Miami Vice, Season 1 (1984-1985)
After he witnesses his partner (soon to be LA Law TV star Jimmy Smits) getting blown up during an undercover sting operation, vice squad detective Sonny Crockett (Don Johnson), living on his sailboat and working hard to prove that sock-less loafers and open pink shirts can be a cool way to take on drug lords, is forced to partner up with New York City narcotics officer Ricardo Tubbs (Phillip Michael Thomas), who, with his casually slick suits and sleek ties looks like no Big Apple cop I’ve ever seen (as well as must have been near heat stroke half the time with all that South Beach humidity)… and, next thing you know, television history was made.
With both of them out for revenge against drug lord Calderone (the late Miguel Piñero, who spent most of his teen years behind bars for committing violent crimes, before breaking out with his hit play on prison life, Short Eyes), who eventually gets away, Tubbs decides to leave the concrete jungle all the way up north behind for a life of fighting crime against the pastel backdrops and hot babe filled, jai alai playing landscape of Miami, while seemingly always followed around by the hottest pop tunes of the day (such as the now iconic introduction of Phil Collins’ moody 80’s electronic masterpiece In the Air Tonight, with our somber pretty boy heroes zooming along the watered-down streets in Crockett’s souped-up convertible, that could easily hilariously play, if you slightly – and I mean, slightly — shift your perspective, with their open fetishizing of the large guns they firmly hold in their grasps as they steal furtive glances at each other, with Crockett pulling over to call his ex-wife to be assured that ‘what they had was real’, as a scene of his dawning realization his feelings for his ‘partner’ extend a bit beyond just as a fellow crime-fighter, with them on their way to consummate rather than fight bad guys – not that I’m judging, by any means).
If you manage to overlook certain television elements that somehow were acceptable at the time — such as the insanely racist and, worse, unfunny (cuz if you’re gonna be racist or sexist, at least be amusing about it) recurring stepin fetchit-style black character of Noogie (along with the other comic relief Cuban characters) and the overt sexism, such as Thomas’ Tubbs (I’ll be generous and say Thomas was clearly not the most introspective of performers) constantly openly ogling every attractive woman he stumbles across, on the job and off, and the eye-popping episode where female vice cop Gina (Saundra Santiago, one of the number of recurring vice cops in the station who faded into obscurity once the show ended) learns her lesson that it’s not all just fun and dress up (which she and partner ‘Big Booty’ Trudy – yep, you heard that right — clearly relishes) going undercover as a prostitute when she gets raped by one of her rich johns – and wait around to hit the highs of those action scenes and dark unforgiving endings, Miami Vice season one not only manages to capture some surprisingly resonant moments, but (with some of the later episodes, such as “Evan”, which deals overtly with Crockett’s homophobia of all odd topics, and “Lombard”, with Dennis Farina guest starring as a mobster caught between doing the right thing by his family or the more deadly decision of testifying in court against his brethren) creeps fairly close to dramatically brilliant, at the very least by the standards of the time.
Even when you hit those periods where interest starts to wane, you can inevitably count on the magic to return with one of those great music video montages that kicks in (such as Crockett and Tubbs propelling across the ocean to Cuba on the police scarab to Russ Ballard’s high octane “Voices” and we get a full flashback summarizing the events so far) making one forget little things like Crockett’s absurd pet alligator Elvis.
You do have to wonder, though, for a show that creates a world of vice cops where paranoia is quick to develop around the temptation of sex, drugs and big money (especially as discovering veteran cops having had enough and gone bad is one of the templates for the show), including Crockett wondering about their own division head Lieutenant Rodriguez (Gregory Sierra), that is, until he gets offed by Calderone’s assassins (and replaced by the low grumbling, always taciturn and mysterious Lieutenant Castillo, played by Edward James Olmos, who Crockett also initially suspects of having gone rogue), that no one ever seems to question not only Crockett and Tubbs changing high priced, Armani-style suits multiple times an episode, but their driving around in super sports cars. Eh, must be the selective reasoning of television programs where the makers expect no one to really be paying too close attention or, if they do, just going with it (which the audience did… at least for the first two seasons, with continuing diminishing returns after that as the show went on).
Edward James Olmos, Bruce Willis and Don Johnson
Embroiled as I now am within the fairly rich and ambitious season three of the show, it’s become pretty clear that this freshman season is by far the lightest, and in many ways the weakest (though not without its heavier episodes, such as “No Exit”, featuring Bruce Willis in his acting debut as a scummy sociopathic drug dealer who has no qualms about destroying his family for his own gains, it’s just there’s a lot of goofy stuff as well).
Still, reverberating as it does with all that great music, those magical montages, and peppered with hip-at-the-time who’s who cameos from both music and films (everyone from blaxsploitation legend Pam Grier as Tubbs’ on-again/off-again NYPD love interest, to Andy Warhol rent-boy legend Joe Dallesandro, to Ving Rhames and the Eagles’ Glenn Frey), a list that would grow massively by the time season two came around and everyone wanted to get in on the act, it’s more than worth a look.
Yeah, it’s not always the most sophisticated of shows, with those early 80’s television warts all over it… but when it’s kicks into gear and gets exciting – watch out. It didn’t make television history by accident, after all.