Wiseguy: The Complete First Season
August 25, 2009
Wiseguy was a crime show that ran on American television from 1987 to 1990 and featured the exploits of Vincent “Vinnie” Terranova (Wahl), an undercover agent working for the Organized Crime Bureau (OCB), a division of the FBI. His job is to infiltrate criminal organizations, gather evidence, destroy them from within, and bring those guilty to justice. Co-created by T.V. mogul Stephen J. Cannell, Wiseguy broke the mould for crime dramas by featuring story arcs involving several episodes all relating to one of Vinnie’s investigations. 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 (Sharkey) organization after his son 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 quite good 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 McPhee (played with wonderfully sarcastic dry wit by Banks) and he is the one that assigns Vinnie his cases and supplies him with crucial information. Vinnie’s other contact is Lifeguard (Bynes), 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 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 – 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 (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 (Russ), who works for Profitt. Through him he meets Mel’s beautiful sister Susan (Severance) who introduces him to Mel.
William Russ is excellent as the ultra-confident amoral hitman who has a habit of referring to Vinnie as “Buckwheat.” He’s 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, a veteran of direct-to-video erotic thrillers in the late 1980s and early 1990s, is quite alluring as the seductive femme fatale with a twist – hints of an incestuous relationship with brother Mel. Not surprisingly, the one to watch is a young Kevin Spacey as the crazy, power-hungry Mel. He’s 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.
This is a thoroughly engrossing story arc with fascinating characters and a rock solid cast reminding one of just how good Wiseguy was back in the day, paving the way for crime shows like The Wire.