It's got style. It's got a snazzy soundtrack. It's got Don Johnson's five-o'clock shadow, which should really get its own slot in the opening credits. But does "Miami Vice" hold up as anything but a peculiar relic of the '80s? For those who, like myself, were too young to catch the "Miami Vice" phenomenon during the '80s, the mention of the show tends to conjure up a few specific lingering pop-culture impressions: white jackets, beard stubble, neon lights, and Jan Hammer's infamous show theme. But aside from those touchstones, we largely know "Miami Vice" only from the ways it has been parodied in the ensuing 20 years. After all, it's just so…'80s.
And so it was with more than a little trepidation that I popped in the first disk. After all, there are quite a few '80s shows that still stand as amazing examples of how to do TV right ("Hill Street Blues", "St. Elsewhere", and "Moonlighting" spring to mind), and many more that still hold up as pure popcorn-and-cheese entertainment ("MacGyver", "The A-Team"). If anything, I expected "Miami Vice" to fall into the latter category. But then again, I've never attempted to sit through 22 episodes of "The A-Team" in close succession.
The truth is somewhere in the middle. "Vice" follows Detectives James "Sonny" Crockett (Don Johnson) and Ricardo Tubbs (Philip Michael Thomas) of the Miami Metro-Dade Police Department, Vice Division, as they combat drugs, guns, and prostitution, all while adorned in snazzy '80s fashions and five o'clock shadow. "Miami Vice" is about as far from the gritty realism of a "Law & Order" or a "Homicide" as one can get, but neither does it exist in the cartoonish world of "The A-Team", where 16,000 rounds are fired per episode but no one ever gets hit with a bullet, and villains can survive having their helicopter crash into the side of a mountain with little more than a torn shirt and a scuffed forehead. "Vice" may occasionally…or frequently…lean a little too heavily on the token gun battle and/or car chase, but the action is fast and furious (with apologies to Vin Diesel). The show's visuals were cutting-edge for the time, and it has style to spare (even if some of that style comes off as slightly cheesy 20 years later).
Which isn't to say the show is totally without substance to balance its style. Crockett and Tubbs may not stand at the top of the pantheon of multi-layered, brilliantly written TV cops such as Sipowicz ("NYPD Blue") and Mackey ("The Shield"), but they're sufficiently fleshed out to do the job, with each given chances to shine over the course of the season. Johnson and Thomas have great chemistry together that sells the wisecracks just as easily as the occasional poignant moment, and if Johnson has often been pegged as playing variations on Crockett for much of his ensuing career, that is at least a tribute to how well the role suits him. It will be interesting to see how well Colin Farrell can out-Johnson Johnson in the upcoming big-screen adaptation.
Plus, how can you not love a show that features guest appearances from everybody from Little Richard to Penn Jillette? Nothing. Nada. Zip. Not a commentary, not a documentary, not a deleted scene is to be found. No actor bios, no featurettes, not even a scene-to-scene comparison of Johnson's stubble level. The least they could have done was throw in a thinly veiled marketing reel for the upcoming movie adaptation, cleverly disguised as a "making-of feature".
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