Our review of Wiseguy: The Complete First Season, published September 7th, 2009, is also available.
"Here's to adrenaline—the nectar of the gods."—Mel Profitt (Kevin Spacey)
Still brooding after the disastrous end of the Sonny Steelgrave case, undercover agent Vincent Terranova (Ken Wahl) wants nothing to do with the Organized Crime Bureau of the FBI. Vinnie's handler, Frank McPike (Jonathan Banks), has other plans. He wants Vinnie to ease back into the job with a simple assignment: track a contract killer to find out what penny-ante crime family he works for. The killer, Roger Lococco (William Russ), is flamboyant, even rigging out a car with machine guns for a joyride.
But Lococco is no small-time operator. He quickly draws Vinnie into the world of Mel and Susan Profitt (Kevin Spacey and Joan Severance). The Profitts rule an empire of drugs, gun running, and vice from the deck of a splendid yacht cruising off the coast of Vancouver. Susan is a stunning beauty, and Vinnie finds himself under her spell. Mel…Mel is a completely different story. Can anyone or anything keep a lid on the time bomb known as Mel Profitt? Only the toes knows…
When Wiseguy made its initial television run in the late 1980s, it was an innovative blend of cop drama and soap opera. Creators Stephen J. Cannell and Frank Lupo decided that the life of a deep cover agent required more than the usual hour of story development. So they placed Vinnie Terranova close to Mafioso Sonny Steelgrave (Ray Sharkey) for half a television season, allowing the two characters to develop a relationship. Vinnie became torn between his loyalty to Sonny and the needs of the job, blurring the line between the cop and the man. Fans and critics were drawn into Vinnie's psychological conflict, and the show became required viewing for fans of the hard-boiled detective genre.
I know: I was one of those fans. Admittedly, I came into the Steelgrave story arc about halfway through, but I found Cannell's show unlike anything else on American television in 1987. The hero was conflicted; the villain was alluring. And I too was shocked when Sonny Steelgrave took his own life when cornered by the police. Wait—the bad guy died, on screen? The best character in the show gone? How could the show continue?
I am sure Cannell and company had the same concerns. They knew that the second half of Wiseguy's first season presented a formidable problem. If viewers were turning in to see Ray Sharkey outact Ken Wahl every week, why would they continue to watch? Just like Vinnie, they would feel betrayed and burned out.
Cannell's solution was to push the show to further extremes. If Sonny Steelgrave was Scarface ascendant, then Mel Profitt would be Scarface in the third act: a supervillain on a spiral of self-destruction, a risk to everyone around him. Drug-addicted, bipolar Mel needed an actor who could chew scenery spectacularly. A relatively unknown stage actor named Kevin Spacey stepped in. I remember telling friends at the time, "You have to see this guy. He's crazy." Sure, Joan Severance was (and still is) lovely and seductive. William Russ was also fun to watch. But Spacey was the guy you knew was going to break through.
But let's face it: Mel Profitt is really a James Bond villain. Spouting economic theories from Malthus, he is attracted to power and the attention it brings. Aboard his yacht, he and Susan hold cocaine-fueled orgies while plotting arms deals. Occasionally, Mel indulges himself, trying to buy a baseball team or planning the invasion of a banana republic. Lococco and Vinnie try to stay on Mel's good side and avoid him during his homicidal (and often suicidal) depressions, during which he favors games of Russian roulette.
The Mel Profitt story arc of Wiseguy, which runs 11 episodes, works best when it throws in plenty of surreal touches to keep the audience off-balance: a Japanese cop with a penchant for Yiddish expressions, Mel's creepy drug habit (he shoots up between his toes) and creepier incestuous relationship with Susan, Lococco's endearing use of the epithet "Buckwheat." The supporting cast is uniformly excellent. Series regulars Jonathan Banks (as the acerbic McPike) and Jim Byrnes (as Vinnie's undercover lifeguard "Uncle Mike") frequently steal the spotlight from Vinnie.
Indeed, that was always the chief weakness of Wiseguy during its original run. Ken Wahl, while handsome, was invariably overshadowed by anyone else on screen with him. Thus, the series worked best when Vinnie was not the only major character on screen. This proved detrimental to the series in later seasons, as Stephen J. Cannell left the show in the hands of show-runner David Burke and Wahl, who created shorter arcs with more simplistic villains and put the focus more on Vinnie. How many times did Vinnie brood over the memory of Sonny and quit OCB, only to be pulled in for one more case? I lost count by the time Wahl quit the show after its third season (Cannell hired Steven Bauer to fill in, and the show limped along for one more season).
Regardless of the declining fortunes of Vinnie Terranova in later seasons, the Mel Profitt arc of Wiseguy represents the series at its finest: unpredictable and willing to let its actors have fun. The Sonny Steelgrave arc may have been more solid and character-driven, but the Profitt arc crackles with energy. Of course, Kevin Spacey is the real star here, but credit must also be given to Joan Severance as the femme fatale Susan and William Russ, whose Lococco only pretends to be a heedless killer while hiding deep personal traumas. Roger Lococco is a sure sign of what Vinnie might become if he is not too careful: a man whose initial sense of morality has become occluded by misguided loyalty and the seduction of wealth.
Fortunately for the audience, Vinnie Terranova always manages to keep his cool, no matter what crazy villain comes his way. And Mel Profitt was the craziest of all. You can relive the adventure courtesy of DVD, now that Stephen Cannell has authorized the release of individual arcs of Wiseguy through StudioWorks. The arc's 11 episodes are spread over three discs, with a fourth disc adding a "bonus" episode from early in the show's second season (skipping a short arc in which Vinnie infiltrates a group of white supremacists) spotlighting Elsa Raven as Vinnie's very Italian momma. The rest of Disc Four consists of about 80 minutes of interviews with Cannell and Burke (who mostly talk about Kevin Spacey), Spacey (who generously praises everyone), Joan Severance (still gorgeous), Elsa Raven (who jokes about Ken Wahl's unibrow and admits she had the hots for her television son), and William Russ (who laughs that people still call him "Buckwheat"). Jonathan Banks and Jim Byrnes are nowhere to be seen.
Ken Wahl turns in a commentary track for one episode ("Player to Be Named Now"), but unfortunately it is not very good. Many of his comments are obvious (plot points) and there is very little behind the scenes information. He even admits that he hates behind the scenes stuff, because it spoils the illusion. Wahl has been retired from acting since a debilitating fall and botched surgery over a decade ago, and his resentment seems palpable. He complains about filming the show in Vancouver, he comments about his costars' egos, and he tries to take credit for an awful lot on the show. Oddly, he also insists that Kevin Spacey was a last-minute replacement on the show, a story contradicted by everyone else involved in the interviews on Disc Four. Oh well, on the whole, this is a remarkably disappointing commentary track. Wiseguy is a fun show, and I wish Wahl enjoyed sharing his memories with us more.
The first season of Wiseguy—the Sonny Steelgrave and Mel Profitt arcs—are still entertaining even after all these years. They showcase some fine acting and great suspense. And of the two cases, the Mel Profitt story is the more exciting. Now continuing arcs and extended character development are the norm for many television dramas, but at the time, Wiseguy took an enormous risk that paid off. So check out the Mel Profitt arc for some wild adventure—and see the performance that made Kevin Spacey a star.
Ken Wahl is ordered to lighten up. Stephen J. Cannell and company are commended for their fine contribution to the American cop show. Court is adjourned.
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