''Thirtysomething,'' ''Miami Vice,'' and ''Crime Story'' are back -- and they put most current series to shame, says Ken Tucker
Steve Ryan, Dennis Farina, ...
Credit: Crime Story: Everett Collection

An 80s TV revival beats new reality shows

Tired of summer reality TV? We’ve got the solution for you, whether you’re a wheezing baby boomer or a youngster with an active irony gland. Here’s a trifecta of groundbreaking and, depending on your age, either nostalgic or campy, TV dramas that are now rerunning on cable.

Bravo is airing 10 p.m. episodes of the ultimate boomer series, which ran from 1987-91. I remember when the pilot for this show about the lives of some Philadelphia strivers first aired. The cameras filmed hushed conversations between Michael and Hope Steadman (Ken Olin and Mel Harris) as they discussed their anxieties about being new parents, Michael’s struggling ad agency business, and whether their sexual lives were suffering. Combine this with the assiduously dark, gloomy hue of every room in their rambling house (these weren’t earth tones, they were funeral home tones) and you could see why we critics grumbled that the show was too downbeat and — the ultimate ”thirtysomething” complaint — too ”whiny.”

Seen now, the creation of producers Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick holds up beautifully. It captures a moment in America that only novelists like John Updike and Philip Roth have described as precisely: the time when the white counterculture became the dominant culture, and sold their idealism for a mortgage and a family even as they insisted they weren’t ”selling out.” Add terrific performances by Melanie Mayron (as Michael’s droopy cousin), Tim Busfield and Patricia Wettig (as the Steadmans’ best friends), Polly Draper as Hope’s unlucky-in-love pal, and Peter Horton as a shaggy, troubled teacher, and you’ve got a series that works as drama and as social criticism.

”Miami Vice”
The ultimate ’80s cop show (’84-’89, to be exact) airs on TNN weeknights at 8. Executive producer Michael Mann, who went on to direct first-rate movies like ”The Last of the Mohicans” and ”The Insider,” oversaw the execution of a two-word idea then NBC Entertainment President Brandon Tartikoff had: ”MTV cops.” In contrast to ”thirtysomething,” ”Miami Vice” featured a blindingly bright color scheme and a blaring rock soundtrack (with a thumping instrumental theme by Jan Hammer), showcasing the then ultra-hip pastel suits worn by Miami cops played by Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas.

Cool dudes in loafers without socks, Johnson’s Sonny Crockett and Thomas’ Ricardo Tubbs solved crime under a glaring sun, and often, it seemed, in speedboats. Mann’s storytelling and editing hold up as crackerjack techniques, and you get to see guest stars ranging from G. Gordon Liddy to sad-sack singer-singwriter Leonard Cohen. Hell, Miles Davis even showed up one week, conferring primal hip status on what is now the ’80s primal kitsch police show. And speaking of police shows…

”Crime Story”
The more obscure but often just as entertaining drama also produced by Michael Mann has begun a run on A&E, Mondays at 9 p.m. ”Crime Story” lasted only 2 seasons (1986-88), and it was set 20 years earlier, in the pre-Miranda- rights ’60s, when a bull-headed Chicago cop like Dennis Farina’s Mike Torello could whale the tar out of a suspect without anyone looking askance. Torello’s evil counterpart was a gangster named Ray Luca (Anthony Denison), who sported a pompadour that gleamed as brightly as the huge tail-finned cars everyone gunned down the glittering night streets. (The whole series seemed to take place during an eternal 2 a.m.)

In ”Crime Story,” you can see Mann starting to make his move toward future feature films he’d direct, like ”Manhunter” and ”Thief.” His hardboiled action scenes are a cut above anything TV has seen until advent of ”The Sopranos.” Note that casting director extraordinaire Bonnie Timmermann’s name is high in the credits of both this show and ”Vice.” And it’s no wonder why — guest stars and superstars in the making routinely pop up in the background: Julia Roberts, David Caruso, ”Once & Again”’s Billy Campbell, ”Homicide”’s Jon Polito — heck, even ”Boy Meets World” dad William Russ flicker across the small screen, breaking or making the law. ”Crime Story” is worthy of a cult following.

What older shows on TV these days are keeping you from going bonkers in the dog days of summer?

Crime Story
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