“Damn, TV has changed.” --Eddie Murphy, 48 Hrs.
One's own personal neuroses should, for their lone redeeming quality, entertain oneself, otherwise what the fuck good are they? Among mine—which are legion—the one that amusexasperates me the most is my inability to follow more than one TV show at any given point in my life. I get overloaded trying to follow more than one of these massive serial narratives at once; I guess this is half my own glitchy intellect and half every fucking show nowadays is this massive epic. Right now I'm giving Game of Thrones a longer chance than I thought I would a couple weeks ago. The first episode—with the major exception of that rape scene that apparently wasn't a rape scene in the book—I liked. The second and most of the third I spent wondering who the fuck all these people were and whether the blonde chick with the eyebrows was going to have to have a sex scene shoehorned into every episode (I mean, come on, she's attractive, and looks great with her clothes off, but every time she shtups Conan the Barbarian I'm like, “oy, I guess rape trauma is a 24 hour bug in Westeros . . .”). The fourth and fifth eps won me back a bit, enough so that I think I'll make it to the end of the season. The scene where Cersei and Robert took time out from their zillions of nefarious schemes to have a husband-and-wife glass of wine is what did it: it was such a well-written and acted scene that even though the goddamn story of this show is still a brain-buster, I feel like I owe it my full attention. It has its problems, but it also has people cutting each other up with swords and Peter Dinklage fucking owning everything in sight. Especially since the supernarrative is starting to cohere, I'll give it another month and a half.
As much as it make me sound like a cementhead old person saying this, I kind of miss the days when TV shows were like, if you missed one episode because you were out having sex and another one because you were winning at poker you could tune in on the odd slow Monday night and the show would still make sense. And yes, I know everybody except me has DVR, rendering this largely moot. But I still think some TV writers—and you best believe I'm tsk-tsking at those Game of Thrones dudes—get too comfortable with the whole “people are gonna be watching this over and over on DVR anyway” thing and end up jerking off to themselves for being clever and oblique and stuff. I do long for the halcyon days when it was not thus. But I also have to admit I'm a fan of the very first show to start this trend. And I'm not talkin about The Sopranos. Or even OZ. Or even you wiseasses in the back row who said Twin Peaks. I've got plenty of love for all three of those (well, the first two and a half seasons of The Sopranos, anyway), but I'm talkin about a show that predates 'em all: Wiseguy.
Wiseguy was the brainchild of prolific TV writer-producer Stephen J. Cannell, who created and presided over a staggering array of popular television shows in the 70s and 80s, most notably The Rockford Files, The A-Team, and 21 Jump Street. Wiseguy is his most ambitious show, eschewing the autonomous episode format in favor of multi-episode “arcs,” which is basically what all television dramas are today. Other shows might have tried this before, but none on the scale Wiseguy did.
The show's protagonist was Vinnie Terranova, a deep-cover agent of a fictional FBI organized crime unit. As played by Ken Wahl, Vinnie was a deeply compelling protagonist, managing to have enormous internal conflicts without ever becoming too emo (well, at least until the end of the fourth season, but that might have just been because Ken Wahl wanted to go do movies), plausible as both tough and smart. Vinny Terranova's a mensch. A stand-up guy. This is what leads to his massive internal conflict, as his job requires him to be the very antithesis, underlining how much easier it is for actors and undercover cops to do their jobs if they're total sociopaths. But hey, if it was easy, there'd be no story. Look at Limitless.
Vinnie is in the extremely difficult position of not being able to tell his friends and loved ones that he's not a gangster. He's able to tell his brother the priest, Father Pete (Gerald Anthony), but only in confession, and it's a long, agonizing time before he's able to tell his motormouth mother (Elsa Raven). Father Pete and Mama Terranova are series mainstays, though they each got enmeshed in fucktarded subplots as the series went on; Father Pete gets killed, which is dumb, and especially sucks because he's one of the only four priests in the universe who never fucked a kid, and Mama Terranova goes from sanctimonious gangster-hater so stressed out that her Vincenzo became a gangster that she has a heart attack to marrying an elderly Mob patriarch in one of the later, stupider seasons.
As for his professional life, Vinnie has two constant colleagues there as well. His bureau handler Frank McPike (Jonathan Banks) is dour, vindictive, and not above being massively immature when he's pissed off, but Frank is a good egg when you get right down to it and due to the nature of his character gets to have all kinds of good wisecracks, the general tenor of which are summarized hilariously by a tightass superior the first season as “dry . . . biscuit . . . humor” (it makes less sense the more you analyze it, so just take it at face value as fucking funny).
The other is the Lifeguard (Jim Byrnes), with whom Vinnie checks in via payphone (ah, the 80s) to convey and receive information. Their relationship evolves rather quickly from business into a deeply personal, almost familial bond; Vinnie is initially given the code phrase “Uncle Mike” to use when in trouble, but The Lifeguard quickly becomes an uncle to Vinnie, and the two become quite good friends despite almost never meeting face-to-face (this was rarer before the Internet). The Lifeguard helps Vinnie deal with the isolation inherent to the job, and the Lifeguard is himself quite lonely. He's missing both legs, as is the actor who plays him. Jim Byrnes lost both legs in an auto accident when he was quite young; if the role wasn't written for him, it certainly could have been (in a happy epilogue, Jim Byrnes has gone onto quite a successful career as a voiceover actor, so he can make that paper without having to do all that stupid walking shit or play a dude in a 'chair every time he wants to work).
The pilot begins with Vinnie getting out of prison, where he's been establishing his cover as a gangster badass. He proceeds to infiltrate the organization of Atlantic City mobster Sonny Steelgrave (Ray Sharkey, who chews scenery like a Great White) and make the acquaintance of the high-level East Coast underworld. The way the show is written, directed, and acted is very much 80s TV drama—this is to say, a bit more stylized and presentational than the cinema verité camerawork and self-aware snarky dialogue one sees on so many modern shows. By the standards of its time, Wiseguy was an ambitious, terrifically executed show. It suffers slightly in comparison to similarly-themed TV shows produced since, but those shows had far superior resources and didn't have to euphemize for the censors.
This is a particular handicap for a gangster show, because gangsters fucking curse. Wiseguy features a number of unfortunate turns of phrase mandated by the fact that the show was on network TV, but this is just about the only aspect in which the show's world fails to compel completely (well, the first season, at least). Vinnie develops a deep, incredibly complicated relationship with Sonny, and when events inexorably lead to Sonny's arrest, Vinnie legitimately feels as though he's betrayed Sonny. This kind of moral ambiguity, let us not forget, did not fucking happen on TV in 1987. The last episode, concluding with Vinnie and Sonny beating the shit out of each other after Vinnie reveals his FBI status, then slumping to the ground and staring at each other while “Nights in White Satin” plays on the soundtrack, is as powerful a piece of filmmaking as anyone achieved in the 80s. Sonny eventually electrocutes himself rather than be taken alive by the police, achieving a kind of mythic outlaw stature.
Wiseguy's first ten episodes, constituting the Steelgrave Arc, hold up against just about anything put on television in 80s. It feels like both more and fewer than ten episodes, due to the incredibly strong character relationships, and the economy of the writing leading to every episode feeling full and substantial, yet zooming forward. The supporting cast is excellent, featuring a young Annette Bening as another undercover agent Vinnie encounters, and the immortal Joe Dallesandro as the smooth New York Don Paul Patrice, known as “Pat the Cat” due to reasons related in a vivid, disturbing anecdote by Sonny. The Steelgrave saga almost feels too good; how the fuck are they going to get the audience involved in a story about Vinnie bringing down another gangster?
The answer is simple: up the stakes. After one intermediary episode about Vinnie trying to come to grips with the guilt he feels about bringing down Sonny Steelgrave, Frank McPike comes to him with a new assignment: get next to an independent operator named Roger Lococco (William Russ), about whom things don't seem to add up. Vinnie accepts the assignment reluctantly, and liaises with a wisecracking, stereotype-busting Japanese-American agent named Kenny (Clyde Kusatsu, who's fucking awesome). They stage a scene for the purposes of getting Lococco's attention, poolside at a hotel in Stockton, CA at 9am, where both Roger Lococco and Vinnie order Bloody Marys and Vinnie pretends to be buying a gun from Kenny.
This is both fucking ridiculous and kind of awesome, as it posits a world where dudes are so badass that they need to be buying guns at 9 o'clock in the morning over Bloody Marys. Even more ridiculous (and awesome) is that Vinnie's charade works: after Kenny splits, Roger offers an opinion about his favored armament and he and Vinnie proceed to nerd out about guns and do one seriously funny alpha-tough-guy testosterone verbal pas de deux. They hang out a bit; Roger and Vinnie party with some European blondes who're flown in on a private jet by someone named Sue. Vinnie starts getting the sense that there's more than meets the eye, though McPike's superior at the FBI is going to pull the plug. Then Vinnie makes a joke about Nazis (based on nothing more than the blondes speaking German, and the mechanic who installs machine guns in a hunk of shit unmarked cop car-looking car for Roger—the demonstration of which is great fun, by the way—having a thick accent), and even though Vinnie's clearly kidding, suddenly the FBI's throwing massive resources at the thing and the CIA gets involved.
Before Vinnie or McPike can get the idea that a mountain is being made out of a molehill, Roger whisks Vinnie off to a party on a yacht where there're all kinds of massively rich people and coke all over the place and girls with big tits running around in bikinis. Oft spoken of but not yet glimpsed are a shadowy pair—to whom everyone at the party, no matter how rich, looks up—named Mel and Susan Profitt. And, lo and behold, it turns out these two basically control organized crime on planet Earth.
Holy shit, what a pair. Susan, whom we meet first, is played by Joan Severance, at the time about 30 and simply reified sex (albeit in a very 80s, big hair sort of way, but still, gotdamn). She projects both cool competence and irresistible seduction. Mel we meet at the top of episode 2. And he, ladies and gentlemen, is played by Kevin fucking Spacey.
That's right, Wiseguy gave us Kevin Spacey, and without Kevin Spacey, are the 90s really even the 90s? Glengarry Glen Ross, The Usual Suspects, Se7en (if that's still a spoiler and you're pissed, whoops), L.A. Confidential, American Beauty . . . and it all began back in 1988 when he looked kind of like Bill Hicks' over-caffeinated brother. He hams it up so much as Mel Profitt the show needs a “Parental Advisory: the following show contains treyf” warning. He chews so much scenery he was still picking it out of his teeth ten years later. But, make no mistake, he fucking rawks as Mel Profitt.
Mel Profitt is just barely in control of himself, though he controls crime worldwide. He and Susan only function together, and she only seems sane because he's so epically nucking futs. There isn't incestous subtext, it's text. Susan shoots up Mel with mysterious drugs, he operates on a blend of whim, nut-flexing, and garbled Malthusian theory (though I gotta say, a villain ranting about Thomas Malthus on network television warms the heart), and they basically scare the shit out of everyone, up to and including their sergeant-at-arms/favored hitman Roger Lococco.
Vinnie quickly gains Mel's favor, largely because Vinnie has the balls to stand up to him. Susan is also taken with Vinnie, which Mel tries to be okay with except his jealousy ends up getting the better of him, especially after Vinnie trips on his dick and “accidentally” fucks her. Mel resultantly ends up spiraling, which leads to Susan having to kill him with a hotshot. After this, Susan herself goes hopelessly, irrevocably batshit without her other half to ground her. She tells Vinnie that she's pregnant, and that it's his, which freaks Vinnie out—evidently he was hitting it raw—but even freakier is the fact that the pregnancy is hysterical. Eventually, Vinnie has to have Susan committed and thrown in the bughouse, since she isn't competent to stand trial.
As if all that shit wasn't enough . . . it turns out Roger Lococco is a Fed too. He's with the CIA, under even deeper cover than Vinnie. Vinnie and Roger develop a deep bond, with much of the moral ambiguity that characterized his relationship with Sonny, only with the added wrinkle of Roger being a “good” guy in spite of all the people he kills. In a way, Roger is the anchor of the Profitt Arc, a fascinating antihero who does unspeakable things and yet maintains a code of ethics.
Certainly, without an anchor, the Profitt arc would spiral off into the ether. The plot is feverish horseshit, the stakes so melodramatically grand that without a really firm tether it'd float away. But the conviction of the writing, the terrific performances (Wahl, Banks, and Byrnes are still excellent, and grow even further into their roles as the series goes along, and nearly all the baddies and “baddies” are great), and the novelty of the show's form sustain it throughout the first season, making it one of the finest debut seasons in the history of TV.
Subsequent seasons failed to ever reach those heights, but a below-average season from a great show is still better than the best season of a shitty show. In seasons 2 and 3, the arcs got shorter and the targets more esoteric; anything was going to seem anticlimactic after Mel Profitt (not to mention Susan Profitt), but Fred Thompson's huckster faux-white supremacist was a little fish (though Paul Guilfoyle's crazed true-believer character was scary and well-played). There was another Mafia arc-let that just seemed like an attempt to recapture the Sonny Steelgrave mojo, but it didn't work.
The show hit a major snag when Ken Wahl broke an ankle in an accident while filming, and had to be written out of the show while he recovered. Unfortunately, this was in the middle of a potentially interesting arc about corruption in the garment industry with Ron Silver and Jerry Lewis, both of whom were awesome on the show (Ed. Note: don't front on Jerry Lewis just because he was a geeked-out doofball when he was young, he was fucking great in The King of Comedy and he was rock-solid on Wiseguy). That couple months unfortunately ended up just killing time til Ken Wahl got back to be Vinnie again.
His next assignment upon return was an investigation of corruption in the music business, in what was by far the funniest plotline on Wiseguy. Its sense of what “real” music is is only marginally more refined than that of Eddie & the Cruisers II: Eddie Lives, but the lower stakes also create a light tone, and the guest stars are all massively clutch: the great Paul Winfield's degenerate gambler character was awesome because he was played by Paul Winfield (Ed. Note: Paul Winfield was awesome), Patti D'Arbanville rules as his wife, Tim Curry is Tim Curry for shit's sake (he plays the oily Brit main baddie, perfect casting if there ever was), and the late, great, Ron Taylor was particularly fun as dissolute songwriter Monroe Blue. Who's Ron Taylor? This guy:
Because the game is the game, Ron Taylor was usually billed as something like “Big Black Guy,” which fucking sucks—I mean, come on, at least “Biggest Black Guy,” come on, people, fucking focus—but we who are truly up on our shit know better. Not only was he part of one of the funnier bits in Trading Places (as one of the two guys who try to intimidate Eddie in jail), he was the voice of Lisa Simpson's saxophone mentor on the motherfucking Simpsons, people. Bow head in reverence, then continue.
Glenn Frey and Debbie Harry were also solid in this storyline, with Glenn Frey (as Vinnie's Virgil in the infernal music biz) a particularly pleasant surprise since we already knew Debbie Harry could act from Hairspray. Paul McCrane (“You're dead . . . WE KILLED YOU!” guy from Robocop as well as, regrettably, Jack Bauer's evil brother on the second-shittiest season of 24) turned in a memorable performance as an ephebophile record producer who was bizarrely kind of an all right guy. All in all, the music arc was the best since season 1.
Then, concluding Wiseguy's run as actual Wiseguy and not the bullshit half-measure that the last, incomplete season was, an arc-let set in a town in Pacific Northwest where weird shit happens and there are serial killers and shit. What's that, you say? Cynical attempt to cash in on the popularity of Twin Peaks, sayest thou? Well au contraire motherfuckers, the first episode of this arc aired two months before Twin Peaks' debut! How's that for some forward thinking on Wiseguy's part, huh?
Actual Twin Peaks similarities are a stretch, at best. Vinnie gets sent to a town in Washington called Lynchboro (part of the confusion), which is being ruled by an autocratic eccentric, who's obsessed with the William Castle picture Mister Sardonicus. (Ed. Note: *pure movie nerd bliss*). He buys the girls he likes at the town brothel Corvettes (no, his name is not Ben Horne, knock that shit off). And the local law enforcement is eccentric to say the least. The town sheriff is David Straithairn—that's right, David Fucking Straithairn, one of the finest American thespians ever to breathe air; man? Nay. LEGEND—who seems to be an all right cat. Vinnie actually gets to infiltrate Lynchboro as a cop for once, and he goes to work for Sheriff Straithairn, only to find out Straithairn's the one who's been killing people, and when cornered he electrocutes himself, just like Sonny Steelgrave. Vinnie has a PTSD meltdown, and a bunch of other stuff happens, none of it terribly plausible (though some things, like Roger Lococco showing up out of nowhere to say what's up, admittedly rule), and the season kind of fizzles out, with Vinnie depressed in Seattle and Frank McPike getting shot. Still, it started out pretty well.
That anticlimax would unfortunately be the end of Wiseguy as a watchable show. Between seasons 3 and 4 Ken Wahl said, “I want this much money,” and held up his hands six feet apart. The evil white guys in suits said, “We want to pay you this much money,” and held their hands up four feet apart. Ken Wahl said “Fuck you evil white guys in suits, I'm going to go be a movie star” (Ed. Note: the historical record now reflect this as the most fucktarded decision by the lead on a series in the history of TV, because David Caruso, once the world-record holder, eventually came back with a memorable-but-not-good performance in the otherwise shittastic Proof of Life and then found new life with a memorable-but-fucking-terrible performance on CSI: Miami; Ken Wahl never had a second act to his career, which sucks, because he's a talented dude, he just had a whole lot of bad luck and some major health problems). And the evil white guys in suits said, “We're going to cast Steven Bauer as a new OCB operative and stay the course.” Only it didn't work. Steven Bauer's awesome—when I finally do a post about Wild Side, I'll expand on that—but Wiseguy is not Wiseguy without the Vinnie-McPike-Lifeguard triad, and the apex of that triangle is Vinnie. Manolo from Scarface is a pale shadow.
And so Wiseguy died the death, but not before being a consistently entertaining series that in its first season was admirably ambitious, and succeeded well enough that it gives Stephen J. Cannell legit credit as an artist. The fact that the last half of that last sentence was written by a human being will make highbrow motherfuckers grow ulcers, so even though it's a slight exaggeration, I'll stand by it.