BY ANDRES VIGLUCCI
It’s the very first Miami sequence in Miami Vice, the TV show that radically reconfigured the city’s shattered image. Don Johnson, resplendent as undercover narc Sonny Crockett in white suit, sockless espadrilles and turquoise T-shirt, rides to an ill-fated drug deal in the back seat of a burgundy Eldorado convertible along a sunbleached Ocean Drive.
Exactly 30 years ago, the eeriest thing about the scenery is probably not the shabby state of the Art Deco hotels, but the emptiness. There’s no one around: hardly anyone on the sidewalk, not a soul at the Clevelander, not a cafe umbrella in sight.
“Miami Vice” used The Carlyle Hotel on Miami Beach as a set for the television show in the 1980’s. Here is the hotel as it was in 1985. The show helped save South Beach by broadcasting the architectural charms of its long-neglected Deco hotels to millions around the globe at a time when city fathers wanted nothing more than to tear it all down for condos.
Crockett could have fired a TEC-9 up Ocean Drive and not hit a thing.
The rolling set-piece is a telling reminder of just how far Miami and Miami Beach have come since Vice made its NBC-TV debut in September 1984, at a moment when the cities’ fortunes — reeling from a devastating race riot, the Mariel boatlift, a Haitian refugee influx, white flight, the rise of the drug cartels and an explosion in violent crime — seemed about sunk for good.
But it also provides an early gleaning of the magical Miami Vice formula, which left a lasting effect not just on TV and films, but also, indelibly, on its downtrodden hometown. The show’s producers cannily recast a hyper-Miami as a principal character in their cops-versus-drug-lords melodrama — a sizzling cool, sexy, multiethnic, multiracial, exciting place, at once gritty and gorgeous — that even locals had trouble recognizing.
It’s a remarkable trajectory, from South Beach flophouses to $1,000-a-night rooms at the Setai, that Miami Vice played no small role in launching. The show not only helped save South Beach, broadcasting the architectural charms of its long-neglected Deco hotels and apartment houses to millions around the globe at a time when city fathers wanted nothing more than to tear it all down for condos, Miami Vice practically invented the idea of South Beach.
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