Culture

Vice, Vice, Baby, To Go, To Go

You can’t sing the theme song. You can’t hum it. You can’t mistake it for anything else:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M1JTj6rssW4

Ahhhh, 1984. The long malaise was over, and morning in America meant women in bikinis walking out of a post-modern condo with a hole in the middle. Boats thrusting and crashing in the waves! Parrots scratching their heads! JAI-ALAI, for heaven’s sake.

The show’s basic concept wasn’t exactly novel: a sunny location, like Hawaii 5-0, with a burnt-out cop teaming up with someone who wasn’t like him at all. Would these mismatched archetypes learn to get along and like each other? “MTV Cops” was the famous phrase that created the show, but you might as well have said “Odd Couple in Armani.” But it seemed unlike anything else, because it had Phil Collins on the soundtrack. Once they played the ominous opening of “In the Air” while streetlights played over the polished hood of Crockett’s sportscar, everything changed.

Or so it seemed, back then. Wow: real music. MTV bleeding into the network feed from the far end of the cable spectrum. When a cop show in the 70s played “rock,” it was jangly, trebly tripe that let Mom and Dad know the plot was serving up some hippies or switchblade jockeys or some other dangerous element. While the show’s music choices today seem tame or tired — really, two Glenn Frey songs? Two? — the use of Actual Pop brought an immediacy to the show you couldn’t get any other way. Jan Hammer’s scores did more than fill in the spots between songs  from the staccato snares of the opening to the moody doomed languor of the slower numbers. His idiosyncratic synth sounds framed the entire series.

The plots — well, there’s only so many times you can run a sting and bring down some dealers, so things had to get . . . complicated. An episode recap from the Miami Vice wiki:

Crockett gets wired up for his meet with Charlie while Tubbs prepares for the Clemente/Rojas meet. Zito gives Crockett a special-made briefcase made of bulletproof steel to help him with Charlie. Tubbs and Gina track down Gravas and he, being nothing but a cheap gofer, can only tell them that Clemente wants to “see Maria dance again”. At the meeting Maria and Clemente embrace, but Maria pulls a knife and stabs Clemente to death, screaming over and over “I had to do it, I told you he was going to kill me!” before a sniper shoots and kills her. Crockett meets Charlie at the same secluded quarry.

Charlie shoots Crockett but hits the case, and Zito (who followed Crockett) begins firing from atop the rock pile, distracting Charlie long enough for Crockett to shoot him.

That’s about half of the last act. Doesn’t really narrow it down, does it?  Crockett usually shot someone. Sometimes it was Tubb’s turn, if he hadn’t done much that episode but swan around in an elegant double-breasted suit and peer at people like some big silent cat. If it was a very special episode, Castillo might show up and shoot someone, which would only make him even more somber and haunted. Castillo was one of the finest things about the show: a tortured wreck of a man who had gravitas in black-hole-density quality, he spoke in a husky whisper, always staring at some point on the floor which represented Everything He’d Seen In This Life, or perhaps where someone had spilled some coffee. In one episode, “Bushido,” he went full-ninja on a Russian agent, facing down a pistol with a sword and a scowl, accompanied by a moody Kate Bush tune on the soundtrack. (Crockett shot the agent.) Nothing made him happy. But for grins around the station house, there was the Fat Guy and the Skinny Guy, who wore loud shirts and yukked it up and did things to keep the second unit busy while the first unit filmed the stars. Let us not forget Trudy and Gina, the policewomen who must have had a difficult time dressing for work, because one day it’s sitting around the office doing paperwork, and the next day it’s out on the street dressed like a hooker.

Once they settled into these characters after the first season, no one moved off the dime for the rest of the run. Didn’t matter. The show wasn’t about them. It was the Sorrows of Sonny Crockett, for the most part. Everyone he knew, or met, or bumped into at the grocery store, ended up poorly. He got a new girlfriend? Turns out she’s shooting up between her toes. (Helena Bonham Carter played that role, in a rather unlikely bit of casting, but the show’s casting, by Bonnie Timmermamn, was always superb.) Having never seen On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Sonny finally got married, which of course meant his bride would die. (Sheena Easton was the wife — she played a singer, of all things.) All the personal hell took a toll, and one day Sonny climbed in his superpowered Cigarette boat, tied the show to the stern, dragged it up the ramp, and jumped the shark so spectacularly it made an Evil Knievel canyon jump look like a hop over a sidewalk crack. Sonny went NUTS. Sonny thought he was his drug-dealing alter ego, Burnett. The ratings had been dropping for the fourth season, and this plot was proof that the show was tired and lost. It was cancelled after the fifth season, and fans would have to wait decades for a movie — and then they’d get something dark and muddled that seemed to share only a name.

The success of Vice meant greenlights galore for Mann’s production company, and two more stylish cop shows followed: Crime Story, and Private Eye. The latter was a cops-and-mobsters show set in 60s Chicago, moving to Las Vegas in the second season to goose the ratings; it’s now available on Blu-Ray, and it’s remarkably good — better than Vice, really, even if the tale of the mob in Sin City has been told as many times as the fall of the Roman Republic. It’s the other side of the Man Men era.  Private Eye starred Michael Woods as Marlowesque detective in 1956 L.A.; lasted half a season. Turns out that people didn’t want stylized cop dramas with period music and excellent production values. They wanted Crockett and Tubbs, Phil Collins on the soundtrack, sun, skin, pastel hues, and decadence.

Or what passed for it back then, anyway. When sunbathing Arielle Dombasle took off her T-shirt and cooled it in a bowl of Evian water, that said it all. Sonny fell for her, of course, even though she was married to a drug-dealing murderer (Ted Nugent). Here’s the end of the episode — it’s the one described in the wiki entry above, “Definitely Miami”  — and it’s probably the only moment in human history when someone thinks that’s Ted Nugent but it’s actually Don Johnson:

Things to note:

1:23 Sonny puts on the glasses.

1:50: She’s wearing heels on the beach.

The excerpt shows everything that would become mannered and clichéd, and it’s also a perfect example of how the original songs were taken out of their creators’ hands and turned into mood music for Sonny Crockett’s troubles. “Cry” was a song by Godley and Creme, the talents behind 10cc, and they spent their post-10cc career as brilliant eccentrics, turning out progressive rock that could be chilly one second and lushly romantic the next. They were also  pioneers in the music-video field, and their video for “Cry” was the first mainstream example of “morphing” — one sobbing face turning into another, ending with the mugs of Godley and Creme themselves as the vocals are pitched up to an absurd falsetto. It’s possible the entire song was a parody of Top 40 music, but once it was slapped on a Vice finale it because something else entirely. The soundtrack for the Woes of the Stubbled One.

But here’s the thing: no one else was doing this. No one else ever had. And no one can ever do it again, because they’ll never be the first.

PS: the actress in the clip above is now married to Bernard Henri-Levy.

PPS. From the comments at YouTube:

Only now I noticed that the colour of the uniform of the cops are the same from “GTA Vice City.”

Sigh. Kids today.