Mill Creek Entertainment // 1987 // 1045 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Victor Valdivia (Retired) // September 7th, 2009
His first wrong move will be his last.
When Wiseguy premiered on TV in the fall of 1987, viewers who hungered for a smart and gritty crime drama were overjoyed. As Miami Vice, then in its fourth season, spiraled into painful self-parody (alien abductions, anyone?), Wiseguy picked up the mantle dropped by that show and delivered a satisfying mixture of smart writing, realistic dialogue, and sterling performances. Wiseguy: The Complete First Season contains the stories that many fans feel were the show's best. While the presentation is disappointingly second-rate, the series itself remains worthy of respect.
Vinnie Terranova (Ken Wahl, The Taking of Beverly Hills) is an undercover agent for the FBI's Organized Crime Bureau, in so deep that even his own mother doesn't know who he really is. Under the tutelage of his handler Frank McPike (Jonathan Banks, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension) and with help from his researcher Lifeguard (Jim Byrnes, Highlander: The Series), Terranova is sent to infiltrate different organizations. This season, Terranova was sent on two assignments:
Discs One and Two
After spending eighteen months in a Federal prison, Vinnie is assigned the task of infiltrating the Atlantic City Mafia kingdom of Sonny Steelgrave (Ray Sharkey, Some Kind of Hero). However, as he gets to know Steelgrave, he becomes increasingly seduced by Steelgrave's generosity and astuteness. Can Frank save him from going over the edge as Vinnie's assignment estranges him from even his own family?
Discs Three and Four
Mel Profitt (Kevin Spacey, K-PAX) and his sister Susan (Joan Severance, The Last Seduction II) are wealthy, mentally unstable drug addicts, and lovers. They also run a colossal multinational drug and weapons empire that Vinnie must infiltrate. Brought in by cold-blooded hit man Roger LoCocco (William Russ, Boy Meets World), Vinnie attempts to uncover the Profitts' secrets but becomes ensnared in a complex and dangerous web of secrets and betrayals.
Wiseguy wasn't the first TV show to deal in extended dramatic arcs -- there had been several prime-time shows before then that had used lengthy serialized structures. What made Wiseguy so remarkable, however, was how it used them. In Wiseguy the extended arcs were integral to the story. This was not a typical cop show involving a homicide or mystery that could be solved in one hour. The core of the show is a problem that's much harder and complicated to solve: Can Vinnie Terranova continue to live a double life, week after week, day after day, without losing his sanity and soul? The grinding, punishing stress of continuously lying and smiling on the outside while recoiling on the inside is not something that can be depicted in one or two episodes. Wiseguy, in other words, became more like a collection of extended feature films spread out over eight or nine hours, with one story blending seamlessly into another rather than stopping in a specific dividing line. That seems much more commonplace by today's standards when shows on HBO, FX, and Showtime are regularly written that way. In the late 1980s, however, that style for a primetime cop series was almost unheard of. Wiseguy deserves credit for helping pioneer a form of storytelling that has since gone on to take over almost all one-hour dramas.
Wiseguy was also notable for another reason. Executive producer Stephen J. Cannell was primarily famous for producing such lighthearted fare as The A-Team and The Rockford Files. With Wiseguy, however, he ran riot in the other direction. This series stands alongside Miami Vice as possibly the darkest, bleakest, bloodiest crime drama of its time. There was none of the whitewashing of other TV shows here -- any character, no matter how beloved or innocent, could pay a horrific price for anything Vinnie did anytime during his infiltration. This was not done for cheap shock value; it was a way to demonstrate the crushing burden that Vinnie had to live with every day. During the Sonny Steelgrave arc, for instance, Vinnie has to decide whether or not to uncover another possible police mole in Steelgrave's organization, and he eventually realizes that, to his horror, whatever choice he makes will end up in someone's death. This added grittiness has made Wiseguy much less dated than some of its contemporary shows -- apart from the '80s fashions and technology, it would fit in comfortably alongside shows like The Shield and The Sopranos.
The Steelgrave arc that begins the season starts Wiseguy off with a bang, both literally and figuratively. Though Sharkey is suitably intimidating and magnetic, this is really about Vinnie and the unrelenting pressure he must endure every day; no other TV show or movie had so clearly explained just how grueling an undercover agent's life is before. The personalities of the show's regulars are also clearly defined. Frank, as depicted by Jonathan Banks, is a pitiless taskmaster who professes to detest Vinnie, but as the arc progresses, we begin to realize that no one will defend Vinnie more fearlessly than he will. Lifeguard, by contrast, is the more demonstrative member of Vinnie's team -- he's the one who Vinnie talks to regularly for advice. As for Wahl, he's actually underrated as an actor. One constant criticism is that his reserved style makes him pale in comparison to some of his villains. While he certainly doesn't try to compete with Sharkey in full flight, he successfully conveys Vinnie's plight while also giving Vinnie enough intellect and strength to show that he's no easily cowed pushover. The writing meshes perfectly with the performances, driving this story to its ultimate conclusion, when the relationship between Vinnie and Steelgrave has become so twisted and complex that it's easy to see the intense effect it has on Vinnie's sanity later on in the season.
If the Steelgrave arc was astonishingly vivid and gripping, the Mel Profitt arc positively tops it. This may be one of the densest, most ambitious series of episodes ever presented on TV. It begins with the brilliant but dangerously unstable Mel and his cunning and devoted sister Susan, weaves through an intricate mystery involving international munitions sales and drug rings, and ends up as an echo of the Iran-Contra scandal. Part of the credit for this being so memorable belongs to the actors. This is the performance that made Spacey a star and with good reason: he turns Mel Profitt into the most complicated and flamboyant villain in TV history. Scathingly funny, desperately vulnerable, and also viciously sadistic, Spacey's Profitt is unlike anything you've ever seen before and maybe since. Severance, for her part, makes Susan into something other than just a beautiful femme fatale. She gives Susan a delicate innocence that makes her most reprehensible acts all the more shocking. As the tormented hit man who hides a staggering secret, Russ is by turns menacing and endearing, all the more so when he refers to anyone he meets, friend or foe, as "Buckwheat." These performances, coupled with some exceptionally smart and knotty writing, make for what is arguably the series' high point.
As great as Wiseguy is, however, this is by far the least satisfying presentation it could ever get. For this collection, Mill Creek Entertainment has crammed all twenty-two 47-minute episodes into four discs. Naturally, this hurts the visual quality considerably, with the 1.33:1 full-screen transfer suffering from extensive compression and artefacting. Granted, twenty-year-old TV film is never going to look as sharp as DV shot recently, but this is not much better than watching the show on a worn out VHS tape. Even worse is the PCM mono mix, which is way too quiet. You'll have to turn the volume almost all the way up to make out the dialogue, so be warned when you try to watch another DVD that you don't blow your ears out. There are also no extras at all. Studio Works, a now-defunct company, originally issued Wiseguy in sets that were more carefully remastered with 5.1 surround mixes, fewer episodes per disc, and a healthy smattering of extras. They were split up into sets that covered each arc, so while it is nice to have all the first season episodes together in one box (especially when there are references to the first arc in the second), this presentation is hardly the way to go. Fans should also note that the Moody Blues' "Nights in White Satin," the song used for one of the series' most memorable moments, was not licensed for this set, just as it wasn't for the previous release.
If you already own the previous Wiseguy DVD issues, there's not much reason to spring for this set, unless you really want the entire first season all together in one collection and are also desperate to hear a couple of very minor incidental pieces of music that were finally licensed for this version. If you didn't buy the earlier issues, however, which were never cheap even before they went out of print, then this set is actually a pretty good purchase. True, the presentation leaves a lot to be desired but the show is so outstanding that you'll be willing to endure it. Plus, at a bargain basement list price of $14.98, you'll be getting the season that most fans feel was by far the show's best. Still, it's hard not to wish that a more appreciative DVD company had issued this collection, because while Wiseguy is a must for any fans of classic TV dramas, this reissue is barely passable at best.
Wiseguy: The Complete First Season is definitely not guilty. Mill Creek Entertainment, on the other hand, is guilty of putting out a cheap barebones DVD of a show that deserves better.
Review content copyright © 2009 Victor Valdivia; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Mill Creek Entertainment
* Full Frame
* PCM 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 1045 Minutes
Release Year: 1987
MPAA Rating: Not Rated