As a boy of 15 in the fall of 1984, I was easy to please when it came to testosterone-fueled television. Hell, by that point, I’d been a faithful viewer of “The A-Team” for a year, and I’d even sat through a few episodes of “Manimal.” On purpose. So when “Miami Vice” came around that September, pretty much all the show needed to hook me was the standard-issue formula of guns, cars, explosions and posturing tough guys. Twenty years later, I’m still amazed at how much more “Vice” delivered. Arguably the first TV series to offer a level of visual and sonic atmosphere akin to that found in feature filmmaking, “Vice” rocked my world. And as anyone who watched TV in the mid-1980s remembers, I wasn’t alone in my reaction. Despite its shortcomings, “Vice” shook up the entire television medium like few shows before or after.
Revisiting my boyhood addiction via Universal’s new DVD release “Miami Vice: Season One,” I have to admit that the most eye- and ear-catching aspects of the series have aged badly. Much as I coveted Don Johnson’s unstructured white blazers and wrinkly peach slacks back in the day, his outfits are now emblematic of a horrific time in fashion. It takes some adjustment to look past the pastels and realize the clothes suited a character who needed to blend into a flashy world. Similarly, Jan Hammer’s synthesized scores sizzle and fizzle in equal measure. While his accomplishment of almost single-handedly scoring an entire series remains impressive, his worst soundtrack cuts are tinny and irritating. Having said that, Hammer’s subdued moments hold their power. The washes of sound that propel the score for “Evan,” the first season’s best episode, feel like pure emotion even though they emerge from a computerized box.
On the off chance that anyone who doesn’t already know the show stumbles onto this review, here are the basics about “Vice.” Johnson stars as Sonny Crockett, a hot-tempered detective who spends most of his time deep undercover in the netherworld of the Miami drug trade. His alias is Sonny Burnett, a runner with a bitchin’ cigarette boat. In the first episode, Crockett gets saddled with a partner named Ricardo “Rico” Tubbs (Philip Michael Thomas), a cocky NYPD dick with a vendetta against a Miami-based bad guy. Standard cop-show fare ensues as Crockett and Tubbs clash with legal bureaucracy, gun-toting thugs and colorful underworld types in their pursuit of justice, babes and expensive suits.
For movie geeks, the series is probably best remembered as the project that put Michael Mann on the map. Although the show was created by writer-producer Anthony Yerkovich, Mann exec-produced the enterprise, and each episode carried the unmistakable stylistic stamp Mann had already applied to the telefilm “The Jericho Mile” and the obscure theatrical release “Thief.”
Since the crime-and-punishment element of the show is commonplace, what distinguishes “Vice” is its cinematic veneer. The series was art-directed down to the smallest detail, so everything from machine-gun muzzle flashes to the sparkly bras on exotic dancers are coordinated to achieve a sleek, intoxicating vibe. Furthermore, episodes were shot and cut in a manner previously untried on television. Instead of employing flat master shots and utilitarian coverage – think “Starsky & Hutch,” “S.W.A.T.” and so on – directors of “Vice” installments were encouraged to use long lenses, artful wide shots, stylized editing and visual grace notes.
Take the signature scene in the pilot episode. Crockett and Tubbs are on their way to a showdown with the episode’s big baddie, so they cruise the streets of Miami in Crockett’s jet-black Ferrari. As Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight” throbs – virtually all other sound drops out when the song begins – the camera cuts to every conceivable angle on the car, adding texture and menace. It’s a memorable moment, and the first season is loaded with echoes of this formative sequence.
In the best episodes, gritty storylines rise to the operatic level of the execution. “No Exit,” boasting a pre-“Die Hard” Bruce Willis as an abusive crook, offers potent domestic drama. “Smuggler’s Blues,” with rocker Glenn Frey as, yeah, a smuggler, features persuasive tropical atmosphere. And the aforementioned “Evan” unexpectedly centers on the impact of a gay cop’s coming-out. For a show that seemed to wear its superficiality as a badge of honor, the first season contains a fair amount of solid drama.
The humor elements of the series took a little longer to gel. In the early episodes, the pet living on Crockett’s houseboat is a not-so-domesticated alligator, providing the kind of quirky character detail that only makes sense in Hollywood development meetings. And some passages featuring scruffy second-string cops Switek (Michael Talbott) and Zito (John Diehl) are more effective than others. At their worst, the characters provide fleeting comic relief. But in their showcase episode “Made for Each Other,” Talbott and Diehl go to town, breathing more life into their roles than Johnson and Thomas ever did into theirs.
Speaking of the leads, some sort of consumer warning should accompany the set just because it features 22 episodes worth of Thomas. He really is just awful right from the beginning, pumping bug-eyed, overstimulated cheese into every scene. Thomas actually makes Johnson look nuanced by comparison. For his part, Johnson slides by on charisma, looks and a great sandpaper voice. He’s got an effective moment here and there, but is mostly just competent. The consistent standout in the cast is Edward James Olmos, who joined partway through the season as commanding officer Lt. Martin Castillo. His personification is a weird mix of creepy glowering and Zen-like reserve, but he manages to somehow anchor the show with his presence.
The three double-sided discs that comprise “Miami Vice: Season One” boast solid sound quality, which matters because Universal sprang for the rights to use all the pop songs featured in the first season (U2, Peter Gabriel, etc.). The picture quality is a little iffier, with grain and negative dirt occasionally marring images. But this is a 20-year-old show, after all, and the rougher edges of the reproduction suit the series’ stature as an artifact of another time. The only real disappointment about the package is that the extra features are a washout. Five behind-the-scenes featurettes run a collective 30 minutes or so, and the last featurette is, literally, an ad for the Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau. Because watching 18 hours of drug deals and shootouts makes you want to hurry down to Florida.
Even though “Vice” has wrinkled a bit with the passage of time, I’m still glad as hell to have this set. There are four or five first-season episodes I can still dig without making any excuses, and even the weaker installments have the virtues of nostalgia and pizzazz. Especially given that this series experienced a horrific downward slide in later seasons – I mean, how could something so hot and fashionable not become a parody of itself? – I’m pleased to have my fondest “Vice” memories compiled into one tidy package. Whenever I need a dose of glossy 1980s style, all I have to do is slip in a disc to hear Johnson bark “Freeze! Miami Vice!” With those three words, I’m once again a 15-year-old glued to my TV on a Friday night, watching Michael Mann’s latest big-budget action epic unfurl in my living room.