Review: Miami Review, “Smuggler’s Blues” and “Rite of Passage”

Don Johnson and Glenn Frey in Miami Vice, "Smuggler's Blues"

By Cory Barker

Miami Vice
Season 1, Episodes 15 and 16: “Smuggler’s Blues” and “Rite of Passage”
Original airdates: Feb. 1 and Feb. 8, 1985

Previously on Miami Vice: Secrets about Castillo’s past life were revealed. Also, he wore a speedo. 

As I watched these two episodes of Vice, I realized a few things—or should I say I re-realized a few things. First of all, this is a show that does pretty similar things plot-wise each week and so the success of individual episodes is often based less on the narrative and more on the quality of guest stars, the use of music, whether or not there’s a GO FAST BOAT, etc. Second of all, my enjoyment of the show is directly tied to those non-plot-related elements, so even when the show goes to great effort to do a “big” (and even Emmy-winning) episode like “Golden Triangle,” sometimes it’s just not to result in something that totally appeals to me. I’m about three-fourths of the way through this first season and I only hated one episode (sup, “Little Prince”); the rest, I’ve liked a little more or a little less almost entirely based on intangibles like that. 

I don’t want to belittle Vice because I think it’s an important show that doesn’t get as much respect as it probably should. However, I also don’t want to ignore the things I really, really enjoy about the show either. “Smuggler’s Blues” and “Rite of Passage” embody the things I like best about Vice: quality guest stars, good music, and entertaining (albeit somewhat overheated) plots. One is somewhat intentionally silly, the other is unintentionally funny at times, but both episodes brought quality Vice to the surface. 

Don Johnson and Glenn Frey in Miami Vice, "Smuggler's Blues"

People make all sorts of noise about the “MTV Cops” shenanigans but I think that phrase loses its meaning when ex-Eagle Glenn Frey guest stars as a chill pilot who just happens to love playing the guitar. And oh by the way, Frey’s top-40 single “Smuggler’s Blues” was the inspiration for the episode (Michael Mann reportedly heard it on the radio) and of course appears in the hour a few times. Plus, the Miami Vice film would later base much of its plot on things that happen in this episode, so apparently, Michael Mann just really loved this episode (which was written by Miguel Piñero, the guy who played Calderone, just to make it weirder), or more likely, really loved Glenn Frey.   

In any event, “Smuggler’s Blues” is an episode that just clicked with me. Frey, who I only barely knew before this episode, isn’t terrible, nor is he particularly good either. The fact that his Jimmy Cole just keeps talking about how much he loves playing guitar made me laugh, almost as much as his occasional use of the word “cats” in reference to Crockett and Tubbs. Really, Jimmy is the kind of role you expect a middle-aged white “rock” “star” to ask to play in a random episode of 1980s television. If you told me that Jon Hamm was going to parody this on Adult Swim, I would believe you—but it wouldn’t change how I felt about Frey’s work. 

Plus, despite the familiarity of a plot like this, Vice tends to work well when Crockett and Tubbs are either out on their own or completely disobeying orders (I know they almost always disobey in some way, but I’m talking about when they really go off book), so the trip down to Colombia excels. The running time keyed me into the big swerve once Crockett, Tubbs, and Jimmy returned from their trip. It is somewhat unfortunate that Gina’s biggest episode involves her being tied up in a trailer as bait, but the heightened drama in the final act felt earned nonetheless. And from what I can tell, the production didn’t shoot on location (obviously), but there are some nice outdoors sequences that at least look different from the show’s first 14 episodes. 

In a lot of ways, Vice has a fine line to walk, especially with a viewing coming at it so many years later. The show definitely has a sense of humor and sometimes even gets some minor unintentional-but-still-sort-of-aware humor out of performances like Frey’s here, while still raising the stakes in a sufficient fashion. Gina’s kidnapping ran right up to the manipulative and overdramatic lines, but didn’t go over them. Sometimes, the show bowls right over those lines without even thinking and for whatever reason, that tends to happen a lot when Tubbs is primarily featured. “Rite of Passage” is one of those episodes, though of the now three “Tubbs Gets a-Sexin'” episodes, it’s certainly the best. God, what a terrifying trilogy that is. 

Of course, “Rite of Passage” works better than the other two Tubbs-centric episodes because his female companion is played by a damn fine guest star, Pam Grier. She has much better chemistry with Philip Michael Thomas than the previous two ladies (probably because she had chemistry with everyone through the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s) and the history between the two characters makes their still fairly rapid hop into bed seem more believable. Like Frey, Grier plays the kind of character one might expect her to play (a tough cop from NYC) but unlike Frey, she’s not accidentally entertaining—she’s just good. 

Pam Grier in Miami Vice, "Rite of Passage"

And despite the reappearance of this incessant need to have female guest stars sleep with Tubbs and all the ugly, stylized “love-making” scenes that come with it, “Rite of Passage” hits some solid emotional beats with Grier’s Valerie and her younger sister, who has decided to work as a prostitute for David (played by John Turturro!). When the sister gets killed, Grier does what she does: she’s emotionally vulnerable for a moment and then decides to kick ass. It’s all by the numbers with her star image in mind, but this is one of those episodes where the show takes the case and the people trapped in the middle of it seriously without nose-diving into awkward tonal shifts. 

Still though, I find it really weird that the show’s been more invested in Tubbs’s backstory than it has been Crockett’s. I wonder if the writers noticed that Crockett (and Don Johnson) was so much more likable and charming that they didn’t even need to fill in a lot of blanks with him, or if they recognized Tubbs/Philip Michael Thomas as a bit dull. It feels like there’s a little overcompensating happening… but maybe I’m just projecting because I like Crockett a great deal more. Nevertheless, this was Thomas’s best work since the pilot so maybe he and his character have turned a corner.

Other thoughts:

  • Richard Jenkins had a small part in “Smuggler’s Blues” as the DEA agent who sends Crockett and Tubbs south. He had dark hair, which was weird, 
  • and I wish he had much more to do.
  • Zito and Switek’s bug van is my favorite dumb part of the show. 
  • GATOR WATCH: Nothing. 
  • GO FAST BOAT WATCH: Again, nothing. I need my fix, I think.
  • This week in Vice music: “Smuggler’s Blues” by Frey (obviously) and “Lunatic Fringe” by Red Rider in “Smuggler’s Blues”; “I Want to Know What Love Is” by Foreigner, “Change Your Ways” by Rockwell and “Come to Poppa” by Bob Seger in “Rite of Passage.”

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