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.


A GenX Chicano Reflects on John Hughes

There are flurry of John Hughes remembrances floating around in cyberspace today. I suspect few are surprised. Hughes had a hand in most of the movies GenX folks associate with themselves. Some of his films are the cinematic outlet to our generational struggles, even the voice that helped give them shape and clarity. And we are all over the place on the internet. Between blog posts and tweets, who needs to read a “real” obituary today?

As a young Chicano kid growing up in the greater LA area of the 1980s, John Hughes–through his films–had an impact on me and my sister as well.  He is being famously remembered today as a filmmaker who made movies for our generation, quite literally.  Yet, even in his most productive time, Hughes was understood to be making movies about a segment of the post-boom generation.  His characters and their struggles were almost always framed by a racially-white, suburban, and wealthy reality.

This isn’t a criticism. It just is. To his credit, the limitations of his characters and their surroundings were hardly equal to the limitations of the meaning and significance of his work.  Even though they might have been rich white kids, their experiences had a kind of transcendence to them.  When Hughes incorporated class into his films–most famously in Pretty in Pink and The Breakfast Club–it served to help broaden the “truth” of what he portrayed.

As these films resonated with my generation, they gained credibility in the public eye. His ability to create those characters who could speak for “all of us” meant Hughes made movies about a generation that helped define who we were to the world.  Before “GenX” was named, before the media and the marketing industries had a firm hold on who we were as people and consumers, John Hughes helped name us as people.

But that doesn’t mean I “related” to everything I saw in a John Hughes film. It’s a little complicated, but for people like me, people whose experiences growing up were not always identical to the ways people understood the “GenX experience,” Hughes and a handful of others helped bridge the gap.  They didn’t do it by reaching out to make movies that incorporated my realities.  They did it by making artifacts that were so culturally powerful and dominant that they created a target for people like me to move toward.  John Hughes provided cultural products that facilitated my assimilation.

That’s the tricky part with popular culture. Like others of my generation, when I saw Hughes’ films I saw and heard my own fears, struggles, inadequacies, and strengths.  When he crafted teenage characters that thought and acted like adults, that struggled with love and being loved, who were nerds and geeks and wanted to remain true to themselves, when he did all of this and more, I could relate.  But he also created characters that were so powerful and so popular that even when I couldn’t relate I tried. Or is it that I couldn’t resist?

I don’t think the Chicano experience is unique here, just particular. I’m sure Hughes’ films were the same for other Latinos, African Americans, Asian Americans, and even a lot of white kids.  One of the legacies of providing these kinds of “authentic” depictions of a generation that is not fully understood is that you play a role in defining who they are.  Most baby boomers in the Sixites weren’t radical hippies.  But that minority became the archetype for the entire generation because of their place in the popular media.  For the GenXers, this was both more so and less so.  Hughes had his finger on the pulse of our generation in emotionally significant ways.  There was and is something particular about being a teenager at a time of impending nuclear disaster, the birth of AIDS, and commercial ascendancy of the boomers.  Hughes captured it in words and images.  But we also came of age in a time of profound maturity in the marketplace, when your identity as a consumer became your identity as a generation.  And the illusion of reality in a John Hughes film provided one of many shortcuts to defining our generation before we were ready to be fully defined.

Hughes might be the most prominent voice in the popular culture that told me what it was to be a teenager before I was quite there.  In his films I saw myself, and I saw what “they” were like.  In the end, somewhere in the balance between the two, is me.

Gen X Nostalgia for January (200th post)

Sometime in the 2011-2012 academic year, I’ll come up for tenure.  Until then, if  you should ever see me posting more than once in a day (or writing any single post of more than 750 words), please feel free to comment and tell me to get back to work.

Aside from a break on inauguration day, I’ve been busy working the past few weeks, primarily finishing an article and continuing revisions on my book-in-progress.  So-called “scholarly work” takes a buttload of time, what with all the footnoting and substantiation of my claims.  Both will someday be published and, if I’m lucky, be read by about the same amount of people who visit this blog in a month.  (In case you are not following, I ain’t bragging about my blog’s traffic.)

Long story longer, that’s why the posts have been a little slim of late.  So to catch up, here’s a “three-fer,” as they say in the world of classic rock radio.  These are three anniversaries I would have written about more substantively had I had the time (is that write?).

Oooo, double grammar joke.

“Happy Days” premieres on television (January 15, 1974)
This month marked the 35th anniversary of the premiere of “Happy Days.”  I’m not sure the show makes many critic’s top ten lists, but it surely stands as one of the more popular shows of the 1970s.  For us genX types, it just might be one of those culturally binding artifacts.  (Who doesn’t remember Fonzie water skiing in his leather jacket and jumping over a shark?)  Growing up, the syndicated reruns were far more significant than the first-run shows, at least for me.  Like “I Love Lucy” and “Gilligan’s Island,” it required no great effort to watch them on Los Angeles pre-cable TV.  More importantly, as a kid I remember thinking “Happy Days” was my window into what white people were like.  Here’s a clip from the first episode (notice the diner is called “Arthur’s” in the pilot).

Hulkamania is born (January 23, 1984)
Last week was the 25th anniversary of Hulk Hogan’s victory over the Iron Shiek, making him WWF heavy-weight champion.  I didn’t start watching wrestling until a few months after this match, so I don’t have any memory of seeing it.  Still, this budding historian had done his research and took notes when dates were mentioned on the weekly WWF telecast or in the monthly WWF magazine (of which I was a subscriber–still have all my issues, too).  Every year, when the calendar showed January 23, it ws the first thing my young mind thought of.  Here’s the match, thanks to the beauty of YouTube, with full color commentary by the great Gorilla Monsoon (“it’s pandemonium”) and Bruno Sammartino.

If you hadn’t seen a Hulk Hogan match before, the above is the script used in almost all of them: HH comes out like a tornado of power; he gets caught by his opponent who tries to end him with a “submission hold” of some kind; HH is miraculously “recharged” by his adoring fans; HH regains, gets the upper hand, goes to the ropes, and with a big leg to the face and some sort of follow-up, gets the pin.  Pure magic.

Freddie Prinze shoots himself (January 28, 1977)
It’s not a particularly momentous anniversary, but 32 years ago the Latino star of the hit television show “Chico and the Man”–Freddie Prinze–shot himself.  He died two days later.  At the time of his death, Prinze was a big deal in Chicano LA.  Though he was half Puerto-Rican and half Hungarian (one of his jokes was that he was a “Hungarican”), the former stand-up phenom endeared himself to many Chicanos via his role as Chico Rodriguez.  While the show enraged Chicano activists (for its lack of Mexican American involvement), it shot up to #1 in the ratings by its second week (beating out “Rhoda”).  It never left the top ten.


Prinze died at 22.  While he may not have been Chicano, the show  took place in East LA and made “politically correct” attempts to represent barrio life and concerns.  While problematic in so many ways, it was the first Latino-themed show in TV history.  It is may also be the first time the word “Chicano” was used in a primetime series.

However trite and superficial, the show brought brown faces into American homes on a weekly basis.  Check out the pilot episode here.

[NOTE: Reflecting the base of its viewership, a week after Prinze died a 13-year-old girl committed suicide out of unconsolable grief.]