Few shows have ever captured the zeitgeist the way Miami Vice did. It took a buddy cop dynamic as old as Dragnet and gave it a brand new style that built on an eclectic pop music soundtrack, the editing techniques of early ’80s MTV, a chic visual sense akin to producer Michael Mann’s feature films and an of-the-moment sense of fashion and decor. This stylistic cocktail made the adventures of detectives Sonny Crockett (Don Johnson) and Ricardo Tubbs (Philip Michael Thomas) into must-see t.v.
However, there was more to the show than just style: an eclectic array of stories provided the fuel for the show’s aesthetic fireworks, with a likeably charismatic cast to give some heart to the show’s thematically rich, often dark take on law enforcement in a lawless world. Here’s a quick rundown of five key episodes from the show’s debut season…
Brother’s Keeper: the two-hour pilot film for the series invents the show’s stylistic handbook as Thomas comes to Miami from NYC on a private mission to kill the drug kingpin who murdered his mentor. The show is often remembered as a vehicle for Johnson (later on, it did become that) but Thomas was just as important to the show’s early years and he gives a rich performance here. Look for the intro of Elvis the alligator, future series regular Martin Ferrero a cross-dressing hit man and the first of many iconic music moments as Crockett & Tubbs race to a nocturnal showdown while Phil Collins’ “In The Air Tonight” pumps on the soundtrack.
Heart Of Darkness: this episode has Crockett and Tubbs on the trail of a crime boss’s enforcer (a pre-Married With Children Ed O’Neill) who is revealed to be an undercover Fed who might have gone to the dark side. It’s a gritty episode that introduces two key themes for the show: the flexible morality of federal law enforcement and the psychological toll of working in close proximity with amoral people day in and day out. If you think of O’Neill as a sitcom actor, you’ll be shocked by his intense, complex dramatic turn here. Music note: excellent use of the Devo deep cut “Going Under” to evoke the episode’s bleak take on criminal underworld life.
Calderone’s Return, Part 1 – The Hit List: the first half of a two-parter devoted to Crockett and Tubb’s return engagement with the drug lord they vanquished in the pilot episode. People usually focus on the second half, which revolves around a tragic love affair for Tubbs, but for Schlockmania’s money the first half is a grabber built around Calderone’s men attacking the cops and Sonny’s family. This has some of the best action sequences of the season, including an explosive limo attack, the shocking death of a main character and a bullet-riddled home invasion. Bonus points for the musical tag, with Crockett and Tubbs headed for the islands on a speedboat while “Voices” by Russ Ballard thumps on the soundtrack.
No Exit: this one is often name-checked in discussions of Miami Vice‘s best episodes. Crockett and Tubbs go undercover to set up an arms dealer played by a young Bruce Willis, discovering along the way he is also a wife beater. Lots of dramatic tension as the cops are forced to preserve the case while also trying to give hope to the dealer’s battered wife (Katherine Borowitz). This was directed by former Starsky & Hutch t.v. cop David Soul and has a powerful scene where the Teddy Pendergrass ballad “Stay With Me” is used to gut-wrenching effect. Willis is on fire here, playing a nasty bad guy with élan, and the ending is devastating.
Give A Little, Take A Little: this episode shifts focus to Gina (Saundra Santiago), another member of the vice team who is eager to prove her mettle in undercover work. She gets more than she bargained for when she has to contend with a resourceful mobster, played with sleazeball intensity by Burt Young. It’s a strong dramatic showcase for Santiago, with nice support from Johnson, that gives a unique female-centric slant on the show’s “psychological rigors of vice life” theme. Strong direction from Bobby Roth plays up the drama and there’s a great, atmospheric opening montage of Miami’s shady charms set to “Better Be Good To Me” by Tina Turner.
Milk Run: the dangers of the drug trade are central to this episode, which revolves around the cops trying to be guardian angels to a pair of naive drug mules caught up in a get-rich-quick deal with some local drug lords. Al Shannon, who would later star in Band Of The Hand for Mann, is compelling here as the jittery half of the duo, and John Hughes regular John Kapelos is also great as a scummy defense lawyer. The end sequence is potent stuff, with a great use of slow motion. The episode’s use of tiki idols as a smuggling method for drugs would later be referenced in the video game Grand Theft Auto: Vice City.