Judge Daniel MacDonald continues to have nightmares about Don Johnson's mullet.
"Freeze, Miami Vice!"
In its penultimate season, Miami Vice was falling behind in the ratings, and took on some questionable storylines in an attempt to recapture former glory. Did this creativity make the season an under-appreciated masterpiece or simply bad television?
Facts of the Case
As in previous seasons, Miami Vice: Season Four is comprised mostly of self-contained episodes with little carryover continuity, a smattering of guest stars who were less famous then than they are now, and opportunities for each member of the main cast to shine. Major events include Sonny Crockett (Don Johnson, Guilty as Sin) meeting, disliking, falling in love with, and marrying pop sensation Caitlin Davies (all in a single episode), played with increasing skill by real-life singer Sheena Easton; Trudy (I swear to God) being abducted by an alien who not only looks like James Brown, but who also sings "I Got You (I Feel Good)"; Tubbs (Philip Michael Thomas, Fate) and Castillo (Edward James Olmos, Stand and Deliver) learning about the plight of North American Indians while undercover; and Gina (Saundra Santiago, The Sopranos) flirting with disaster when she attracts the attentions of a vicious gangster.
The two leads have changed their looks a bit, Johnson sporting a rather large and stylized mullet while Tubbs has grown a beard, perhaps to hide the shame of appearing in some of this season's episodes. But their no-nonsense attitudes, and proficiencies with both firearms and barrel rolls, remain.
Miami Vice: Season Four has 22 episodes spread across five single-sided discs:
• Contempt of Court
Miami Vice: Season Four starts out strong enough, as Crockett and Tubbs navigate the court system while trying to ensure a brutal mobster, played by Stanley Tucci (Big Night), gets the prison term he deserves. The episode has no big chase scene or shootout; instead, we see a different side of law enforcement than has usually been depicted in the series, a refreshing change of pace that seems to signal a more serious Vice to follow over the next year. The next couple of episodes continue this trend of quality storytelling, although Brian Dennehy (Fail Safe) is a bit over the top in "Amen…Send Money."
Unfortunately, in the fourth episode and beyond, Miami Vice not only jumps the shark, but does back flips and sings show tunes at the same time. "The Big Thaw" finds the Vice Squad protecting the cryogenically frozen body of a reggae singer from a surprisingly diverse assortment of villains who want it for one reason or another. There are plenty of failed attempts at comedy, and the whole program is rather embarrassing for the viewer, so I can't imagine what it must've been like for the actors. It's a low point in the series, but certainly not the lowest Miami Vice will stoop this season.
That dubious honor goes to "Missing Hours," the aforementioned episode finding Trudy dealing with alien abduction over a surreal, bizarre 45 minutes; it's hard to know whether to laugh at the ridiculousness of the proceedings or cry over how far the once-great series has fallen. A close runner-up in the Miami Vice race to the bottom is "The Cows of October," wherein the entire plot revolves around a precious canister of bull semen from a miniature cow—the plan is to sell these mini-bovines to the Third World since they eat less food. Seriously. Also worth mentioning is "Rising Sun of Death," which, although it's not all bad and has the awesomest title ever, also features the slowest, most poorly choreographed swordfight ever put to film.
It's a shame that the quality ended up being so uneven, as crime writer extraordinaire Dick Wolf (creator of Law & Order) wrote the stories for many of the episodes, a number of which are very well done. "Child's Play," is a stand out, as Crockett deals with accidentally shooting a child in the midst of a takedown, giving Don Johnson a chance to show some real emotional range. And the Caitlin Davies episodes work surprisingly well, with "Love At First Sight" showing how hard it is on Crockett's new wife to be married to an undercover cop, followed by "A Rock and A Hard Place," wherein Crockett travels with his rock-star bride and learns that he'll have to make some compromises too. They're a far cry from some of the grittier episodes of seasons past, when realism and style were king, but the entertainment factor is high, and the characters at least remain consistent. Of course, from the moment Crockett proposes to Caitlin, we know what will eventually happen to her, but kudos to the creators for waiting until episode 21 to kill her off, and for tying her death to one of the better episodes of Season Three. Caitlin's demise profoundly affects Crockett's state of mind, and leads nicely into the excellent season finale, easily the season's best show: Crockett heads back to undercover work too soon, and when he's almost killed in an explosion, he loses his memory and believes he is the ruthless drug dealer Sonny Burnett, acting accordingly. The rest of the Vice Squad thinks their man is dead, and Tubbs is out to avenge his partner, while Sonny's villainous business associates start to suspect his crime-fighting alter ego. It's a great hour of television, slick and filled with unexpected twists, leading to a cliffhanger ending that almost makes you forget how hit-and-miss the season was as a whole.
Guest stars include Philip Baker Hall (Boogie Nights), a very young Ben Stiller (The Royal Tenenbaums), Paul Guilfoyle (CSI), Miguel Ferrer (Traffic), Penelope Ann Miller (Carlito's Way), Kelly Lynch (Charlie's Angels), Alfred Molina (Spider-Man 2), Ving Rhames (Pulp Fiction), Isaac Hayes (South Park), Chris Rock (Lethal Weapon 4), R. Lee Ermey (Full Metal Jacket), supermodel Iman, Lori Petty (Tank Girl), Harry Shearer (The Simpsons), and Oliver Platt (A Time to Kill). One wonders if it was harder to attract recognizable actors, even those as early in their careers as these were, as the season progressed, as most of the above-mentioned show up in the first half of the season. There's then a bit of a drought until Michael Wincott (Alien: Resurrection) and Julia Roberts (Erin Brockovich) appear in the last two shows.
There are a lot fewer musical interludes in Miami Vice: Season Four than in seasons past, which is especially unfortunate since regular composer Jan Hammer also did less and less of the evocative score himself. We do get some James Brown, Don Henley, Peter Gabriel, U2, Aerosmith, and another great usage of Phil Collins' "In The Air Tonight," a song synonymous with Miami Vice since its pilot episode, but overall the music is pretty generic.
Picture and sound quality are comparable to previous seasons, with the video perhaps a bit cleaner than before: there are fewer instances of grain, especially in dark scenes, and the colors pop appropriately. The sound comes to life with music, taking advantage of its Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround mix and exhibiting a surprising amount of low-end response, but dialogue and sound effects betray their stereo roots, with limited dynamic range.
Consistent with four of the five seasons on DVD, no special features are included.
An uneven season, Miami Vice: Season Four features one of the series' best episodes ("Mirror Image") and several of the worst ("The Big Thaw," "Missing Hours," "The Cows of October"). Casual fans will be better served by picking up earlier seasons, but hardcore Miami Vice addicts will want this one for a smattering of shows and its gripping finale. But a few good episodes do not a worthwhile season make, and all told I can't recommend it.
Guilty of betraying three seasons of excellent storytelling, despite a last-ditch effort at redemption, the accused is sentenced to watch "Missing Hours" on a continuous loop until ready to admit to crimes against humanity.
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