Video: Cool Cops, Hot Show

With flashy visuals and a rock score, Miami Vice sets a new TV beat

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In another episode, Crockett's infatuation with a new girlfriend is distracting him from a case involving a gang of murderous youths. One morning he fails to show up for surveillance duty with Tubbs, who as a result is beaten up by a pair of thugs. No words are spoken between the partners; everything is conveyed by looks of recrimination and guilt. Indeed, the pair say nothing at all to each other until Crockett's redemption at the episode's end, when he comes to Tubbs' aid in a tight spot. Again there are no heavy- handed closeups or explicit dialogue, just an understated shot of the pair walking away from the camera arm in arm and a terse final exchange. Crockett: "Want to go fishin'?" Tubbs: "I'd rather go trollin'. "

With its rich, almost operatic texture and stripped-down story lines, Miami Vice has brought TV's cops-and-robbers genre back to its roots: the mythic battle between good and evil. Such battles were once commonplace on TV, in westerns like Gunsmoke and The Rifleman, and in an earlier generation of police shows, from Kojak to The Streets of San Francisco. In recent years, however, these hard-nosed cops have been replaced by a new band of lighthearted crime fighters, from Tom Selleck in Magnum, P.I., to Angela Lansbury in Murder, She Wrote. Even the few "serious" police shows on TV, notably Hill Street Blues and Cagney & Lacey, are less about black hats vs. white hats than about ordinary folks coping with the stress of extraordinary jobs.

It took a few episodes for Miami Vice to hit its stride. The earliest segments were sprinkled with predictable character exposition and comic relief. Crockett, for instance, was an ex-college football star with a wife suing him for divorce and a "funny" pet alligator named Elvis. Two mid- season changes were crucial. The alligator, along with most of the comic relief, was dropped. And a riveting new character, the brooding Lieut. Castillo (played with remarkable power by Emmy Nominee Edward James Olmos), joined the show. Castillo, Tubbs and Crockett bear less resemblance to other cop-show protagonists than to classic western heroes--men, in the words of Critic Robert Warshow, whose "melancholy comes from the 'simple' recognition that life is unavoidably serious."

Miami Vice is the most intensely serious cop show on TV. The drug smugglers, mob bosses, psychotic youth gangs and smut peddlers who emerge from the underworld each week are the most vividly portrayed evildoers on TV since Eliot Ness squared off against Frank Nitti on The Untouchables. Even more striking, however, is the show's depiction of the temptation that evil presents to basically good men. It is no accident that Crockett and Tubbs frequently go undercover, and seem to blend in perfectly when they do. Moreover, the show's most powerful episodes deal with law-enforcement officials who have gone over to "the other side."

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