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WIRED Binge-Watching Guide: Miami Vice

The term “groundbreaking,” in reference to television series, has been so overused (and frequently misused) over the decades that it has largely lost its meaning. And while there are a handful of contemporary TV series that are deserving of that descriptor—House of Cards, for what it has done for streaming entertainment, would be one example—in order to discover the most truly groundbreaking television, it’s often essential to head back into the past. In the case of the small-screen police procedural, it’s necessary to go all the way back to Miami Vice.

For those who did not watch the gritty cop drama during its original run, the show has become a punch line used when joking about the overindulgence of the 1980s. But the series, which was created by Hill Street Blues writer/producer Anthony Yerkovich and executive produced by future four-time Oscar nominee Michael Mann, is anything but laughable. Eschewing the Hollywood standard of shooting on sound stages, partly as way to keep everything under the producers’ control, Miami Vice was filmed on location in South Florida, at a time when Miami and Miami Beach looked more like Scarface than what the Kardashians who now “take” the city seem to see.

The series followed an elite vice squad charged with ridding, or at least reducing, the city of its various criminal epidemics, from drugs to prostitution. The squad (at least by the time the show’s sixth episode rolled around) is led by Lieutenant Martin Castillo (Edward James Olmos), a no-nonsense former DEA agent. Unofficially, however, it’s Detective James “Sonny” Crockett (Don Johnson, in a career-defining role) who calls the shots—or is at least well respected enough by his colleagues that they often come to him for guidance. And while Crockett’s dedication to his job is unquestionable (except for that unfortunate storyline where he developed amnesia and believed he was Sonny Burnett, his undercover alter ego), his means of attaining the desired results could be considered dubious by some.

Aiding Crockett in his police work is Detective Ricardo Tubbs (Philip Michael Thomas), a former NYPD detective who makes his way down to Miami (also undercover, though unbeknownst to anyone) to find a criminal known as Calderone, a Colombian cartel leader who recently murdered Tubbs’ brother, a fellow NYPD detective. Crockett, too, is searching for the same man, who in the pilot plants a car bomb that kills Crockett’s friend and partner, Eddie Rivera (played by a fresh-faced Jimmy Smits, in his first-ever role).

Now, going back to that whole “groundbreaking” thing: If the above summary doesn’t sound like a particularly fresh approach to a cop drama, that’s because it’s not. At least not by today’s standards. And that’s specifically because Miami Vice invented it back in 1984. Often referred to as a cop show for the MTV generation, Miami Vice didn’t look like anything else that was on network television at the time. A marriage of storytelling and style, the show aimed to make everything look “cool.”

And the network spared no expense in making that happen. Shot on a budget of about $1.3 million per episode, Miami Vice was one of the most expensive shows on television, yet the bulk of that grand total didn’t go to actor salaries or other diva demands (though a mid-series money clash between Johnson and the show’s producers did up the salary portion). Instead, the series’ massive budget was dedicated to its soundtrack, costume, and production design—those little details that, all taken together, helped establish Miami Vice as a new kind of television series.

On a larger scale, it drove new trends in music, fashion, cars, and facial hair. But perhaps its greatest beneficiary was the city of Miami itself. When Miami Vice first began shooting there, Miami was being crowned “The US Murder Capital of 1984.” But the time directors called “cut” for the final time, it was a thriving tourism destination. Today, it’s one of the most visited cities in America.

Hop inside your Ferrari Testarossa and take a ride back to binge-watch the 1980s’ seminal police drama.

Miami Vice

Number of Seasons: 5 (111 episodes)

Time Requirements: With more than a 100 hours of viewing to be had, watching all of Miami Vice is not going to happen in a weekend. Even the most committed of viewers are going to need to dedicate some serious time to the show. Make it a two-episode-per-night thing seven nights a week and you’re looking at roughly two months of Miami Vice in your future. Up that total to three episodes on the weekends, and you’re down to about six weeks. For those who want to consume it at an even more leisurely pace, there’s not a lot of “To Be Continued” within the world of Miami Vice, so skipping an episode here or there (more on that later) or watching it in spurts won’t leave you confused about what’s going on in any given episode.

Where to Get Your Fix: Hulu, NBC.com

Best Character to Follow: As much as it has all the trappings of a buddy cop and/or an ensemble cop show, Miami Vice is all about Sonny Crockett. Whether that was always the point doesn’t really matter, as it didn’t take long for viewers (or the show’s producers) to realize that Don Johnson was the series’ breakout star—and its storylines were driven accordingly. Really, who can blame audiences for being entranced by a college-football-star-turned-undercover-detective who drives a Ferrari, lives on a boat, owns a pet alligator, and marries a rock star?

Which isn’t to say that other members of the Vice squad don’t get their own time to shine: Tubbs’ love-hate relationship with Miami led to a number of New York City-centric storylines (including the Season 2 opener, “The Prodigal Son,” which has Crockett and Tubbs following a Colombian cartel to New York); Castillo’s past gig as a DEA agent working in Southeast Asia’s Golden Triangle meant a couple of one-off episodes delving into his backstory (with mixed results); and as the team’s female members, both Gina and Trudy (more so the latter) dealt with issues that their male counterparts never had to face… like spending most of their time working undercover as prostitutes. But of all the show’s non-Crockett members, it’s the goofy (in a get-stuff-done kind of way) duo of Switek and Zito who—at least in the early seasons—offer up Miami Vice’s most reliable bits of levity. And a lot of weird.

Seasons/Episodes You Can Skip: Like so many other series before and after it, Miami Vice’s success was, creatively, a double-edged sword. While they had the behind-the-scenes talent to challenge television’s preconceived notions of what a cop drama could be, the more acclaim the show received the more offers its producers and writers were being made to move on. And many of them did, including creator Anthony Yerkovich, who made Michael Mann the show’s executive producer just a few episodes into the first season. Michael Mann, in turn, left to create Crime Story, and handed the reins to Dick Wolf, creator of the Law & Order franchise. All of which is to say that the quality of the series was at its height in its earliest days, particularly the first two (possibly three) seasons. While any true binge-watch requires watching a series all the way through, if you find yourself losing interest in the final two seasons, or simply being baffled by some of the storylines, you know what the cast and crew felt like.

Season 2: Episode 7, “Tale of the Goat” Eight years before Weekend at Bernie’s II hits theaters, Crockett and Tubbs are tasked with escorting the remains of a voodoo cult leader from the airport to his final resting place in Miami… until he apparently comes back to life.

Season 4: Episode 4, “The Big Thaw” As if one needed further proof that the seriousness with which Miami Vice took itself hit a steep decline after the third season, this episode sees our fearless vice squad caught in the middle of a fight over the cryogenically frozen body of a formerly famous reggae star.

Season 4: Episode 7, “Missing Hours” Strangely, this fourth season episode is so weird and terrible that it almost deserves to be put in the “Episodes You Can’t Skip” section—if only to say that you actually endured all 48 minutes of it. The less that is actually said about this episode, the better. But it involves a body that goes missing from the morgue, Trudy (Olivia Brown) coming into contact with a UFO, James Brown appearing out of nowhere, and poor Chris Rock having to count this as one of his earliest performances.

Season 4: Episode 12, “The Cows of October” Yet another season four clunker, perhaps it’s best to let the network itself give the summary of this episode: “Crockett and Tubbs investigate a cowboy’s reported theft of irreplaceable bull semen.”

Season 5: Episode 20, “Leap of Faith” It says something that “Leap of Faith”—about a new, younger, shinier vice squad that goes undercover at a college campus when officers start seeing a new type of drug on the street—ended up being a “lost” episode of the series (which did not air until after the series finale, in summer reruns). It was also intended to be a backdoor pilot for a new series that clearly never came to be.

Seasons/Episodes You Can’t Skip:

Season 1: Episodes 1 and 2, “Brother’s Keeper” Originally, Miami Vice’s pilot ran as one very long (90-plus-minute) episode. In syndication and streaming, it’s typically been broken up into two parts. As noted above, it’s really a make-or-break episode in terms of binge-watching the series. It’s where we meet Crockett and Tubbs, witness the (not quite friendly) way they come to meet each other, and get an overall feel for the style of the series to come. Even on its own, it works well as a one-off movie.

Season 1: Episodes 4 and 5, “Calderone’s Return: The Hit List” and “Calderone’s Return: Calderone’s Demise” Just a few episodes into the first season, Crockett and Tubbs are facing off yet again with Calderone, the drug cartel leader who brought them together in the first place. This time, he has hired a hitman to take out his Miami-based nemeses, Crockett being one of them. The first part of this two-part episode is the more compelling of the two; in the second half, Crockett and Tubbs find themselves in Bimini in an attempt to track down Calderone for one final face-off. Their only obstacle? Tubbs can’t keep it in his pants, and ends up falling for Calderone’s daughter (after knowing her for maybe three minutes).

Season 1: Episode 7, “No Exit” Before Bruce Willis was Bruce Willis, he was an unknown actor who made his first credited appearance as a wife beater and notorious arms dealer attempting to cut a deal with Crockett and Tubbs to sell them a cache of Stinger missiles he has stolen from the US Army. Even as a bad guy, Willis’ trademark charm (which would serve him well when he was cast as the lead in Moonlighting a year later) is in full effect. Unfortunately, his on-screen wife didn’t feel the same way.

Season 1: Episode 15, “Smuggler’s Blues” Glenn Frey’s song inspired this first season episode, and also landed the late Eagle a guest spot on the show as a pilot who transports drugs when he’s not busy drinking beer or being a laidback dude-bro. He accompanies the guys, who are working with the DEA, to Colombia, and even gets to wield a gun.

Season 2: Episode 3, “Out Where the Buses Don’t Run” Largely considered the single best episode of Miami Vice, “Out Where the Buses Don’t Run” teams Crockett and Tubbs up with a retired vice cop (Bruce McGill), who may or may not be completely insane, but insists that they’re on the trail of a big-time drug dealer who went missing year ago. He turns out to be telling the truth, sort of, but is also definitely unstable.

Why You Should Binge:
At a time when shows like Blue Bloods, NCIS, and Criminal Minds still regularly top the Nielsen ratings, there’s always a new batch of cop dramas waiting around the corner. And in many cases, teams of producers attempting to find quirky ways to make their shows stand out (like, say, having a cop with hyperthymesia). But sometimes it pays to go back to the basics give viewers what they really want, whether they know it or not: compelling storytelling with pretty pictures.

Best Scene—“In the Air Tonight”:

Taken out of context, it may not seem like there’s a whole lot happening in this iconic sequence from “Brother’s Keeper,” Miami Vice’s pilot episode. Yet it’s these moments of almost-silence underscored by the drumbeat of Phil Collins’ hit song that set the stage for what’s to come, both in the series’ debut and future seasons. While it’s a show full of violence, with as much machine gun action as Scarface (which, perhaps not coincidentally, was released just a year before Miami Vice’s debut), it’s with these smaller, quieter moments of reflection that the creators set the series’ mood and cinematic quality.

The Takeaway:
Of the many conflicted cops who’ve populated our television screens over the years, few have made as vast a cultural impact as Sonny Crockett. And the reason why goes far beyond his ability to rock a pair of white pants and still somehow manage to look cool. Five years before Cops made its triumphant debut, Miami Vice was offering up its own brand of reality television.

If You Like Miami Vice, You’ll Love: In 1986, Michael Mann handed over his showrunner duties on Miami Vice in order to create Crime Story (also for NBC), which starred the always-amazing Dennis Farina (who had made a few appearances on Miami Vice) as a Chicago detective intent on destroying a local mobster. Though it only lasted for two seasons, it’s worth seeking out, and in a way lays the groundwork for the kind of story Mann would later perfect with his 1995 flick Heat.

Three years after Miami Vice’s finale, Paul Attanasio’s Baltimore-set Homicide: Life on the Street—based on David Simon’s book, Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets—heralded another step forward in the police procedural. One that would evolve even further with David Simon’s The Wire, which merged the lives of Baltimore’s cops, drug dealers, politicians, and media, and echoed some of the storylines and characters from the earlier series.

Even more recently, BBC’s Luther, starring Idris Elba (also of The Wire) did a fine job of the gritty cop thing with this London-set series about a slightly unhinged DCI who doesn’t let the law stand in the way of the law (at least as not as far as his own actions are concerned).

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