Monday 16 August 2021

Miami Vice, season one (1985)

Miami Vice erupted onto television screens in 1985 and nothing would ever be quite the same again.

This is Miami in the 80s. The decade of greed. The place is swimming in money, almost all of it drug money. It has corrupted everything. Nobody can be trusted. Not the cops, not judges, nobody. If you’re a cop you especially can’t trust cops. The town is filled with local cops, state cops, DEA agents, FBI agents and you don’t know who they are. That drug dealer you just busted might be a DEA agent. None of these agents communicate very well.

There were traces of cynicism in earlier American cop shows but Miami Vice does mark a major cultural change. In this series the cynicism is front and centre. The two protagonists, Crockett and Tubbs, are part of the War On Drugs and it’s a war that is obviously being lost. Crockett and Tubbs know that the war is being lost. They’re still willing to keep fighting but they don’t expect to win. They’re honest but they’re surrounded by people who are dishonest and those dishonest people have all the power and all the money.

Other American cop shows had tried to take a realistic (or at least semi-realistic) view of crime and the difficulties in combating it but with Miami Vice for the first time we have a major network TV series suggesting that maybe it’s all futile.

Miami Vice was very much a return to the world of film noir. People were and sometimes still are misled by the sunshine and the glamour and the glitz and don’t notice how very film noir it is. Visually it is the polar opposite of film noir, but content-wise it’s pure noir. In fact the visuals increase the noirness of the series by contrasting the superficial glamour with the corruption and degradation lurking just beneath the surface.

The series actually has a lot in common with the neo-noir films of the 60s and 70s, especially Polanski’s Chinatown. There’s the same mix of money, glamour, sunshine, decadence and corruption.

Miami Vice is very cinematic. This was obvious enough at the time but it’s even more obvious now when you get the chance to see it on a big-screen TV in high definition. The aim had been to bring feature film production values to television and that aim is achieved. It was a very very expensive series to make and it was money well spent.

Miami itself is one of the stars of the show. It doesn’t just give Miami Vice a different look to the typical cop show shot in LA, it gives it a whole different vibe, making the most of the art deco architecture and the light.

Compared to earlier American cop shows Miami Vice upped the ante when it came to violence, both the quantity of violence and the intensity. It also broke new ground for a network TV cop show in terms of emotional intensity and complexity.

What makes Miami Vice so distinctive is that it combines gritty realism with extreme glamour and it combines extraordinary cynicism and pessimism with extreme style and high fashion. That was a totally new combination for viewers.

It’s also a weird blend of ultra-realism and fantasy. Crockett and Tubbs are ordinary street cops and they’re scrupulously honest (that’s what gets them into so much trouble) and yet they can obviously afford to spend astronomical amounts of money on clothes and Crockett drives a Ferrari for crying out loud.

Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas make a naturally great team. They get good support from Michael Talbott and John Diehl as Detectives Switek and Zito (who add some lighter touches) and from Saundra Santiago (as Gina) and Olivia Brown (as Trudi), also Miami Vice cops. Edward James Olmos as the dour but oddly sympathetic Lieutenant Castillo rounds off the regular cast.

The cinematic visual style, the radical use of colours (you can’t make a show dark and edgy with a colour palette of pastels but Miami Vice does it anyway and makes it work), the cutting-edge fashions and the music elevated the series to immediate iconic status.

Episode Guide

The pilot episode, Brother’s Keeper, starts with two prologues in which two cops get murdered in drug busts gone wrong, one in New York and one in Miami.

James “Sonny” Crockett (Don Johnson) has been working on a case for months targeting a big-time cocaine dealer named Calderone. Everything seems to go wrong on this case, including his partner getting killed. Now Crockett has a new problem. The black dude he just tried to bust is actually a New York cop named Rafael Tubbs (Philip Michael Thomas). Or at least he says he’s a cop and he seems to be a cop. Tubbs suggest that he and Crockett should team up, which Crockett thinks is a terrible idea. Crockett is already offended because Tubbs has suggested that everything is going wrong because someone in Miami Vice is on the take. The reason Crockett is so angry is that he also thinks one of his fellow Miami Vice cops is crooked but he doesn’t want some cop from out of town pointing this out.

Crockett has relationship problems as well. Like most TV cops he has a failed marriage behind him and he doesn’t know if he’s still in love with his wife or with someone else he’s met. At least his relationship with Elvis is pretty good. Elvis is his pet alligator. With alligators (unlike cops) you always know where you stand.

Elvis provides the moments of occasional comic relief which are needed in a series which could otherwise be a bit too relentlessly bleak.

Heart of Darkness takes Crockett and Tubbs into the porn industry but there’s murder involved as well. Even worse, the Feds are mixed up in it. There’s an FBI agent undercover but he’s stopped reporting in. Maybe he’s gone over to the other side. Maybe he hasn’t. Should Crockett and Tubbs trust him or not? It’s a tough judgment call. A fine episode.

Cool Runnin' starts with a very minor drug deal that takes an unexpected turn when three Jamaicans let loose with machine pistols. Then a couple of cops fall victim to the same gang. The only lead that Crockett and Tubbs have is a fast-talking small-time crook-turned-informant named Noogie who might be able to lead them to the killers. There’s lots of action and there’s lots of comedy courtesy of Noogie but this is Miami Vice so there’s a serious subtext as well. Crockett cuts some corners and pus his informant’s life in unnecessary danger but he feels bad about it and is prepared to take risks to try to get Noogie out of the jam he’s put him in in.

Crockett is being established as a complex character - he can be ruthless and he can be caring as well, sometimes at the same time. Crockett is good at his job but it exacts a toll on him. And Tubbs is starting to find out about the demands of the job as well and how he and Crockett are in a world where being the good guys is complicated. An excellent episode.

Calderone, the big-time coke dealer with whom Crockett and Tubbs clashed in the pilot episode, is back in the two-part story Calderone’s Return. He’s back and he’s hired an international hitman to thin out the competition. And Crockett is on his hit list. There’s lots of suspense and lots of emotional drama as the pressure gets to Crockett and he starts jumping at shadows. He’s also going through a divorce at the time so he’s under extreme emotional stress. Lots of action and gunplay with a memorable shoot-out at the end.

In the second part the action moves to the Bahamas and the boys soon find themselves very very alone. And this time it’s Tubbs who is under the emotional pressure as he discovers just how unpleasant it is to have to use someone you’ve become involved with. Miami Vice switches back and forth between glamour, extreme violence and emotional drama and does so very effectively. This is another story with a strong film noir vibe and it’s a superb episode.

In One Eyed Jack Crockett tries to help out an old girlfriend with gambling problems and finds himself up against a very nasty operator named de Marco but even worse he’s in the sights of Internal Affairs. Crockett and Tubbs come up with a good plan to set up a gambling kingpin but good plans don’t always run smoothly. They also get to meet their new lieutenant and he’s quite something. Another good but dark episode.

In No Exit Miami Vice are trying to nail an illegal arms dealer (played by Bruce Willis). He’s a particularly repellant individual but the Miami Vice cops discover that there are even sleazier people they have to deal with and those even sleazier people work for the Federal Government. A very good but very cynical episode.

The Great McCarthy combines offshore powerboat racing and drug smuggling, and murder. Crockett gets to prove that there’s nothing he can’t do - we discover that he can beat anybody at snooker and he can beat anybody at powerboat racing. Tubbs gets emotionally involved with the drug smuggler’s girlfriend and Crockett is convinced his friend is going to get hurt. Not a bad episode with plenty of cool powerboat racing scenes.

In Glades a vital witness in a drugs case, Joey Bramlette, disappears. Crockett and Tubbs have to find him. He’s gone back to his home deep in the Everglades. They do find him and they discover that the drug lord he was going to testify against has kidnapped his daughter. Crockett and Tubbs find themselves in very unfamiliar territory and up against about twenty Colombians armed with automatic weapons, and all they have is half a dozen gun-toting hicks. And they’re going to have to launch a full-scale assault on the house in which the little girl is being held. The stage is set for an epic gun battle, which is both tense and outrageously over-the-top. There’s quite a bit of fun in this very good and very offbeat episode.

Give a Little, Take a Little sees Crockett and Tubbs up against a crime kingpin who runs both the narcotics and prostitution rackets. Sonny thinks he’s got a lucky break when an informant gives him some key information but Sonny ends in jail when he refuses to name the informant. Gina (the fellow Miami Vice cop with whom Crockett is romantically involved) goes undercover as a hooker and finds out just how you sometimes have to go to maintain your cover. An episode wth plenty of plot but the main focus is on the price that has to be paid for catching big-time criminals. An excellent episode.

In Little Prince the messed-up son of a fabulously rich tycoon is busted for possession of heroin. Crockett is convinced the kid, Mark Jorgensen Jr, could lead them to some major dealers. That expectation is more than fulfilled, but not in the Way Crockett and Tubbs anticipated. This is a character-driven episode and if you can get past the unsympathetic nature of those characters there is some depth to the story. And again Crockett and Tubbs find themselves having to do things they’re not entirely comfortable with. Not much action at all but still an interesting episode.

Milk Run starts with a couple of dumb kids who think they’re going to get rich bringing in drugs from Colombia. Crockett and Tubbs think they’ve managed to scare some sense into the kids but it’s never that simple. Crockett and Tubbs are also investigating an explosion in a coke lab which they think can lead them to a couple of drug king-pins. Crockett is still worried about those two dumb kids, and he has reason to worry. An excellent episode with Crockett showing his compassionate side.

Golden Triangle is a two-parter. It starts with a case involving corrupt cops shaking down prostitutes. That leads on to a bigger case, involving a robbery. The puzzle about the robbery is figuring out what the robbers were trying to steal. When Crockett and Tubbs do figure that out it leads them on to a third and much bigger case. A case which is very personal indeed to their boss, Lieutenant Castillo. A case with roots going back five years, to the jungles of South-East Asia. It’s a case that doesn’t just involve organised crime, it involves the biggest organised crime operation of them all, the CIA. An excellent episode that displays the series’ characteristic disdain for federal agencies such as the FBI and the CIA. I don’t normally like episodes of cop shows in which a cop has a personal stake in a case but in this instance it’s handled without resorting to clichés.

In Smuggler's Blues someone is killing drug smugglers after kidnapping members of their families and it’s obvious that the someone doing the killing works in law enforcement. He could be in any branch of law enforcement. Crockett and Tubbs pose as drug smugglers which takes them to Colombia where they get lots of aggravation but their troubles get even worse when they get bak to Miami. There’s a mail-biting ending. A very good action-packed episode.

In Rites of Passage Diane Gordon has just arrived in Miami where she gets introduced to the world of cocaine and high-class prostitution by a sleaze named Traynor. Diane’s sister Valerie (Pam Grier), a new York homicide cop, has also arrived in Miami looking for her kid sister. Things get complicated for Tubbs since Valerie is an old flame and the romance is soon rekindled. Saving Diane is not going to be so simple. She doesn’t want to be saved. The episode then takes several dark turns. Pam Grier’s guest starring spot is a definite highlight, there’s some good comic relief from Switek and Zito posing as pest exterminators but mostly this is a very dark, and very effective, episode. It’s also one of those Miami Vice episodes that suggests it’s all pretty futile. If they bust Traynor another Traynor will immediately take over. As long as there’s the lure of glamour, drugs and money girls like Diane are going to be seduced by those things.

The Maze
is a hostage drama that starts with a cop getting killed. Crockett and Tubbs think that another cop’s recklessness was to blame. The hostages are held in an derelict apartment building that is like a maze and that’s only the beginning of the difficulties facing the police. And Tubbs is in the building with the hostages. This episode gives us a close look at the seamy side of Miami. An excellent episode.

Made for Each Other is an episode you’ll either love or hate. Crockett and Tubbs hardly appear at all. It’s almost totally focused on Switek and Zito and on informers Noogie and Izzy. And it’s totally focused on comedy. Considering how grim and downbeat Miami Vice could be it wasn’t an entirely bad idea to throw in a comic relief episode very occasionally. What matters is that it is genuinely very funny. Switek’s relationship with his new girlfriend Darlene and the theft of the cement mixer are highlights. I liked this one.

In The Home Invaders Robbery asks Vice for help in investigating a series of violent home invasions. The head of the Robbery detail, Lieutenant Malone, was Sonny’s old boss and mentor. Castillo is convinced that Malone is making a mess of the case. Tubbs doesn’t appear in this episode and Castillo gets to do some action hero stuff. A very good episode with Sonny not being sure where his loyalties lie. Don Johnson and Edward James Olmos really shine in this one, with Crockett being all emotion and Castillo being all ice-cold control.

Nobody Lives Forever involves both love and death. It’s Crockett who’s in love, but maybe that’s not a good idea. He has to try to find a way to make it work without risking both personal and professional disaster. And there are three punks with a death wish but they’re likely to take a lot of other people with them. There’s a lot of romance in this episode but there’s plenty of mayhem as well. A pretty good episode as Crockett has to figure out what he really wants in life.

Evan is a misfire. It’s an example of what happens when political messaging is more important than a coherent plot. On a case Crockett encounters a former colleague who is in deep cover. There’s lots of angsting about their shared guilt concerning the death of another cop. It’s all too contrived and just doesn’t ring true.

Lombard is the season finale. Gangster Albert Lombard has been subpoenaed to appear before a grand jury. He’s been granted immunity from prosecution, which means he can’t incriminate himself, which means he can’t take the Fifth. He’s going to have to talk. If he talks he’s a dead man. If he doesn’t talk he faces five years in prison for contempt. He can’t win. And the Mob has decided not to take the chance that he will talk. They’ve put out a contract on him. Miami Vice have to keep him alive. This episode is Miami Vice at its best - slightly unpredictable, lots of violent action and fascinating character interactions between Lombard (who becomes a more and more complex character) and Crockett and Tubbs. It ends the season in fine style.

Final Thoughts

Miami Vice redefined the American cop show the way The Sweeney had redefined the British cop show a decade earlier. It made every other cop show on television suddenly look stodgy and quaint. A great series. Very highly recommended.

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