Along with Hill Street Blues and possibly Crime Story, Wiseguy was one of the earliest attempts at creating multi-episode story arcs on American network television during the 1980s. Up until that point, conventional wisdom was to have stand-alone episodes – that way a show could easily be shown out of sequence once in syndication. Created by Stephen J. Cannell and Frank Lupo, Wiseguy featured high quality writing and a strong cast supported by an equally impressive roster of guest actors, many of whom went on to bigger things in cinema.
Cannell got the idea for the show after reading about the United States government’s deep cover program. He spent the next four or five years pitching it to the television networks but none them were interested until finally CBS agreed to make it. One of the striking elements of the show was its authenticity regarding the criminal underworld it examined in every episode. Cannell claimed that he never relied on technical advisors but rather he had “always been good at writing underworld characters. I have a friend who has a lot of friends who have been, how shall I put it – incarcerated.”
Wiseguy was a crime show that ran on American television from 1987 to 1990 and featured the exploits of Vincent “Vinnie” Terranova (Ken Wahl), an undercover agent working for the Organized Crime Bureau (OCB), a division of the FBI. His job was to infiltrate criminal organizations, gather evidence, destroy them from within, and bring those guilty to justice. The show does a fantastic job of maintaining a certain level of tension once Vinnie goes undercover as he is constantly in danger, especially dealing with unpredictable people like many of the criminals he encounters. Fortunately, he excels at thinking on his feet.
The first season featured two of the show’s most memorable arcs. Upon being released from prison (to establish his criminal credentials), Vinnie is assigned to infiltrate the Sonny Steelgrave (Ray Sharkey) organization after his brother Dave killed Vinnie’s training agent who had previously been investigating the crime family. Vinnie gradually works his way up and manages to gain Sonny’s confidence. Ray Sharkey is incredible as the unpredictable crime boss that constantly keeps Vinnie on his toes. He’s understandably cagey as deals get busted and henchmen are killed.
Vinnie answers to Frank McPike (played with wonderfully sarcastic dry wit by Jonathan Banks) and he is the one that assigns Vinnie his cases and supplies him with crucial information. Vinnie’s other contact is Lifeguard (Jim Byrnes), whom he contacts on a regular basis with updates on the case under the guise of Uncle Mike, in case the phone is being tapped. One of the things that is so good about Wiseguy is that it takes the time to show how being so deep undercover takes its toll on Vinnie. He comes so close to death on a regular basis and has to be a hell of an actor because his life depends on it.
The first season’s second story arc, and arguably the best one of the show’s entire run, saw Vinnie go after the multi-billionaire international arms dealer Mel Profitt (Kevin Spacey). In the process, Vinnie uncovers a crime syndicate in a whole other league than anything he’s experienced before. His way into this particular organization is through assassin Roger Loccoco (William Russ), who works for Profitt. Vinnie does a good job of establishing his cover – a Jersey triggerman who maybe small-time but knows enough about firearms to pique Roger’s interest. Their first encounter is a memorable one, crackling with tough-guy-speak as these two Alpha Males sniff each other out. Vinnie meets Mel’s beautiful sister Susan (Joan Severance) through Roger and she in turn introduces him to Mel.
I like how this story arc takes the time to give us a nice snapshot of the friction that exists between the CIA and the FBI. There’s an interesting scene where McPike butts heads with a local FBI officer and a CIA agent. Jonathan Banks shines in this scene with his trademark dry wit. At one point, the CIA agent verifies that McPike is who he says he is and without missing a beat he replies, “Most of my life. I was Batman in the third grade but that seems to have passed.” According to the actor, McPike was originally written as a “big, red-headed guy, strong and a lot more straightforward and burly.” He brought a dry, sarcastic wit to the role and the writers ran with it. The creator of Breaking Bad had to have been a fan of Wiseguy as the casting of Banks on that show contains echoes of his work in this earlier crime drama.
Not surprisingly, the one to watch is a young Kevin Spacey as the crazy, power-hungry Mel. His first appearance is a memorable one as he rants and rages about someone trying to poison his food. All the money and power he’s acquired has made him extremely paranoid. In another memorable bit, Mel interrupts a wedding of his Argentinian drug connection because he doesn’t trust the man’s soon-to-be wife. It is an audacious move and Spacey pulls it off with charm and conviction. Mel is a larger than life criminal mastermind seemingly coming apart at the seams and yet manages to just keep it together enough to run his vast empire – thanks to Susan and a regular shot of heroin. Spacey does a fantastic job giving depth to this first class nutjob, knowing when to chew up the scenery and when to pull it back.
William Russ is excellent as the ultra-confident amoral hitman who has a habit of referring to Vinnie, and everybody else he encounters, as “Buckwheat.” The actor brings a dangerous, unpredictable vibe to his character, which keeps Vinnie and us on edge early on. Russ had all kinds of memorable roles over the years, most notably in The Right Stuff (1983) and the T.V. show Crime Story. Joan Severance is quite alluring as the seductive femme fatale and she has good chemistry with Ken Wahl. As Susan tells Vinnie early on, “Most people are intrigued by my brother and me. I know a lot about intrigue. I intrigue everyone.” Susan is more than just a potentially dangerous love interest for Vinnie as the show hints at an incestuous relationship with her brother Mel. She plays well off of Spacey and it reminded me of what a shame that her career went down the rabbit hole of direct-to-video erotic thrillers in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
At the end of season one, burnt-out from a grueling undercover assignment, Vinnie threatens to resign. Frank puts him on a six-month extended leave of absence instead. Vinnie decides to return home to Brooklyn in an attempt to clear his head and enjoy some semblance of a regular life. Meanwhile, Frank gets promoted and his superiors put pressure on him to bring Vinnie back to work.
After a short story arc that saw Vinnie deal with a small group of white supremacists trying to take over his neighborhood, Wiseguy settled into its next memorable storyline. Eli Sternberg (Jerry Lewis) and his son David (Ron Silver) are clothing manufacturers struggling to reach a deadline on an order and need a lot of money fast. Eli makes a deal with Enrico Pinzolo (Stanley Tucci), a local businessman/loan shark who controls the garment industry via trucking. Unhappy with what his father has done, David asks the OCB for their help and in doing so help them bring down Pinzolo. Comedian Jerry Lewis holds his own and shows off his dramatic chops against solid character actors like Ron Silver and Stanley Tucci. It’s great to see these guys bounce off each other and sink their teeth in this excellent material.
Season three begins with Vinnie’s stepfather and Mafioso boss shot and gravely wounded in a mob hit. When another don is hit, Vinnie teams up with the head of a rival family (Robert Davi) to find out who from one of the other families ordered these hits. Robert Davi, who’s appeared in a lot of crappy films and T.V. shows, gets a meaty role to demonstrate what an underrated talent he is by eloquently delivering substantial monologues and playing an honorable tough guy.
After Ken Wahl had a dispute with the show’s producers and left the show before the start of the fourth season, his character was written out and replaced with the much less interesting Michael Santana (Steven Bauer), a United States attorney based in Miami. When his case against a powerful leader of a drug cartel falls apart due to a flawed arrest warrant based on information illegally beaten out of an informant, Santana is disbarred. McPike seeks him out in order to help find Vinnie who has run afoul of the same cartel. While Steven Bauer is a fine actor, it was hard to empathize with his character like you could with Vinnie whom viewers had grown attached to over three seasons. The ratings declined and Wiseguy was canceled after this season.
Ken Wahl does a great job over the course of the show balancing Vinnie’s tough guy act when he goes undercover and showing how staying under so long affects his emotional and mental stability while also wreaking havoc on his personal life – what’s left of it anyway. With every story arc, Vinnie is our entry point into a new criminal enterprise and part of the enjoyment of the show comes from watching how he’s going to infiltrate the criminal organization and not blow his cover. Sometimes his dilemma isn’t whether he’ll get caught or not but rather will he be tempted by the lure of power and money that surrounds him?
The show’s producers approached Wahl for role of Vinnie Terranova. The actor claimed that he decided to do Wiseguy because “I wasn’t offered any films and I’ve got to make a living.” At the time of the show, he seemed blasé in his approach to the character in interviews, saying, “I’m winging it with this character and as long as they like what I’m doing, I’ve got my job.”
Wiseguy plugs in the tried and true tropes of ‘80s crime shows with gun fights and car chases but they almost seem like an afterthought, something to appease mainstream audiences. The real fireworks are between Vinnie and the colorful criminals he encounters, like Sonny and Mel. Wiseguy broke the mold for crime dramas. Watching these episodes again reminds one of just how good it was back in the day and how it paved the way for crime shows like The Sopranos and The Wire among others.
Baker, Kathryn. “Wiseguy Could Take Off in New Time Period.” Associated Press. December 30, 1987.
Davis, Ivor. “Crime Heavies Give Thumbs Up to the Wiseguy.” Globe and Mail. October 3, 1987.
Knutzen, Eirik. “Up Against the Wahl.” Toronto Star. November 28, 1987.