By Cory Barker
Season 1, Episodes 8 and 9: “The Great McCarthy” and “Glades”
Original airdates: Nov. 16 and Nov. 30, 1984
Previously on Miami Vice: Crockett, Tubbs and the rest of Vice met the new lieutenant, played by Edward James Olmos. Crockett dealt with bureaucratic bullshit from both Internal Affairs and the FBI. Bruce Willis jump-started his career.
Although I have enjoyed most of Miami Vice‘s episodic stories thus far (it’s only seven episodes in, but still), let’s be honest: The show’s strengths lie in the stylistic. The visuals, the sounds, the atmosphere. In his book Televisuality: Style, Crisis, and Authority in American Television, scholar John Caldwell noted that Vice (along with MTV, because apparently those two entities can never not be linked) existed as “landmark programming developments that changed the way television looked.” Michael Mann, though never directing an episode, established Vice‘s visual color palette—no earth tones, no reds—and the bright pastels took hold of culture, particularly on the fashion side. Even today, you could argue that Vice‘s primary legacy is in the fashion, popularizing the t-shirt/blazer combo, among other things. In that regard, the show often stands in for “’80s stuff”: pastels and excess.
And while I think that the show has more value than just those things, it’s impossible to deny the show’s stylistic triumphs. Even when episodes don’t really “bring it” narratively (like these episodes, sort of), Vice still manages to include one or more sequence that impresses visually or musically. More impressively, these stylistic flourishes are already almost as established or standardized as the show’s plot formula. Like clockwork, Crockett and Tubbs will go undercover and question how deep is too deep, and like clockwork, there will be a sequence with them in a vehicle of some sort, cruising as a recognizable pop song plays. The narrative conventions are obvious and slightly boring. But the transportation sequences? Still pretty awesome. That might change by the time I get to past the halfway mark of this season. For now though, I’m still quite charmed.
It’s not disingenuous to suggest that “The Great McCarthy” exists almost solely for the show to produce an extended boat race sequence. And I mean extended. Unsurprisingly, Crockett and Tubbs find themselves undercover* with an especially evil dude—one who might kill you if you refer to pool as “pool” and not “billiards”—who for a good portion of the episode disallows Crockett and Tubbs from joining in anything, be it his business ventures or this important boat race. The episode’s narrative is full of already familiar Vice tropes, like an informant/helper character being killed halfway through an op and Tubbs falling immediately in love with the mark. That’s somewhat unfortunate, but the final act builds to that damn boat race that all of the characters keep talking about.
*At some point, shouldn’t Miami’s finest criminals figure out who Crockett and Tubbs are? They go undercover every week. Wouldn’t a criminal or two talk about these guys at some union meeting or something? It’s a little unbelievable. Almost as unbelievable that so many women would fall in love with Tubbs and his sweat.
I think I’ve made my thoughts on GO FAST BOATS very clear but I’m of mixed mind on the big race that takes up a great deal of time here. From a production standpoint, the boat race is tremendous. There are multiple boats involved, it’s obviously shot on location on the coast, and the overhead, long and wide shots are quite impressive. I don’t spend a lot of time watching boat races but I have to imagine that what is on display in “The Great McCarthy” is very similar to both professional set-ups of said races and the television coverage of them. There’s no doubt that the sequence is visually and technically impressive—especially on a television budget.
Nevertheless, there’s something about those wide overhead helicopter shots that almost de-stylizes the aura of the GO FAST BOAT. The sequence, which is also as well-scored by Jan Hammer as most quality Vice set-pieces, feels, well, more like a sports telecast than an actual energetic portion of an exciting—but scripted—television series. There’s simply less energy in the boat race than I expected and its extended running time only further reinforces that feeling. Maybe that’s tough to express and I wish I could embed a clip to help clarify but alas, I couldn’t find one.
The complicated returns of this boat race reflect the biggest challenge Miami Vice faces with these prolonged stylized sequences of driving (no matter the vehicle): Do they serve a narrative purpose?
Scholars like Caldwell (and maybe even Michael Mann himself) would probably suggest that on the list of purposes for these sequences, “furthering the narrative” isn’t that high up. I can agree with that, but perhaps only partially. Vice‘s association with MTV links the two entities together under this umbrella of stylish, image-based postmodernity. Tons of articles and scholarship have been written about television as the ultimate postmodern medium, where the barrage of images (and intertextual references) comes quickly and without obvious referents, and where style matters so much more over substance (read: narrative). Even after less than 10 episodes, it’s easy for me to see that this show fits these descriptions. And as an image-centric show, I can appreciate the grandeur of extended sequences like the boat race here. Nevertheless, Vice has to battle itself a bit to make sure that the show isn’t “MTV Cops” in the most literal sense.
As it stands, the boat race, while not so much as engaging as it is technically sound, still falls under the “functional enough” category. The entire episode was built around the race, so it’s fair that the show spent so much of the running time on it. More importantly, it did serve a narrative purpose in that Crockett and Tubbs figured out the uber-particulars of McCarthy’s drug smuggling operation during the race (he used dummy boats to move drugs in and out of Miami during the race, which is a cunning distraction). I might have been a little bored by the time the race—and basically, the episode—came to a close, but I can see why it was necessary in Vice logic.
The same can’t be said for a sequence in “Glades” where Crockett and Tubbs make their way down to, you guessed it, the Glades, which in Vice‘s world is apparently full of the most backwoods people on the planet. (That may very well be true, but the show surely plays it up in what makes for a very fun episode.) The narrative function here is pretty minimal. We know that Crockett and Tubbs are driving to the Glades. The episode spends a few minutes showing us that. Again, it’s a wonderful scene from a technical standpoint and the production crew definitely deserves credit for pulling these kinds of things off on a weekly basis. Nevertheless, it’s a bit silly, especially with the kind-of-terrible Tommy Shaw song “Girls with Guns” serving as the soundtrack. Here’s a version of the scene that’s been toyed with a little bit by a fan:
It’s fine. I would just prefer that the show use these sequences to both amaze visually and do some interesting narrative or thematic work. Showing characters just driving from point A to point B, when they’re not really in danger, feels more like style for style’s sake. It’s not bad at all, it simply doesn’t have the same kind of impact that it could. And if the show takes this approach week in and week out, it’s eventually not going to be “fine.” It will be annoying or worse.
- I didn’t spend much time on the plots this week but “Glades” was pretty fun. All the local characters fit the broadest and most ridiculous stereotypes, and it’s still enjoyable. Plus, Crockett and Tubbs dress like fools. Well, more so than usual.
- GATOR WATCH: If I’m recalling correctly, there’s a quick shot of Elvis in one of these episodes. Yet the fact that I can’t really remember tells you all you need to know about the travesty that is the lack of gator here.
- GO FAST BOAT WATCH: Lots of them in “The Great McCarthy.” See above.
- This week in Vice music: “Go Insane” by Lindsey Buckingham, “Some Guys Have All The Luck” by Rod Stewart but performed by McCarthy’s house band, and “Born to Be Wild” by Steppenwolf in “The Great McCarthy”; the aforementioned “Girls with Guns,” “I Send A Message” by INXS, and “We’ve Got to Get Out of This Place” by The Animals in “Glades.”