Law & Order: How a Classic 1980s Cop Drama Impacted the Series

by Suzanne Halliburton
Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Tribeca TV

When you think Law & Order, gritty detectives and prosecutors come to mind. It’s a Dick Wolf detail. He wants to give viewers authenticity.

Yet, did you know that Wolf, the prolific Law & Order creator, had a hand in Miami Vice, a show that defined 1980s-era drama. The series, starring Don Johnson and Phillip Michael Thomas, was like one big Phil Collins music video. Johnson (Sonny Crockett) and Thomas (Rico Tubbs) played undercover cops against an Atlantic Ocean backdrop. It was all guns, pastel Armani jackets, t-shirts, white linen pants, designer watches and loafers without socks. You could smell the Hugo Boss cologne coming off the TV screen as Crockett and Tubbs drove fancy cars and solved crimes each hour.

Wolf was the Miami Vice showrunner for seasons three and four. He was coming off a run at Hill Street Blues, another amazing cop drama. And Wolf still was a dozen years away from creating the Law & Order pilot. The show later became a template for so many successful spinoffs.

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Like Law & Order, Miami Vice Went with Big Guest Stars

Wolf kicked off his first season of Miami Vice in a big way. He called the initial episode When Irish Eyes Are Crying. The guest star was a 34-year-old Liam Neeson, who played Sean Carroon.

In the book called Miami Vice (TV Milestones), Wolf explained the first episode. It was deliciously simple.

“Liam Neeson comes to Miami, Liam Neeson dies in Miami,” the Law & Order guru said. “And what happened in the intervening 44 minutes was kind of interesting.”

With Wolf as the head of the show, Miami Vice turned darker. How dark? The pleasant peach tones turned decidedly blood orange. Crockett’s Ferrari blew up in the season three premiere. And by the season four finale, Crockett got amnesia after another explosion. He took on his undercover persona — Sonny Burnett, who killed folks for a drug dealer. It turned Crockett against Tubbs. And you thought things were tense when Elliot Stabler went undercover this past fall to investigate the Albanian mob in Law & Order: Organized Crime.

Wolf, similar to his MO in Law & Order franchises, didn’t want to glamorize crime. And he used a ripped-from-the-headline approach to inspire his plotlines. The ratings did drop on Wolf’s watch, but that was probably because NBC switched its time slot so it went head-to-head with CBS soap Dallas. Fans preferred J.R. Ewing and his gaudy Texas-sized lifestyle over Crockett and Tubbs fashionable crime-solving.

Wolf and NBC are bringing back Law & Order for a reboot. It’s currently in production in New York and will premiere Feb. 24. By then, Wolf will have a full primetime lineup of shows on Tuesday. Wednesday and Thursday.