Was It Real?

I watched a lot of television as a kid. A lot. For some reason I was even allowed to have a 12 inch black & white TV in my bedroom from time to time. Around the age of seven, I started seeing previews for a new show called The Six Million Dollar Man and I could barely contain my excitement. This show looked amazing. The premier episode seemed like more of an event than a show, and I was so ready to be a part of it all. On the day of the pilot episode, I made a giant bowl of cereal and sat myself down in front of the TV fifteen minutes early and waited for the magic to begin. Just as I got comfortable, my mom and dad walked into my room and asked me to join them in the living room for something very important. Important? What could be more important than a man barely alive that needs to be rebuilt with bionics? Better, stronger, and faster? I put down the cereal bowl in a huff and followed them into the living room.

"Geoff, your mom and I are getting a divorce. I’m going to live somewhere else now, but we’re all going stay friends."

"Okay." I said, rushing back to the TV just in time to catch the opening credits where Steve Austin’s aircraft crashes into the desert. The show was amazing. I watched every single episode that followed it—even the Lindsay Wagner stuff.

The strange thing is, I have no memory of Dad leaving the house. It never felt like anything bad ever happened. It just happened—probably a few days or weeks later—I really have no idea. It hardly seems real. But I remember that particular night like it was yesterday. And Dad was right, we all got to be friends.

Since mom had a full-time job I quickly became a latch-key kid and the television became kind of like a buddy. I had lots of real friends, and we all spent lots of time outside riding bikes and building forts and all that good unsupervised stuff childhood is famous for, but right after school I always had some time to myself at home. And during that time it was all Brady Bunch, Gilligan’s Island and Star Trek reruns. I can still sing the theme songs to both Petticoat Junction and Love Boat without really trying.

Some of my more vivid memories involve experiencing televised events with my (newly single) mom on the couch after doing my homework. Back then, watching television seemed like much more of a collective, societal event—it always seemed like everybody was watching the same thing at the same time—no cable, no DVR, nothing on demand. You actually had to tune in. And we often did. Together we watched Michael Jackson’s first moonwalk on the Grammy Awards, Mary Lou Retton getting a perfect 10 at the Los Angeles Olympics, and we were both shocked to discover that it was the sister-in-law who shot J.R. (spoiler alert). Granted, perhaps Michael Jackson’s Moonwalk was not quite as important as Neal Armstrong’s in the grande scheme of televised events, but to me, it was pure magic.

But, of all the shows we watched together I think it was Miami Vice that had the biggest impact on me. Miami Vice changed television and it changed me. I was already in high school when the pilot came out, but that didn’t stop me from staying home on Friday nights with my mom to watch Crocket & Tubbs battle the evil drug lords of Dade County. This was an entirely new genre. It was really the first television show to introduce style as substance. And Michael Mann did it brilliantly. Before Miami Vice, television was just weak plots with one-dimesional characters involved in gunfights where nobody ever died. Mann introduced pop music and art direction. Consequence and grit—polished grit mind you—but it was still grit. Miami grit. Shit was going down. And it seems hard to imagine now, but nothing like this existed at all before Miami Vice arrived on the small screen in 1984. Michael Mann changed television.

My favorite scene—and what is one of the greatest scenes in all of television—occurred during the pilot. This was Michael Mann showing the world what this whole thing was going to be about. Our two heroes, undercover vice cops Crockett & Tubbs, are speeding through Miami in a black Ferrari Daytona as the Phil Collins song “In The Air Tonight” begins to play. The song starts with a simple synth drum and bit of guitar reverb—but overall it’s very sparse. Throughout the first part of the scene there is no ambient sound at all, just the music. It is entirely quiet. The car is filmed from various angles and the camera keeps coming back to the streetlights reflected off the Ferrari’s hood as the road speeds by. Crockett & Tubbs look angry and tired—but determined. They drive on, obviously heading to some sort of ultimate standoff.

Enter Michael Mann’s genius: Tubbs, in the passenger seat, picks up a sawed-off shotgun and begins loading shells into it. While the sound of the car is still completely mute, the sound of the shells—thunk…thunk—are crystal clear. (So great!) He finally closes the gun with a loud clack as Phil Collins begins to sing. The song is still fairly subdued and a synthesizer quietly creeps in alongside Phil. Then Sonny decides he has time to make a phone call and pulls up to a pay phone below a giant pink and teal neon sign for Bennay’s Cafe. (So eighties!) He calls his ex-wife and asks her a question: “It was real wasn’t it?” He’s referring to everything they had together before the breakup because he knows he is going in deep now, he might not see her or the kid for a long time—if ever. She says yes. It was real, and asks what’s wrong. Nothing. He gets back into the car and speeds off at the exact moment that Phil Collins’ synth drums really kick in—you know the part. (It gives me chills every time.) This scene introduced the beginning of a new kind of television. Television that would blend music and fashion with action and style. It was the greatest thing I had ever seen on that 20 inch box in all of my 15 years.

I watched every episode after. I began to wear teal sport coats made from linen. I wore topsiders with no socks. Wayfarer sunglasses. The show had an effect on me. Eventually, after a few seasons, the term “Miami Vice” itself became a pejorative to describe questionable fashion choices and I soon traded in my pastels for black. But it was a good run while it lasted. I have no regrets.

Memory is a funny thing. I had carried a vivid memory of that scene in my head for nearly two decades before I ever saw it again. It was always with me and I would describe it during various (drunken) conversations with friends in bars or at parties. "The greatest scene in the history of television!" I would proclaim… But in my mind I always thought Sonny had said: “Was it real?” in the phone booth. Once YouTube showed up I finally got to see the clip again and discovered that he actually said "It was real, wasn’t it?" Close enough. I suppose most of the things I remember are real in varying degrees.

Watch the scene here. There are a few moments of footage before and after the scene I’m referring to. When the music starts you’ll know.

http://youtu.be/E1o-NWNmQLM

If you are interested, Miami Vice is available on Netflix streaming. I’m well into season two. Television will never be the same.