Watchable in brief spots, but slow-going most of the way and ultimately, too hypocritical to warrant its own shady moralizing. MPI has released The Vice: The Complete First Season, a six-part British TV crime meller that purports to expose the slimy underbelly of the London vice racket. Featuring a familiar squad of detectives who must reconcile their own personal demons and failings with the harsh realities of the streets they survey, The Vice may want to throw out some sticky wickets about the joint culpability of criminals and cops and "the system," but ultimately too many shots of soft-core porn made The Vice's claim for titillation and exploitation - not moral outrage.
Premiering in 1998, The Vice details the exploits of Detective Inspector Pat Chappel (Ken Stott) and his investigative vice squad. Chappel, small, rumpled, intense and haunted by past deeds (we learn in the second two-part episode, Sons, that through a procedural misstep of his, a young boy was raped, tortured and killed), maintains a give-and-take police operation, frequently giving the actual sex workers a break in search of the "big fish," the higher-ups like the pimps that take advantage of the workers, and the money men who finance the illicit activities. Often at odds with his superior Superintendent Jeff Callard (Garry Cooper), who looks down on the vice department and suspects Pat is "bent" psychologically from all his years trolling the seamy side of London, Pat is further hampered by the strict legal limits that dictate what cases will yield convictions. Often, more obvious forms of illegality are ignored in favor of the standard "living on immoral earnings" charge, which is easier to prove, easier to convict - but also more demoralizing to the coppers who want to bust the criminals for their more despicable crimes.
Backing up the passionate, rebellious, hard task-master Pat is his equally familiar (to any regular TV viewer) crew. Detective Inspector Joe Robinson (David Harewood) is the dedicated, strong, silent anchorman of the group, whose character twist here is that he's a religious family man who wants Pat to be his son's godfather (believe me, in the dogmatically secular world of British TV, being a religious family man definitely qualifies as a "character twist"). Of course, to balance that out, we have WPC Cheryl Hutchins (Caroline Catz), a sometimes loose cannon who scoffs at Robinson's religious beliefs. And rounding out the group is PC Dougie Raymond (Marc Warren), a bit of a lad who's relatively inexperienced when it comes to vice work; his growing obsession with the sexual element of his duties will prove to be the most compelling element of this first season of The Vice.
Broken up into three, two-part episodes (at about 50 minutes each) that can stand alone, The Vice still has a couple of intertwining story arcs that run through the three episodes, linking the material. For the Pat character, he's involved in an unlikely adulterous affair with a married doctor, Christina Weir (Anna Chancellor), who works as a police psychologist. And for Dougie, his growing fascination with the sexual aspects of his job (in lieu of an emotional attachment lost partway through the series) will spell his doom with the squad.
The stories themselves present strong content. Issues and elements touched on include prostitution, battering, rape, child molestation, sado-masochism, bondage, various sexual perversions, extortion mutilation, and of course, the old stand by: homicide. And the series doesn't stint in presenting most of these issues full-on for the cameras. Those viewers adverse to seeing sleazy soft-core porn recreations of sex acts will most definitely want to avoid The Vice. They're prevalent, and they're unabashed. Which is fine, if the drama is meaningful. If you're going to do a story about a vice department in a modern big city, it would be difficult to adequately tell your story without featuring at least some illicit activity for the screen. And even if your drama isn't worthwhile, and as a filmmaker you chose to go the titillation route, then again; fine, as well. No one likes good sleaze more than me, particularly if there's some energy and life and some imagination put behind it.
Unfortunately, The Vice meets none of that criteria. It essentially wants it both ways, providing a consequential statement about corruption and sex in our modern society, while putting out plenty of T&A for the punters at home - with both elements getting shafted in the process. The Vice wants to "mean" something to the audience; it wants to be outraged, and by extension, it wants to outrage the viewer into coming to grips with the hard-core issues it explores. Pat is frequently shown with his eyes tearing up when he hears about the abuse towards the hookers and rent boys that naturally accompanies the sex trade. He rails against the "system" that allows this to happen, and against the civilians that provide the money to fuel the illicit operations. He's ferociously dedicated to his job, and he finds others' lack of concern contemptible.
But increasingly, The Vice's message gets blurred by its own method. Our flawed hero may not like what happens to all these workers, but we certainly get to see these acts in all their glory. The cops are supposedly outraged by the S&M tapes that are made in secret torture dungeons which frequently involve underage teens, but the filmmakers go as far as they can within the limits of British TV to show us those dungeons. Even worse, there are several scenes where various sex acts are being viewed on videotape, while the cops laugh and joke about them. Granted, the police of course are going to view this material differently than the general public, and the necessity to blow off steam would obviously present itself on a daily basis, but this is concentrated, focused drama, not reality. And when you shows scenes like those in conjunction with scenes of Pat crying over the abuses of sex workers (the same workers in the videos they were laughing at), you have some serious message-mixing.
And eventually, after the fifth or sixth gratuitous shot of people humping, worked in for little or no dramatic effect, we get the message that The Vice is just posing as a serious drama. Its outrage is hollow. And then we're right back to the titillation factor, which is ruined as well because we're constantly told not to enjoy this stuff. Worse than that, The Vice commits a far greater sin for a drama: it's boring. The pacing is curiously dawdling and sluggish, considering the material involved. The Vice should have a driving, heated pace; the method should match the material. But steely cool British reserve kicks in, and everything grinds to a halt. The direction is quite remarkably uninspired, and the editing 1-2-3. As for the stories themselves, they're nothing you haven't seen before, with zilch remarkable in either their themes or their evolution of ideas. Standard plot contrivances such as the "good hooker who just wants to run a clean business," and "the rookie cop who blows an undercover sting," and "the psychotic pimp who's really a nice family man" abound in The Vice, lending a decidedly déjà vu feeling to the whole enterprise. And one that isn't enlivened by any directorial flourishes, either. One of the series' potentially most interesting ideas - that Pat may be compromised emotionally by his years working vice - is hinted at several times, but frustratingly, is never developed. Instead, our lead is given the standard inner office romance (Dr. Weir may not be a cop, but her duties involve the force) which is never adequately explained in the first place (why Dr. Weir suddenly drops by his place, after meeting him at a social event, is never explained, nor her attraction for him), and which is astonishingly tedious in its execution.
Ultimately, the only storyline of any interest in The Vice is the Dougie subplot. Following the young copper's descent into sexual obsession and emotional bankruptcy, this subplot really delivers the goods, both from a thematic standpoint and from the acting chops of Marc Warren. The series is fairly thorough in showing how Dougie, who's rather immature in dealing with the complexities of emotions that come from viewing such pornographic material, as well as dealing with its purveyors day in and day out, starts to act out the fantasies he sees in his pornography, to the detriment of his long-time relationship with his girlfriend. Adrift emotionally, Dougie tries to find a hooker who will give him what he wants, only to find himself obsessed with her, thinking he's in love with her when in reality, she's only using him for money and information. Spiraling out of control, Dougie loses it and goes on the take, just to keep her near, until Pat figures out who the rat is in his squad, and gets rid of Dougie. That's what The Vice should have been all along; it's a compelling, well-structured subplot, perfectly acted by Warren as well as the gorgeous Sonya Walger as the duplicitous hooker Emma. Unfortunately, it's the only bright spot amid all the far-too familiar trappings - and shady moralizing - of the rest of The Vice.
Here are the three, two-part episodes in the three-disc set, The Vice: The Complete First Season, as described on the back cover:
Detective Inspector Pat Chappel reaches out to a battered prostitute in an attempt to nail a sleazy procurer who is a suspect in the savage murder of a high class callgirl.
WPC Cheryl Hutchins goes undercover to nail a nightclub owner who traffics in hardcore S&M videos featuring underage boys. When she shuts the operation down cold, Chappel fears the wider investigation may be derailed.
The team's investigation of an escort agency fronting for drug traffickers is compromised when PC Raymond is unable to resist temptation.
The full screen, 1.33:1 video transfer for The Vice: The Complete First Season is unremarkable. Interlacing is noticeable, as well as a soft blurring in busier scenes that may be the result of PAL conversion issues. A generally soft, dark, grainy picture, with muted colors, isn't going to wow anybody on their 42".
The Dolby Digital English 2.0 stereo mix is adequate for the job here; there's not much going on spatially, obviously, but the recording levels are agreeable. Subtitles are available, but they're erratic in their fidelity to what's actually said on-screen (who's doing the transcriptions over at MPI - or perhaps more accurately, the translations?).
There are no extras for The Vice: The Complete First Season.
With the exception of one good subplot involving a vice cop's descent into sexual obsession, The Vice: The Complete First Season is an all-too familiar retread of themes you've seen in countless other cop mellers. Worse, The Vice wants to cry "Foul!" while showing a conspicuous amount of gratuitous soft-core porn - satisfying neither the moralist instincts of the viewers that the screenwriters are pandering to in their obvious messages, nor the exploitationists who get a sour word from the filmmakers for every bare bum on display. About the best I can suggest is a rental for anyone obsessed with everything British TV (of which I include myself), but all others can safely skip The Vice: The Complete First Season.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.