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Miami Vice – Season One (A TV on DVD Review)

Updated: Jun 6, 2023

Miami Vice

Season One (1984-1985) (Universal-2005)

There is nothing funnier than the party people of the 80s, so get ready for this freakazoid on the dance floor. Taking a second look at Miami Vice all these years later will make you wonder what all the popping and locking was about. We’re told that this series -- almost like a movie but not quite -- is groundbreaking and earth quaking, but it’s hard to get past guest star Mark Linn Baker with a mullet. As well, we are subjected to bloodless shootouts, slo-mo sex scenes, enormous car phones and the old chestnut: car chases plowing through helpless food carts. It’s crime by the sea -- the stuff America loves to watch from the safety and relative comfort of their Broyhill living room sets.

We be jammin’, for sure, but somehow we’ve heard this song before. In fact, that snappy soundtrack we want to recall so fondly is as awkwardly lame as a pink flamingo. Though far from terrible, Miami Vice is not the hot commodity you may warmly remember. Like Crockett and Tubbs, you belong to the city, but the city was a dreamy, self-important Duran Duran video. Now it’s time to awaken.

Miami Vice, boiled down to the originally original concept of “MTV cops,” caused a major fashion and content sensation when it first aired in 1984. Though it was yet another series about lawyers, guns, and money (and lots of explosions), what set it apart from alpha to omega was its style, with a capital S. We’ve seen bad guys beat their broads before, but never in slow motion. We’ve heard intense mood music before in order to move the thin plot along, but never with the sole intent of selling records. We’ve watched TV detectives overdress for work before, but never without socks. We’ve been satisfied by street justice many times over, but never on the sand.

Though now we can appreciate the finer-than-expected charcoal-broiled acting chops of Don Johnson and -- especially -- Edward James Olmos, with his less is more style, the series is ultimately more sizzle than steak (on the plus side: at least it’s set in easy-parking Miami and not tedious New York).

Its opening credits show us that when it comes to Miami, we are not much more evolved than the animals (racehorses, dolphins, parrots, flamingos, jai alai players). This is a land that -- for all its aspirations to sophistication -- is not too far removed from animalistic desires and the most carnal of sins. For all of the white wine poured dramatically and the boom boxes blasting pre-hip-hop disco, this is not a complicated setup.

A bad guy sums up the essence of what can sometimes be so good about the series: “You don’t get it, huh? The DEA, the FBI, the county, the city, the technologies, the computers – they can’t catch one little man who didn’t make it past the third grade.”

What’s sold as high class -- white linen jackets, white wine spritzers, Lamborghinis and McMansions -- is ultimately as trashy as that mid-80s space alien fashion sense on the dance floor. All the bad guys are always physically ugly, with the exception of a pre-Moonlighting Bruce Willis (“This guy’s scum,” Crockett deduces, and Tubbs responds with “Let’s nail this pig.”). We get Burt Young doing his usual scary/loose cannon routine, Ed O’ Neill (Married with Children) playing against type as unpredictable, Glenn Frey in the role of a lifetime as a pilot/smuggler (though he never works again), and Pam Grier being her usual brilliant self. Admit it, though: half the time, you don’t know what the hell is going on. The easiest cue to take is that when the videotape slows down, that means someone is about to die.

Saluting the original office casual Fridays, the “look of Miami Vice,” is no longer the proud brand it once was. For instance, the gals in the office doll themselves up like prostitutes (on purpose, at least we suspect – or is it just the 1985 Look?). This is, after all, a vice squad, and its staff has to dress to blend in with underworld lowlifes. Mission accomplished.

Of course, all of the series that followed the skid-marked road of this trailblazer makes the original idea pack less of a punch. Time can be confusing: is the gimmick of the main character owning an alligator and laughing it up on a houseboat new and revolutionary, or tiresome and conventional? And when we hear yet another play of George Thorogood’s “Bad to The Bone,” is it the first time that this tune is introducing a tough-ass dude on a television show? And even so, how menacing can villains be when their mode of dress is consistent with the clownish sensibility of the Thriller era, and are surrounded by cassette tapes, overlarge VCRs, DOS computers and outdated Camaros? In short, now it just feels kind of cheap. Even on DVD, the series has a sort of junky rerun quality to it.

The style should be admired for the way it uses music to tell a story, mostly because the episodes' content is as skinny and bite-size as a junior mint. According to the commentary, Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight” is used in the most famous scene in the show (a long boat ride, among other visuals), but the lack of substance is glaringly obvious, and they need something to fill the hole -- hence Collins.

Johnson, playing a dedicated detective who has neglected his personal life for the thrill of the job, is perfect, but sometimes almost too perfect. As Tubbs, Philip Michael Thomas starts out as gangbusters (the livelier, streetwise slice of the pair), but as time goes on, he settles into a sleepwalk (or is it just cool detachment?). Eventually, the show is handed completely to Johnson (who had suffered through six failed pilots before hitting pay dirt).

Still, if you’re in it for stakeouts and standoffs and stylin’ cops bursting through windows, you’ve docked at the right place. This is also a good place to see Gregory Sierra do his disgusted cop routine and Evan Handler with a full head of hair. Sorry, there will be no happy endings, and no cutesy tag scenes to wrap it all up (a plus), but also no tattoos on anyone, not even the bad guys (another plus).

Just something to chew on: if drugs were legalized, there would be no need for a series like this. And you won’t find a line more astute than the one from singer Lindsay Buckingham, in the best song on the soundtrack (“Go Insane”): “Two kinds of trouble in this world: living, dying.”

Ronald Sklar

Copyright ©2005 All rights reserved. Posted: December 23, 2005.

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