By Cory Barker
Season 1, Episodes 2 and 3: “Heart of Darkness” and “Cool Runnin'”
Original airdate: Sept. 28, 1984 and Oct. 5, 1984
Previously on Miami Vice: Brooklyn beat cop Ricardo Tubbs made his way down to Miami in hopes of avenging his brother’s death but instead caused loads of damage when he paired up with local Vice officer Sonny Crockett. Calderone, the object of Tubbs’s revenge, got away. There was an alligator and some GO-FAST BOATS involved.
Coming into the post-pilot episodes of Miami Vice, I was looking for the show to keep up with the stylish rhythms it established in that first (two hour) episode, but I also wanted to see how the show settled into its episodic conventions. The first couple of episodes after the pilot are always a challenge and the tendency is to simply repeat the beats and formula that the pilot offered, which obviously never works that well. Vice‘s pilot featured a film-like narrative and clearly had a sizable budget, so I was particularly interested in seeing what the show would do with less time and less money. And finally, I wondered about the details of the narrative itself. The pilot, for all its flash, is more or less a premise pilot and by the end of it, Calderone is gone and Tubbs burned his bridges in NYC but didn’t necessarily have a job in Miami. Although Miami Vice isn’t Lost or Twin Peaks, there were a few questions left unanswered.
All told, “Heart of Darkness” and “Cool Runnin'” were both exactly what I expected them to be and actually a little surprising. The show didn’t spend any time answering my so-called “questions.” By the time “Darkness” begins, Tubbs is entrenched as Crockett’s partner and there is no mention of his transition from NYC to Miami, nor do I recall a reference to Calderone (who is still out there). Instead, the show quickly moves away from the pilot’s story and really, even away from the ideological tension between Crockett and Tubbs as to how to do the job. The two get along just fine in both of these episodes and Tubbs seems over his brother’s death. The only indication the show gives that Tubbs is new is that few of the other folks around the office interact with him. It’s almost as if he doesn’t exist, which is amusing. But unsurprisingly, Vice is more intrigued by moving on to other procedural stories than it is sticking around the vicinity of the pilot’s events.
Nevertheless, while the show doesn’t worry itself with pilot hangover, it moves into its procedural stories more self-assured and complex than I would have imagined. These two efforts don’t have as much visual artistry or car-centric musical montages (I miss you Phil Collins), but they actually successfully dig into the dangers and psychology of working this job. If the pilot episode introduced to the more glamorous or cool parts* of working vice with Sonny Crockett—living on a boat, trying a bad-ass car, dressing like a P.I.M.P.—then these two episodes key us into the more dysfunctional and treacherousness parts of it. Working vice might mean cool posturing but it also requires a grueling amount of undercover work and relationships with unreliable snitches on the street. “Heart of Darkness” and “Cool Runnin'” explore both of these ideas in their individual narratives and do so with a nice amount of depth and some fun guest stars.
*Not that the pilot didn’t have its fair share of darker elements.
My research tells me that Vice surprised some people with its focus on well, vice-related crimes and I kind of love how “Heart of Darkness” jumps right into the pornography business, a story that introduces a slew of scumbags and nasty circumstances. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about 1980s Miami based on watching four hours of this show, it’s that there was nowhere near a shortage of scummy looking grease-ball white dudes carrying briefcases around who liked to meet their peers at docks. And unfortunately, that means that the show has already ossified a formula of sending Crockett and Tubbs undercover to construct faux meet-ups with these dolts, a formula that typically involves multiple meets and sub-meets within one episode. It’s a bit repetitive after only four hours but I understand that it is also a big part of Vice.
In any event, “Heart of Darkness” really picks up when Crockett and Tubbs discover that the FBI already has a guy undercover with this corrupt and murderous porn distribution ring, only they are worried that he’s too far gone. The money’s too good, the girls are too good. You know the drill. Crockett and Tubbs meet this guy, Artie (played by a pre-Al Bundy Ed O’Neill) and are immediately concerned about his commitment to law enforcement. There are questions about his role in the murder of an underage girl, just as there are questions about whether or not it was he or the FBI who asked him to come in out of the cold. He hasn’t talked to his wife in weeks, nor has he called the FBI. It doesn’t look good. Eventually, Artie temporarily disappears and it seems pretty clear to Crockett and Tubbs that he’s had some involvement in or knowledge of this girl’s murder. Even though Artie does the right thing in the end and helps save Crockett’s and Tubbs’s skin at a dock shoot-out (shocker), Crockett isn’t sure Artie is that innocent. But of course, there is nothing he can do. When you’re undercover you have to commit, and while Artie may have committed too far, he was doing his job.
Like I said above, I was surprised at the depth within this story. A lot of that comes from O’Neill’s presence. He’s always been a better dramatic actor than people give him credit for and he does fine work in short order making Artie a sympathetic but untrustworthy guy. You get the sense that Artie’s charmed by the fast life and probably wishes it would take him away from his middle-aged domestic nest. And although the episode doesn’t hammer the audience over the head with the parallels between Artie and Sonny, they exist. Sonny’s been undercover numerous times and all indications are that those experiences led to the dissolution of his marriage. So although Sonny hasn’t gone as far over to the dark side as Artie (as far as we know), he’s still been overcome by the job and lost things. I think this is why he gets so worked about Artie’s possible role in the girl’s death. He knows that life, but he also knows that you can’t take that extra step.
In “Cool Runnin’,” the show tries to integrate some of the other characters but does so mostly to cheaply raise the dramatic stakes. Two up-and-coming vice officers make a bet with Crockett and Tubbs that they can make more and larger busts in the next month, leading the two of them to make sloppy choices in the field. One gets killed and the other put into a coma, leaving Vice‘s heroes to clean up the mess and avenge their “friends.” It’s lame to introduce characters only to kill or harm them so that the protagonists have motivation to complete a case—it’s a really cheap device that tons of procedurals use—but for whatever reason, the rest of the episode still works despite this egregious origin. The whippersnappers are dispatched of within a handful of minutes, leaving the rest of the episode to explore a compelling relationship between Crockett and Tubbs and a speed freak of an informant named Nugart Neville “Noogman” Lamont. The name is awesome, and so is the character.
Throughout the episode, Noogman screws with Crockett and Tubbs and the latter grows more and more frustrated (resulting in one of the only “hey, this is how we do things in Miami” moments of these two efforts). Noog claims to know the shooters, some deadly Jamaican drug runners, only he doesn’t actually. Then he does. And then he gets wrapped up with them and all sorts of dangerous events take place. And would you believe it, Crockett has to go undercover and there’s all sorts of chatter about whether or not his plan will work. Again, this kind of stuff is familiar, but Vice knows how to stylize it with quality musical cues (both from the score and pin drops) and through its treatment of Crockett as an excellent cop. I feel bad for Philip Michael Thomas because Tubbs doesn’t have anything to do and Don Johnson gets to be a straight-up playa all the time.
On that note, the real strength of “Cool Runnin'” is Johnson’s performance. His chemistry with Charlie Barnett (Noog) is tremendous (Barnett is great as well). There’s a real sense that Sonny actually cares about his informants, even if he more or less hates them. It’s interesting to see a lead character like Sonny. He’s not like contemporary heroes in shows like this. He’s not a genius weirdo, nor is he a antihero. Instead, he’s just a very good cop who only bends the rules (not a lot of breaking). He has a messed up personal life, as is on display in this episode when his ex officially sets up the divorce proceedings and announces that she’s moving their son to Atlanta. The episode doesn’t spend a lot of time on this plot-point, but Johnson brings an honesty to the performance that surprises me. While Sonny doesn’t overreact to the news and let it impact his work, he still throws a fit. He knows that it might be for the best, but selfishly, he can’t bring himself to agree. That’s a realistic but powerful reaction. I’ll say it again: I can’t believe how good Johnson is.
For second and third episodes of a relatively procedural show, Miami Vice couldn’t have done a whole lot better. The show’s formula has its downsides (we have to move away from the docks, guys) and there wasn’t as much outdoor action here, but both of those things were to be expected. What wasn’t as expected were the strong character-based stories on display here. Although things might change, Vice is clearly interested in telling stories about the consequences of life working Vice—and consequences other than GO-FAST BOATS (though I need more of that) (no really, please). If that pattern continues, the show has a higher upside than I thought.
- My favorite part of these two episodes? When Sonny’s alligator Elvis eats his Buddy Holly record collection so Sonny threatens to throw his favorite blanket into the ocean. Don Johnson has great chemistry with that alligator y’all.