Miami Vice was one of the most groundbreaking television shows and blah blah blah… Michael Mann brought his electrifying vision to yadda yadda yadda… Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas and so on… Edward James Olmos etceteras…
I’m not going to waste any more time. I have decided to watch EVERY SINGLE EPISODE of Miami Vice and I want you to come along for the ride. The rules are simple: Look sharp and keep cool. The rest you’ll pick up as we go along.
Tonight’s Episode: RITES OF PASSAGE
Original Airdate: February 8, 1985
Written by: Daniel Pyne
Directed by: David Anspaugh
Notable Guest Stars: Pam Grier, Tery Ferman, David Thornton, Mario Ernesto Sanchez and JOHN TURTURRO as David Traynor.
TV GUIDE Summary: Tubbs rekindles his romance with an old flame, when she comes to town looking for her estranged sister. Pam Grier guest stars.
Right from the start, you can kind of sense that this won’t be a standard episode of Miami Vice – a fact that makes for some unusual elements, both good and bad, but a pretty satisfying hour of television just the same.
The first thing you’ll notice is that the opening is interminable.
The episode opens on a sunny beach; and we are asked to pay attention to this douchebag played by actor David Thornton.
The episode hasn’t necessarily told us anything about him. But he certainly looks like a douchebag at first glance. A fact that is confirmed when we see that he seems to be out on the prowl. His attention is quite emphatically drawn to this beautiful young woman, played by Tery Ferman, strolling on the beach.
I say emphatically because there is a series of quick jump cuts from a medium shot of the guy to his obnoxious, shade-covered eyes – set to the beat of the music that’s playing – to show us he has honed in on his prey. The music, by the way, is Bob Seger’s “Come To Poppa.” So… Yeah, he’s a douchebag.
We will soon find out that this man’s name is Lile and he is a gofer in the employ of a shady businessman.
But, before we meet his boss, we can be astonished by his social skills. He very swiftly convinces this beautiful young woman, who we learn is from Brooklyn, to have lunch with him right there on the beach.
And it is during this providential afternoon, that he also convinces her to join him at an illustrious house party run by “someone I’d like you to meet.” This “someone” turns out to be his boss – the aforementioned shady businessman.
He’s a well-to-do gentleman who runs “a modeling agency” that is “not Madison Avenue, but we do okay” and “I think you could do very well.”
And he’s played by John Turturro.
So, in case I was being too subtle, he’s a pimp is the point I’m trying to make here.
All of this – the elaborate musical opening, drawn out party scene where we see the decadent of Miami doing their thing… All this takes an operatic 8 minutes to unfold on screen and feels about twice as long. And at no point do Crockett or Tubbs make an appearance.
You have to admit that’s a weird and kind of risky way to open an episode.
But I guess they were riding high on the big ratings provided by Glenn Fry and his blues, so they felt they could take a gamble and open a show with a long, drawn-out sequence of devastatingly uninteresting events, guaranteed to make you switch over to CBS.
Those that stuck around, however, were treated to an engaging little episode that combines elements of romance and revenge thriller into an entertaining package.
It is after the opening credits that you find out what all that preamble had to do with the price of tea in China – it gives Pam Grier a reason to visit Miami.
We first see her by the docks, where a dead hooker has been found floating in the dark waters of Miami. She is NY detective Valerie Gordon, and she has come to Miami to find her sister. Thankfully, her sister is not the hooker floating in the water. Though this relief will prove to be short lived.
Meanwhile, Switek & Zito are staging a Laurel & Hardy short wherein Stan is trying to fix the mechanical roach ornament and Oliver fucks him up.
It’s not one of the better adventures. I’ve always preferred the one about trying to get the piano onto the 4th floor of that building or whatever the fuck it was.
And… FINALLY… Crockett & Tubbs show up, just in time to see Zito fall on his ass. They make some sarcastic frat boy quip or whatever and drive away like a couple of assholes.
Why am I being so thorough in describing how this episode chugs along in its first fifteen minutes? Basically, to illustrate how they are able to recover from such a crippling beginning. Because, frankly, all this stuff is just plain awful.
But just when you’re settling in for a real groaner, Tubbs bumps into Valerie at the police station and things finally get interesting.
Tubbs episodes are a mixed bag. But this, despite the seriously flawed beginning, is one of the best. There is a genuine chemistry between Philip Michael Thomas and Pam Grier. They are able to sell you on the history these two characters share and Thomas does some of his best acting. The show had been trying to really capitalize on his leading man chops and old-fashioned charm from the very beginning. But they were always saddling him with leading ladies who were dumb as posts. In this episode, they finally get it right.
You might recall that I had – to put it mildly – some reservations about Tubbs and his operatic lovemaking in previous episodes. Thankfully, director David Anspaugh seems to understand that less is more. We get tasteful, to-the-point copulation this time around. And both of the episode’s intimate scenes are integral to the plot.
And, once it gets going, it’s an engaging plot. We come to care about Gordon’s plight in trying to find her sister. It helps that John Turturro plays his villain as a genuinely repellent asshole.
He’s one of the best villains of the season and Turturro has a lot of fun with the role. He doesn’t go over the top. He keeps everything at just the right level of smugness calculated to have you hoping that Coffy will fill him with a satisfying amount of lead by the end.
It’s interesting to note that, by casting Grier, the showrunners were clearly capitalizing on her Blaxploitation roots. But Grier plays her role against type for the most part. It’s an understated, soft performance charged with genuine poignancy. You see that in her romantic scenes with Philip Michael Thomas and you also see it in the moments she shares with her sister. It’s the cliché of the protective big sister and the little girl who wants to make it on her own. But they manage to sell you on it.
The poignancy helps to keep things laid back enough so that when Grier does finally become Foxy Brown 1985, the result is all the more effective.
Besides Turturro and Grier, the episode has other interesting characters. There is the aforementioned Lile, and there is also frequent Vice stock player Mario Ernesto Sanchez. You already saw him as a sinister limo driver in Little Prince and you will see him again as one henchman or another in future episodes. But, here, he is Diplomat Roberto. That is how the character is listed in the credits.
He likes engaging in strong sexual content with what Turturro refers to as “virgin territory” and he has the power to do so because he has DIPLOMATIC IMMUNITY and, since “prostitution is a very common thing in my country,” his DIPLOMATIC IMMUNITY means he can do whatever he wants with whomever he wishes, virgin territory or otherwise, and this includes Grier’s sister.
In any case, Diplomat Roberto’s DIPLOMATIC IMMUNITY is not immune to the intense glare of Pamela Grier. So, even though he has DIPLOMATIC IMMUNITY, he still coughs up John Turturro’s name.
It doesn’t do much good, though. Because, although John Turturro may not have DIPLOMATIC IMMUNITY, he does have the best asshole lawyers money can buy. So he can sit there in the white room of interrogation and act like a smug prick all he wants, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. A fact that really pisses Tubbs off.
So there are interesting supporting characters and a compelling plot. But I was most surprised by just how much of a Tubbs episode this really is. What I mean by that is you basically forget Crockett exists.
Don Johnson was legendary in the 80s for having the sort of ego that made you want to shoot him out of a cannon into the Agean Sea. So I can imagine he must have truly hated this particular episode. Daniel Pyne’s script finds absolutely nothing for him to do. He is included in scenes simply because he has to be there, and almost comes off like a prop. He gets one really good beat that I’ll discuss in a minute, but most of the time he’s just there.
And it doesn’t help that the script calls for him to do or say relatively stupid things. When they go see Diplomat Roberto, and the receptionist is trying to use the DIPLOMATIC IMMUNITY defense to stop them, he tells her: “Hands off the threads, toots. Why don’t you go make us some coffee?” making you wonder if Diplomat Roberto’s office is actually a portal into the 1950s.
And, when they go storm John Turturro’s house party, Tubbs does all the action of hunting down the little sister, leaving Crockett to mingle and get propositioned by lanky ladies of the night.
It’s also somewhat out of character for him to so aggressively press for their using the little sister as a witness to bring Turturro down. Wait, I hear you saying… What about the time he used Bruce Willis’s wife… Or Candy James… Or those stupid kids from NY that wanted to be big time drug smugglers… Or when he threatened to throw Lenny Von Dohlen into the ocean…
Fair enough. But he tends to care. Here he’s really a dick about it. Though, I have to admit, the big blowout scene allows for an interesting insight into the dramatic tendencies of the show. You have the classic round table discussion with Tubbs’s patented histrionics and Crockett’s tried and true emphatic gesturing…
Meanwhile, Castillo just sits there sipping his coffee and waiting for them to finish deliberating. Then, when the dust has settled, he calmly says: “We’ll find another way.” It gives you an interesting picture of the three actors’ styles. And it’s very clear just why Edward James Olmos is so timeless in his work here. The show has campy elements that I love to point out. Especially with some of the acting. But Olmos still holds up.
Anyway, the episode recovers from its lumbering beginning and eventually delivers the goods with the requisite twists and a very effective, satisfying showdown; topped off with one of the best abrupt closers of the series.
When it originally aired, there was a message during the closing credits that said, “Stay tuned! Miami Vice has been renewed for a second season.” While flawed, this is still an adventure that probably had people smiling when they heard that.
And now… On with the specifics
SIGNS OF THE TIMES
Raise your hand if you were ever a passenger on the airline with these unforgettable colors.
THE CASTILLO STARE
“You’ve just opened yourselves up to LIBEL and ASSAULT!”
DOES TUBBS WHIP OUT THE SHOTGUN?
No. But there is plenty of heavy lifting involved when Diane pulls a Private Ryan and decides she doesn’t want to go home.
He also has an interesting way of saying good-bye.
I wonder if he enjoyed his time at the seminary before he decided to become a cop instead.
ICONIC USE OF MUSIC
There is interesting use of Foreigner’s “I Wanna Know What Love Is” during a sequence that juxtaposes Tubbs and Valerie’s frolicking in the sack with a tragic twist that brings the world crashing down.
Unusual song choice. But it is still rather effective. I guess “Love” is vigorously screwing your ex and laughing, while your little sister lies dying in a very unsafe rehab clinic.
THE FASHION THAT KICKS YOUR ASS
I love these delicious swim trunks that leave absolutely nothing to the imagination. Even though I don’t have the balls to use them.
I mean that literally and figuratively.
THE SWITEK & ZITO VARIETY HOUR
Switek & Zito do their part by crashing John Turturro’s party posing as exterminators.
As you can see, they use a subtle video-recording device that would fool Alan Funt.
MICHAEL MANN’S PENMANSHIP IS ALL OVER THIS
I mentioned that Crockett does get one legitimately good moment in the episode. It happens during the aforementioned musical interlude, wherein Tubbs and Valerie find out what love is.
The moment in which he delivers some bad news is appropriately moody and dramatic. It’s a real highlight of the episode.
A horrendous teaser and a terribly written Crockett aside, the episode still delivers an engaging adventure. The chemistry between Philip Michael Thomas and Pam Grier is very solid. You like seeing these two together. Thankfully, it won’t be the last time.
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