who stayed and who went also changed.  The Dodgers went corporate.

The business of it all nurtures players’ self-conceptions as products which need to increase their market values. Drug use is but one part of that. Organized baseball’s avoidance to dealing with the drugs is another. Barry Bonds, Manny Ramirez, Alex Rodriguez, and the whole lot of them are worse for it. So are we. In some ways, so is the game.

I remember Don Drysdale very fondly. One of the finest pitchers in Dodger and baseball history, I knew him best as one of the regular Dodgers’ broadcast commentators until his unexpected death in July 1993. One of the truly wonderful things about the man was that he was a Dodger fan, through and through. Every once in awhile, when a player got hit by a pitch, Drysdale would explain the way it worked in his time. If one of yours got hit, one of theirs—on the very first pitch the next inning—got hit harder. If they got his mid section, you got the head. If your player had to leave the game, well, you get the picture. (By the way, Drysdale ended up #15 on the pitchers all-time list of most “Hit By Pitches” with 154 in only 13 seasons and a bit over 3400 innings pitched.)

There’s nothing “pure” or “wholesome” about Drysdale’s baseball strategy. Frankly, there’s nothing even tactically smart about it from the perspective of the game. But, if you think about it, in doing what he did, Don Drysdale was being a loyal fan.  He was protecting his team and taking the emotional and even childish aspect of play to its natural adult extreme.  This wasn’t “business.”  This was business.

And that’s what I’m left with today.  Not surprise, not sorrow, not even loss.  Just the same.  Wishing the game of baseball I get to share with my two kids was a little more human and a lot less of everything else.

Read more LATINO LIKE ME.

U.S. admits role in Mexican violence

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, currently in Mexico in advance of the President’s scheduled trip next month, made some candid and rather surprising comments on Wednesday.  As reported in the Los Angeles Times:

Clinton said the U.S. has a duty to help since it is a major consumer of illicit drugs and a key supplier of weapons smuggled to cartel hit men.

“We know very well that the drug traffickers are motivated by the demand for illegal drugs in the United States, that they are armed by the transport of weapons from the United States to Mexico,” Clinton said during a news conference with Mexican Foreign Minister Patricia Espinosa. “We see this as a responsibility to assist the Mexican government and people.”

This is a truly meaningful first step toward altering the current problematic relationship between the United States and Mexico. Both Clinton and Obama should be commended for it.

I don’t pretend, however, to think it will represent a fundamental shift in that relationship–one plagued by the vestiges of economic and cultural imperialism (which is, itself, a two-way street).  She is there to tout the Merida Initiative, and the thrust of her public “admission” was to contextualize the U.S. support of Mexico’s continuing war on drugs and crime.  But this acknowledgment is something significant for the moral legitimacy of the many sustained efforts to nurture a more equitable and humane condition of life on both sides of the border.

Drugs, Death, and the Border

There is an absolutely riveting, tragic, humanistic, and brutal series of audio reports on life and death in the “border town” of Juarez.  These stories do what the best kind of NPR stories do so well: keep you centered on everyday peoples’ lives amid a complex context of powerful global/local forces.  For those of you trying to get your heads around the drug war seemingly dominating the news from Mexico, they also provide a solid introduction.

You can hear part 1, part 2, and part 3 at the NPR website.

It is imperative for people in the U.S. to realize our culpability in this current situation.  This isn’t to say Mexico does not have a lot to answer to.  Their politicians and “public servants” are the primary players in this tragedy.  But it is near impossible to dislodge those people and their institutions of power from corporate and governmental interests in the U.S.  Many of the economic changes in Mexico are shaped and, often, determined outside of their borders.

More under our control is the way U.S. demand for drugs (and cheap products) fuels a profound change in the material reality of everyday Mexicans, as much (if not more than) it does for people on this side of the border.  In this respect, we may be more like the Mexican people than different: we both find our governments doing little to serve our best interests.