MPI // 1999 // 300 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Kristin Munson (Retired) // March 26th, 2008
"I must've seen all the female organs in Southern California and
Southeast Asia. I've seen everything in Western Europe." -- PC Dougie
"No you haven't. And you won't, so don't hold your breath." -- PC Cheryl Hutchins
It's fitting that The Vice has Portishead's "Sour Times" for a theme song because the series has something in common with '90s alt-rock music videos: It's sleaze dressed up with good lighting and a shiny glaze and it doesn't let plot or characters get in the way of its lurid thrills. Who needs P&C when you have T&A?
The Vice follows the work of a London area vice unit as the team investigates all manner of prostitution and porn-related crimes. Because many characters are interchangeable and underdeveloped, let's forgo the usual description and just follow along with the DVD cover. From left to right we have PC Cheryl Hutchins (Carolyn Catz, Murder in Suburbia), D.I. Joe Robinson (David Harewood, Blood Diamond), D.I. Pat Chappel (Ken Stott, Rebus), PC Dougie Raymond (Marc Warren, Hustle: Complete Season Four), and PC Not Appearing on This Set (Shamelessly Stolen, Monty Python and the Holy Grail).
Season 1 consist of six episodes divided into three arcs, each on its own disc.
* "Daughters," 1 and 2
The pursuit of a high-end pimp becomes a murder case when an escort is apparently killed while vice officers are outside working surveillance.
* "Sons," 1 and 2
While investigating a club owner for making S&M porn starring underage boys, the unit finds information that ties him to the murder of an informant. When Cheryl blows the sting operation, the team has to scramble for leads before the suspect can find another star, and another victim.
* "Dabbling," 1 and 2
The unit is supposed to be collecting evidence on an escort service fronting a drug ring, but Chappell is more interested in the robbery and harassment of a call girl he knows. Undercover work pushes Dougie over the edge.
With its seedy storylines and morally questionable police officers, The Vice seems to be making a play for Prime Suspect's audience, but it fails miserably by sacrificing elaborate, gripping crime stories for cheap titillation.
There are only so many criminal plots to spin out of the world's oldest profession, so The Vice conserves its resources for future seasons by doling out the story in miserly increments. "Dabbling" spends maybe 20 of its 100 total minutes on the main story of the coke-dealing escort service and the rest on a blackmail plot and simulated sex. So much is cut for irrelevant looks at the squad's personal life or inter-office problems that the mystery's solutions are convoluted and rely more on dumb luck than actual detective skills. When the unit does manage to close a case, it's because witnesses or suspects decide to spill their guts to a squad member at the last minute and for no apparent reason.
Rather than take the time to create a good plot to go with the salacious subject matter, the program tries to obscure its lazy writing with bosoms and behinds, hoping if they show you enough nipples and un-enhanced breasts, you'll blur out everything else. The series kicks off with a rape told in the fragmented visuals of a frightened eye, a hand clawing a table, and a mouth obscured by clutching fingers; it's subtle, disturbing, and effective. By the end of the season, these "edgy" moments border on soft porn and revel in their nastiness. There's brief glimpse of a sobbing topless teenager, played by an actress who actually looks 15, and a scene with a clothed escort riding a naked customer to completion and then padding off to the bathroom with the soiled condom dangling from her fingers. They're scenes designed solely to provoke a reaction and add nothing to the story other than an overall sense of grime.
What The Vice does have in its favor is a strong cast of experienced actors, which it then leaves struggling under the weight of contradictory and nonsensical character developments. Each officer's personality is left intentionally vague so they can be plugged into different plots as necessary; in one story, Cheryl is made a liaison because she's level-headed, the next she's ordered to see a shrink because her out of control emotions get in the way of her assignment. What the writers don't seem to understand is the difference between fallible and horrible, so Ken Stott plays a character written as noble and yet always engaging in questionable behavior. He sends Cheryl to see his psychiatrist lover -- even though he doesn't believe in therapy -- because he feels she needs help, but when the doctor refuses to sleep with him as long as Cheryl is a patient, he lets his sick subordinate leave treatment. To make the unpleasant coppers look better, the villains are positively cartoonish, like the pimp who forces a father to smell his daughter's underwear or the escort service manager who has interviewees audition, giving a whole new meaning to the phrase "oral exam."
There are no extras on the set, but the DVDs do offer a truly terrible set of closed captioning. Words are frequently misspelled or misunderstood. There are some laughs from the call girl vacationing "in the Chez Selles" and the garbled slang ("ponce" becomes "punce"), but some dialogue has been so mangled that the captioning makes no sense. "I'd adore that," is transcribed as "And all of that."
The series may play out like a badly written mystery novel but it's almost so bad it's good. I burned through the last four episodes in one sitting because they are so airy and meatless. The full frame picture is intentionally dark and grungy and the 2.0 stereo well-balanced, giving the show a properly gritty atmosphere.
Marc Warren, with his feral, expressive mouth, is the one actor to really tear into his schizophrenic character. Dougie is introduced as a cheeky cad, whose work on the squad turns him into a sex fiend who almost rapes his girlfriend, but after one night with a hooker is a gooey-eyed romantic. There's no cohesion, so Warren just plays him as three separate people, and is the only guy to go nude, partially balancing the boob quotient by stripping down to nothing but a strategically-placed hand towel.
The Vice is like reading Ellery Queen with a spank magazine tucked inside. Occasionally you'll get a dollop of plot, but mostly you feel like a voyeur.
Guilty. All parties are sentenced to hard time in a hot shower.
Review content copyright © 2008 Kristin Munson; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 300 Minutes
Release Year: 1999
MPAA Rating: Not Rated