Friday, March 02, 2012

Nostalgia Theater:
Wiseguy -- Doing Brasco Before Depp

This week, we look at late '80s crime drama Wiseguy, one of the seminal series of not only that decade, but all the decades since, having helped pave the road for the kind of complexity and nuance that productions like The Sopranos and The Wire took to an even higher level.

Created by Frank Lupo and the late Stephen J. Cannell -- the same team behind the far more explodey (though far less ambitious) The A-Team just a few years prior -- Wiseguy was an attempt to up the ante from the traditional episodic procedurals that dotted the broadcast landcape back then (See: Exhibit A & Exhibit B). Following deep cover operative Vincent Terranova (Ken Wahl), working for the fictional Organized Crime Bureau, as he tried to bring down various criminal empires from the inside, Wiseguy anticipated the similarly-themed feature Donnie Brasco, starring Johnny Depp, by a full ten years.

Here's the opening credit sequence -- with theme by Cannell's regular composer Mike Post -- from the "Sonny Steelgrave" storyline, the first season's first arc (they'd switch things up with each new story):

Premiering in fall of '87, Wiseguy set off quite the sensation when it first aired, with both critics and audiences appreciative of how it was reshaping the traditional episodic paradigm. With the nature of its premise making done-in-one episodes almost entirely unfeasible, Wiseguy was instead built on a series of revolving "arcs" of varying length. Demonstrating the inherent advantages of the serialized storytelling that typifies most TV dramas today, each installment built on the one before, allowing both the characters and the narrative breathing room to grow organically.

Though limited by content and budget constraints (such as an at-times too obvious Vancouver standing in for NYC), the approach still allowed auds to appreciate the tumult that leading man Vince went through as he risked becoming subsumed in his role and having to betray people he had befriended (helped along by Wahl's unique brand of "wounded tiger" pathos -- for which he was richly rewarded with a Golden Globe in 1990). In addition to Wahl, the series also proved a showcase for a wide array of present and future stars, with Kevin Spacey's scenery-chewing turn as the maniacal Mel Profitt in the second arc a highlight.

Although Wiseguy did well in the ratings and had accumulated an armload of critical kudos, it was ultimately done in thanks to a squabble between Wahl and the producers. Reaching an impasse with Cannell over creative direction, the popular and handsome star bolted from his primetime perch after just three seasons. Though the showrunners tried to make a go of it and soldier on for a fourth year, with Steven Bauer as disgraced U.S. attorney Michael Santana -- the "new" Wiseguy -- the magic was clearly gone (through no fault of Bauer's, I'd say). Ratings took a precipitous tumble, and by the end of 1990, CBS had turned out the lights on Wiseguy.

Here's the revised intro from the abortive fourth season, now reflective of the Latino flavor brought by the Cuban-American Bauer:

But that wasn't entirely the end. In early summer 1996, ABC aired Wiseguy: The Movie, a telefilm that brought back Wahl -- noticeably bulkier after several years away from the spotlight and dealing with severe health problems -- as Terranova (even though he'd been killed off at the beginning of the Bauer season...sshhh), as well as original co-stars Jonathan Banks (Vince's bureau handler Frank McPike) and Jim Byrnes (the ever-present "Lifeguard" who monitors the agent at all times in case he gets in over his head). You can watch the first part of the movie below, and follow the trail from there:

It was hoped that this movie would lead to a sequel or three, as was the custom with similar TV movies at the time, and the critical response certainly warranted it. Unfortunately, the ratings to justify a continuation didn't materialize, so Wahl again receded into the self-inflicted obscurity he's remained in ever since (with life clearly taking a toll in recent years), and Wiseguy went back into hibernation...until last fall, when NBC announced plans for a reboot/revival.

Of course, the problems there are two-fold. First, without Cannell, and without Wahl, I'm not sure there's much point. Second, so much of what made the show revolutionary in its time is now commonplace. It's sort of like ten years ago, when Law & Order's Dick Wolf produced a remake of Dragnet -- the granddaddy of police procedurals -- and no one bothered to watch. At that point, Dragnet just felt like watered-down Law & Order. I worry that something similar would happen with a new Wiseguy.

Still, whether anything comes of the revival or not, the place of the original Wiseguy in TV history is assured (with Entertainment Weekly including it in a 2008 list of "New Classics"). Though the '96 TV movie remains unreleased as of this writing, the show itself can be watched online via iTunes and Hulu, and although music clearance issues have prevented a "complete series" release, there is a next-best-thing "collector's edition" containing 68 of the show's 75 episodes that's available for just over $20 -- insanely low for one of the most influential shows of the last thirty years.


J.R. LeMar said...

I loved that show. The Mel & Susan Profit, Lynchboro, and Music Business arcs were the best.

Zaki said...

Yep, those were great. Really wish they could have figured out a way to cut through the rights situation and get "Dead Dog Records" on DVD.

Jennifer Saunders said...

I read that Wiseguy was "required television" for Vince Gilligan (creator of Breaking Bad) in college. That's why he cast Jonathan Banks in BB. I wonder if that's also why he got Stephen Bauer to play Don Eladio in two episodes last season.