In the fall of 1984, NBC debuted a new TV show featuring a pair of police officers who were very un-police-like. Starring Don Johnson (as Detective Sonny Crockett) and Phillip Michael Thomas (as Detective Rico Tubbs), it was hailed as a cop show for the MTV generation — it featured pop music soundtracks and “uniforms” made up of t-shirts with Armani sports coats and linen pants. And it came with the full backing of the network, which made it the focus of its 1984 marketing push. The show was successful in capturing headlines and magazine covers over its first few years, but — save for a very strong first summer and second season — generally disappointed when it came to ratings. By its fourth season, the writing was on the wall, and Miami Vice was canceled after five years and only one season with top 10 ratings.
But that massive marketing push in 1984 paid dividends in other ways. NBC’s dedication to Miami Vice led to a bigger hit — accidentally.
As the fall of 1984 approached, NBC decided to put together a variety show of sorts to promote their actual shows. This one-time special (which may have never aired) featured a skit centered on two NBC stars of the day: Doris Roberts, then of Remington Steele (but now better known as the mom from Everyone Loves Raymond) and Selma Diamond, a bailiff on Night Court. The two women, aged 58 and 64 respectively, were there to promote Miami Vice. While hardly the demographic that Miami Vice aimed to attract, the juxtaposition made for an easy joke. Roberts, playing the slightly younger and more contemporary of the pair, introduced Diamond to NBC’s newest TV show, but the older Diamond misheard the title. Instead of Miami Vice, Diamond understood it as “Miami Nice” despite Roberts’ repeated efforts to convince her otherwise. The jokes played out from there; for example, Diamond, per the New York Times, quipped “Miami Nice? It must be about a bunch of old people sitting around playing pinochle.”
Whether the skit helped sell Miami VIce is anyone’s guess. But it did something else — it sparked an idea among NBC leadership. As Entertainment Weekly later reported, “execs in the audience were amused, and they wondered if there was a series in the geriatric humor unfolding before them.” And specifically, the idea got stuck in the head of Warren Littlefield, then the network’s senior vice president of comedy development. No one had created a sitcom centered around the lives of older women. He wanted to try it first.
The problem: typically, creatives pitch executives on TV shows, not the other way around. And that is exactly what happened shortly after Roberts and Diamond’s skit. Two writers came into Littlefield’s office to pitch a new show concept centered around a female lead playing a lawyer. Littlefield, per EW, did a role reversal. He rejected the idea — that’s nothing out of the ordinary — but then took the unusual step of asking one of the writers, Paul Junger Witt, if his wife, Susan Harris (also a writer) would be interested in developing a separate concept, one Littlefield and other NBC executives had concocted themselves. That idea? A sitcom featuring some old women doing whatever old women do. Basically, he asked Harris (via Witt) to turn the Roberts/Diamond sketch into a TV series.
Harris agreed to give it a try. Littlefield and NBC president Brandon Tarkitoff loved the script and greenlit production. A year later, the show born from a joke — one which New York Magazine described as “based on all the kvetching aunts and grandmothers Tartikoff had ever known” — debuted on NBC, and was immediately considered “one of the year’s most promising” debuts, also per New York mag. The sentiment was right. That accidental TV show, a rating success over its seven-year run (and a syndication success since), isn’t called Miami Nice. It’s called The Golden Girls.
Double bonus!: There’s a Golden Girls-themed version of Clue. There’s no murder to solve, though; instead, players need to figure out who ate the last piece of cheesecake.
From the Archives: Television Dreams: How the TV you grew up with affects how you dream.