The Virtues of Miami Vice: “Phil the Shill”

For five seasons, Metro-Dade vice squad detectives Sonny Crockett and Rico Tubbs cruised the neon-soaked streets of Miami as soldiers in a seemingly endless war on drugs, guns and prostitution. For Deadshirt, writers Max Robinson and Jake Arant hit the pavement and dig into the very best episodes of Miami Vice.

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Episode: “Phil the Shill”

Written by Paul Diamond

Directed by John Nicolella

Max: After months of dormancy, The Internet’s Favorite Miami Vice Column is back on the mean streets of Online! Expect regular entries from Jake and I, at least until Aw C’mon Gotham resumes in April.

Jake, we’re coming back on a very strong episode that boasts probably my all-time favorite Miami Vice guest star: Phil Goddamn Collins. “Phil the Shill” is essentially one whole episode of Phil Collins having a ball as a scumbag con artist who finds himself caught between a drug dealer and the Vice squad. This episode opens with Phil Collins hosting a local TV game show pitting Miami Vice comic relief Switek against special guest goon EMO PHILIPS and, man, this is a very insane and weird start. LIFE IN A RAT RACE, JAKE. 

Jake: Max, the beginning of this episode is bizarre to the point of almost being unsettling for me. I’m not sure EXACTLY why, but it’s a helluva thing to behold. Switek and Zito have both called in sick to their Vice Squad jobs (which seems dangerously irresponsible) so that Switek can take a shot at winning $100,000. I don’t know who envisioned Phil Collins as the sleazy host of a public access game show, but it’s a brilliant move. I gotta say, I think Phil Collins really shines in this episode as a villain that’s just likable enough that you can’t help but hope he makes it out okay.

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Max: Collins is really great in this episode. I was surprised by how much range he displays here, given how few live action credits he has before/after this episode. Phil Mayhew is really the main character of this episode, which is an interesting change to the usual tried and true Miami Vice formula. Phil’s a big-time sleaze, but you have to admire how he talks his way out of bad scene after bad scene.

Jake: I gotta say, like Glenn Frey before him, I’m bummed Collins didn’t make a comeback in a later episode. It’s rare for Vice to feature a major villain as comic relief, but he plays nicely against the rest of the lighthearted regulars here, sharing a lot of really good scenes with resident doofus/informant conman Izzy. The episode obviously features a fair number of Collins’ songs as well, and they work very well with the unusually lighthearted tone. Max, it’s becoming a bonafide rarity to run into an episode of Miami Vice that isn’t a grim bummer, but I’d say that Switek shooting his TV to avenge a perceived slight against Elvis Presley ranks as one of the show’s all time goofiest moments. More shows should have Phil Collins going on a gaudy jewelry/Lamborghini shopping spree.

Max: Yeah it’s nice that this episode never goes *too* heavy; the darkest it gets is Tony Rivers killing two goons via bungie cord. The best parts of the episode’s focus on Collins’ slimy Phil and his almost mutually predatory relationship with Rivers’s main squeeze (The Closer’s Kyra Sedgwick!), which on one hand is great but on the other hand makes for a B-plot with Crockett and Tubbs that I found completely incomprehensible. Jake, thoughts?

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Jake: Crockett and Tubbs are pissed because Phil is endangering an arrest they’ve been setting up on drug pusher Tony Rivers for something like 18 months. Honestly, it’s damn near impossible to follow, although it doesn’t really seem to matter. They mostly spend the episode tooling around in Crockett’s Daytona and crashing coke parties, which has to be 100% the best part of their job anyway. As we’ve seen several times before, the episodes that don’t feature Crockett and Tubbs as leads are often very enjoyable because they reserve those characters’ clutch plays. Episode dragging? Have Don Johnson kick a trash can or pick a fight and get punched so hard he somersaults over his Ferrari. This episode STARS Phil Collins. Even Switek and Zito, the ostensible leads, are barely in it. Edward James Olmos is in this for what, a grand total of fifteen seconds? It almost feels like they were gearing up to develop a spinoff where Phil Collins roamed the country in an increasingly disintegrating Lamborghini Jalpa getting into all kinds of scrapes on account of how he’s a huge drunk dumbass from Wales.

Max: It’s really hard to focus on the actual plot of this episode because Phil Collins is just so delightful. Like, even just the bit where he shakes down Martin Ferrero’s Izzy and basically drafts him as his sidekick for an episode. I’m just going to list off some bits I loved here and you can let me know what I’m missing:

  • Castillo coldly docking Switek and Zito’s pay for a day and assigning them consecutive night shifts for lying.
  • Emo Philips basically playing himself on a game show.
  • The random doctors who love to buy coke?
  • Whatever the hell that fight scene at the start of the episode was.

Jake: Oh, I love that scene. Crockett intentionally dogs Tony’s big burly bodyguard into a fight over an imaginary scratch on his Ferrari so that Tubbs can plant a bug in his car. The palpable disdain they have for what they obviously consider to be “Switek and Zito Work” is really fucking funny. This whole episode is a weakly plotted head trip, if we’re being honest. The entire thing is anchored by Phil Collins’ very natural charisma and comedic timing. It takes some work to outmuscle Emo Philips and Kyra Sedgwick as guest star material, but he does it, and he makes it look easy.

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I think this represents something really interesting in Miami Vice, because it’s almost like the show is acknowledging how bizarre and shallow some of the elements it’s made of are. All the glitz and style looks great on Crockett and Tubbs and the usual villains, but Phil is just a regular dude who doesn’t really know what he wants. He wants what he thinks rich people are supposed to have. Watching him bumble through setpiece after setpiece in his stupid clothes and truly atrocious receding hairline ‘do is some of the most fun you can have with this show. This sure as hell ain’t the episode to watch if you wanna understand what Miami Vice is about, but goddamn if it isn’t a good way to spend an hour before you go to work.

Max: Yeah, on the whole, it’s not the kind of episode you’d show to someone to introduce them to the show or anything, but “Phil the Shill” is basically just a really fun oddity with some solid performances. If nothing else, this episode gave us Phil Collins in a bad wig pretending to be a televangelist.
NEXT TIME: “Tale of the Goat”

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