‘Wiseguy’ (Season 1): Stephen J. Cannell goes edgy, serialized, serious

Classic TV fans will no doubt want to cut a slice of birthday cake today for Stephen J. Cannell, the prolific creator of such muscular, iconic tube fare as The Rockford Files, Baretta, Baa Baa Black Sheep, The A-Team, Riptide, and 21 Jump Street. For a birthday treat, let’s look at the first season of Cannell’s critically acclaimed cop/mob series, Wiseguy.

By Paul Mavis

Wiseguy turns Spyguy and a couple of supporting players eat the scenery for breakfast, lunch and dinner. A few years back, Mill Creek Entertainment released a 4-disc, 22-episode collection of Wiseguy: The Complete First Season, the Stephen J. Cannell undercover cop suspenser that debuted in 1987, featuring the two best-remembered story arcs from that low-rated but critically well-received crime series. Ken Wahl is low-key but charismatic, while on-his-way-down Ray Sharkey and on-his-way-up Kevin Spacey compete for the most enjoyably overblown supporting performance of 1980s television (guess who wins). You probably remember Wiseguy as being better than it plays today, but it’s still a respectable effort for the genre.

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Atlantic City, New Jersey. Vincent “Vinnie” Terranova (Ken Wahl) has just finished up an 18-month stint in the joint, and it’s time to go to work: Vinnie is an undercover agent for the OCB (Organized Crime Bureau), a division of the Organized Crime Task Force, which is an offshoot of the FBI. Sent to prison on a manufactured charge (to establish his street cred with his potential underworld contacts), Vinnie now must live with the reality of being a convicted felon in the eyes of the world…as well as in his family’s. Under no circumstances can he tell anyone that’s he’s an undercover agent; the slightest leak could prove disastrous to his cover, and to the entire organization should he be tortured for information.

This being television, though, Vinnie of course tells his brother, Catholic priest Father Pete Terranova (Gerald Anthony) and his mother, Carlotta Terranova (Elsa Raven)…and anyone else who comes to figure it out. Almost immediately upon his release, Vinnie loses his original control agent at the hands of the Steelgrave brothers (Mafia kingpins in Atlantic City), so he’s assigned a new control: Frank McPike (Jonathan Banks), a hard-ass career agent who doesn’t like Vinnie’s rebelliousness and go-it-alone, wing-it attitude. Set up to infiltrate Sonny Steelgrave’s (Ray Sharkey) organization, Vinnie finds it increasingly difficult to put aside his growing feelings of loyalty and friendship for the charismatic mobster…even though Sonny is a psychotic murderer.

Later, when his assignment is finished with Sonny, Vinnie is moved to Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, where he infiltrates the multilateral corporation of gun-runner Mel Profitt (Kevin Spacey), a dangerously unstable heroin addict who conducts an incestuous relationship with his beautiful sister, Susan (Joan Severance), both of whom have become involved in international espionage operations, including the potential overthrow of a South American country. Not unlike the situation with Sonny, Vinnie finds himself drawn to mercenary/assassin Roger LoCoco (William Russ), a vicious killer working for Mel and Susan, who eventually offers his own twisted form of friendship to Vinnie.

I was a regular viewer of Wiseguy during its first season, primarily because of Ray Sharkey’s and then Kevin Spacey’s over-the-top turns as psychotic criminals Sonny Steelgrave and Mel Profitt. Their performances generated a tremendous amount of buzz in the trades and the state-run media, which only intensified once the tabloids started a feeding-frenzy over Ken Wahl and his successful foray into serial television. Prior to Wiseguy, Wahl was known at the beginning of his career (more in the industry than with the public) as a promising, hunky actor (in the Stallone/Travolta mold) who had scored some press with his turns in Philip Kaufman’s quirky cult film, The Wanderers in 1979, and his co-starring role with Paul Newman in Daniel Petrie’s urban cop drama, Fort Apache, The Bronx in 1981, which earned mixed reviews and less-than-impressive box office. Despite these tentative beginnings, Wahl, no doubt due to his striking good looks and his movie-star charisma, became the “next big thing” in Hollywood for a short period of time.

However, a disastrous teaming with Bette Midler in Don Siegel’s appropriately titled bomb Jinxed! backlashed largely onto Wahl’s shoulders (unfairly, too, since by all accounts it was frightening monster Midler who was the cause of the Jinxed! sh*tstorm) and seriously stalled his career trajectory. Flop follow-ups like James Glickenhaus’ The Solider in 1982 and Sidney J. Furie’s kinetic Vietnam war film/romance Purple Hearts in 1984 (which suffered a delayed release due to too much post-production tampering) certainly didn’t help matters with Wahl’s big-screen career.

So…when 1987’s Wiseguy came along, Wahl finally found a vehicle that could properly showcase his talents…on television. Believably tough when he needed to be, Wahl could also project a surprising vulnerability that, when matched with his dreamy good looks, provided an irresistible fantasy figure for women viewers–an image that importantly didn’t threaten the male viewers who tuned in, either. Unlike, say, the biggest star around at that time (five-foot-and-some-change Tom Cruise), big handsome lug Wahl actually seemed to like women, while projecting an easy-going, “regular guy” persona that both men and women found attractive. And that kind of accessibility plus charisma plus good looks equals “TV star.”

Add to that a format from TV veteran producer Cannell (The A-Team, The Rockford Files) that promised cutting-edge violence and suspense (by 1987 network television standards, anyway), along with two bravura performances by Sharkey and Spacey, and TV critics sat up and took notice that first season. Wiseguy quickly became a “critic’s darling” of the 1987-1988 programming year. Ratings may not have been spectacular (too much moving around the schedule by CBS didn’t help), but the buzz was good and all signs pointed to a long, successful run (subsequent production problems scotched that, unfortunately).

Watching Wiseguy today, I couldn’t help but compare it unfavorably though, to more recent forays into long-term story arc television shows dealing with the same subject matter–most obviously The Sopranos, for instance. Of course, it’s not fair to compare the two as if they were made on equal ground (considerations of censorship limitations alone for 1987 network practices and standards would negate an apples-to-apples comparison), but there’s no getting around the fact that although Wiseguy is certainly an entertaining show for its time, it doesn’t quite hold up thirtysome-odd years later, regardless of how high the bar has been set by newer shows such as The Sopranos and True Detective.

After this much time, it’s hard to reconstitute the media impression that Wiseguy was somehow ahead of its time or at the very least “cutting edge”–too much of it feels decidedly familiar (as it did for hard-core TV watchers at the time, too). Wiseguy‘s much vaunted story arc construction wasn’t at all new to television in ’87…just like such frameworking wasn’t suddenly invented for today’s millennial audience for this supposed “new golden age of television” (CBS’s biggest hit of the 1980s was extended story arc construction at its most broad and melodramatic: Dallas). As well, the plotting has a shorthand feel to it that smacks of still-rigidly controlled formatting indicative of 80s network offerings. Situations still seem largely coincidental, and despite the extended storyline, individual subplots are worked in between the commercials and the one-hour runtimes (unlike the organic, naturalistic, “unstructured” feel of a typical Sopranos episode).

Certainly the most obvious example of this comes at Vinnie’s infiltration of Sonny’s organization, and his almost immediate bond with Sonny. Having watched countless mafia and mob films and series by 1987, and having since seen the almost mundane (and therefore far more terrifying) nature of being a “wiseguy” in The Sopranos, Sonny’s instant trust in total stranger Vinnie is frankly, ridiculous. Top that off with Sonny putting Vinnie up in his hotel in a swank suite with all his expenses paid, and you have to wonder if Vinnie is Sonny’s new right-hand man or his lover. None of that set-up rings true; it’s too pat, too patently unrealistic, it’s too “TV,” for lack of a better word…and it’s the central plot mechanism in the entire series. You can enjoy it for what it is (a contrivance), but since Wiseguy seems to want to push the realism quotient for crime series, it’s a major flaw that is reflected all the way down the line of the show. Wiseguy‘s intentions are good, but its format is stuck in the shorthand unrealities of 1980s network TV.

Equally “stock” is rebellious Vinnie’s relationship to his by-the-book boss McPike, as well as with his dealings with his family (Vinnie’s mother and brother seem like refugees from countless Warner Bros. Jimmy Cagney/Pat O’Brien/Dead End Kids pictures from the 30s). Nor were Wiseguy‘s meditations on duty versus friendship in a cop/criminal relationship innovative, either (again: see Cagney/O’Brien as well as countless noirs and crime mellers from the 30s and onward). Critically, the series’ switch from “wiseguy” to “spyguy” as Vinnie moves from mafia-controlled Atlantic City to international hotbed of intrigue Vancouver, further negates the one genre strong point the series had in the first place: the inherent interest of a cop infiltrating the mob and betraying its familial codes of honor and trust. How can I muster any emotional involvement with Vinnie betraying a psychotic gun-runner, as opposed to his becoming a blood-brother with a mafia mobster who loves him like family? That may be why the filmmakers emphasized Vinnie’s attraction to Roger and Susan, since Mel’s international gunrunning seems so…cold compared to Sonny’s hot-blooded mafia shenanigans.

And while it may seem like a small point at first glance, the location shooting in Vancouver (a common practice back then to cut out the unions and save major bucks) only reinforces the unrealistic, manufactured feel of the series. Unlike The Sopranos, where New Jersey itself became as important a character in the series as any of the human actors, that weird, nondescript “otherness” atmosphere that always occurs when Canadian location work is passed off as a U.S. city permeates Wiseguy. How can the show be hyper-real, if it doesn’t even take place in the city and country it’s supposed to be talking about? Even more ironically, when Vancouver is directly labeled as the city of origin for the Mel Profitt story arc, the filmmakers still fail to make the location work strong enough for the city to factor into the story in a meaningful way.

Which then leaves us with the performances. If anyone remembers anything about Wiseguy, they remember Sharkey’s and Spacey’s performances as crazed mafia chieftain Sonny Steelgrave and even crazier gunrunner Mel Profitt. Viewing these turns today, they’re certainly enjoyable just from a standpoint of pyrotechnics, but they’re hardly “realistic” in context with the stories. Sharkey, whom I remembered as scary in the role of Sonny, now seems to be giving a performance bordering on the comical…with Sharkey well-aware of the humor in the piece (watching him, you can see him frequently smile to himself or stifle a guffaw at the broadness of what he’s doing). That’s not a slam against Sharkey (a brilliant actor brought down by his own demons); however, critics at the time remarked at how realistic the performance was, but it doesn’t feel realistic today. It’s hammy, but delightfully so.

As for Spacey…he always tries too hard (make your own joke there). While initially that was exciting with his big-screen performances, it eventually wore thin even for die-hard fans and he burned out rather quickly, seemingly giving the same performance again and again in films people stayed away from (until he crawled back to television with House of Cards). Here, as the whacko Mel Profitt, you can see the whole future arc of Spacey’s big screen career as he starts out creating a fascinating, unpredictable character…and winds up stinking up the joint by overacting in an almost grotesque manner (to be fair, there probably wasn’t much he could do as the story arc descended into supreme silliness, with voodoo rituals taking over for international covert operations). Again, you can enjoy this performance for what it is–theatricality at the expense of verisimilitude–but it’s hardly realistic…and that’s what Wiseguy is supposed to be going for here.

Thankfully, Jonathan Banks and especially Jim Bynes do good work as McPike and Lifeguard (a fascinating character that should have had more screen time–Bynes brings quite a bit more to the character than what appears in the scripts). Ironically, it’s Ken Wahl today who seems to come off better than either Sharkey or Spacey, with his believable underplaying looking natural against the grandstanding of his two supporting players (where is Ken Wahl today?). Whether it was bad luck or bad behavior (or a combination of both, along with physical setbacks), it’s a shame that talented Wahl’s swan song would be Wiseguy.

PAUL MAVIS IS AN INTERNATIONALLY PUBLISHED MOVIE AND TELEVISION HISTORIAN, A MEMBER OF THE ONLINE FILM CRITICS SOCIETY, AND THE AUTHOR OF THE ESPIONAGE FILMOGRAPHY. Click to order.

2 thoughts on “‘Wiseguy’ (Season 1): Stephen J. Cannell goes edgy, serialized, serious”

  1. I had forgotten about this show but I loved watching it when I was young. I thought Ken Wahl was the most absolute gorgeous thing I’ve ever seen. And Jim Bynes was amazing, even more so a few years later when he was in the Highlander TV series. I definitely agree that it’s dated TV though, but my God Ken Wahl was a beautiful man.

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