Movie: Movies about mobsters and police have long been a staple
of mainstream entertainment. Television has followed suit in an effort to
provide audiences with a variety of stories relating to these two
"professions". The scope of movies tend to be limited to a single main event
and the scope of television shows have traditionally been limited to
providing a quick formula whereby whatever problem arises in the course of
an episode must be solved. Back in 1987, a new show helped meld the two
media formats together, Wiseguy.
The show was broadcast on CBS and rather than use the traditional television
format, it had a series of "arcs" where the writers could provide enough
detail to fully tell a story, whether it was a single episode, 4, or a
dozen. By doing so, there wasn't the padding you'll find in most
mini-series, the rush you get from a weekly that forces a lot of great
character growth to be edited for length, or the limitations of a single
movie. In short, the technical limitations of the format were lifted a bit
to allow the creative forces a wider range to work with.
In the first arc the show, Sonny Steelgrave And The Mob, Box One, the show detailed the life and times of an
undercover federal agent who infiltrated the mob in order to catch the "big
fishes" of crime and not the petty crooks that are typically so easy to catch. Agent
Vincent "Vinnie" Terranova, fresh out of prison having served 18 months of
real time to establish his credentials, was sent to join a mafia family run
by two brothers, the Steelgraves. Taking a number of risks that could've
very well proven fatal, Vinnie (played exceptionally well by Ken Wahl),
played on his similarities to one of the brothers, Sonny (played by the late
Ray Sharkey), hoping that it would establish him as a trustworthy
employee. The twists and turns of what happened established the show as something a cut above the pack, which is why a devoted fan following has successfully petitioned to have the show released on DVD.
In the second arc of the show, Mel Profitt Saga: Box Two, the dynamic of the show changed from Vinnie dealing with hoods that he was very much like (and could have become) to a whole new world of criminal. Initially set to investigate a contract killer, Roger Loccoco (William Russ), Vinnie worked his way into the man's good graces and soon finds he's in way over his head. Rather than a contract killer, Loccoco works for a major player on the world arms and drugs market, a player so large that he is all but untouchable wherever he goes. The man, Mel Profitt (Kevin Spacey), and his sister, Susan Profitt (Joan Severance), become intrigued with Vinnie as a man with the kind of vision they appreciate. They live by a philosophy that mirrors the penis principle, if you do well, you get rich and powerful but if you fail, you wither away and die.
In the third release of the series on DVD, Wiseguy: Prey For The City: Box Three, the series changed a bit by providing a couple of arcs that were somewhat smaller in scale, due as much to lead Ken Wahl's medical problems as anything else. The third arc of the series, White Supremacy, dealt with one of the myriad of hate groups springing up in the 1980's. Vinnie's neighborhood, finding itself under siege from foreigners intent on buying up businesses and homes alike, falls prey to the ranting of Knox Pooley (Fred Dalton Thompson) who preaches white power to a group of rednecks. The Pilgrims Of Promise, led by Calvin Hollis (Paul Guilfoyle). Pooley is "an idea man" who convinces the group that they can take back an older version of the America they love, in spite of changing times. Hollis, on the other hand, is so desperately a follower that he runs with Pooley's message, robbing armored cars and killing priests as he sees fit. Vinnie is still reeling from his time with Mel Profitt and Sonny Steelgrave, feeling like a betrayer and unable to come to terms with his role in the OCB. When the threat hits so close to home, Vinnie rejoins the OCB to protect his cousin and neighbors with limited success.
The fourth arc of the series, and second for the set, was Garment Business. In this one, David Sternberg (Ron Silver), sees his father Eli (Jerry Lewis) dealing with organized criminals such as Rick Pinzolo (Stanley Tucci) and wants to protect the family business (clothing design). This was a highly underrated arc where Vinnie is hurt early on and ended up handing over the case to another OCB agent, John Henry Raglin (in real life, Ken Wahl was injured and couldn't work so the story was rewritten to accommodate this fact with Anthony Denison playing the role). This arc was notable for the incorporation of insider trading and corporate scheming that was a big topic of the day (much like Enron has been recently). Rather than bash the viewer over the head, the story was allowed to weave an intricate web of deceit, full of subtleties that were absent in some of the Wahl-based arcs. Lewis, Tucci and Silver all gave outstanding performances for a weekly television series; each providing seamless performances as the OCB attempts to crack the corrupt garment trade. Joan Chen made a solid guest performance too, proving that television as a format is not as limited as some actors have claimed over the years.
Okay, the White Supremacy arc wasn't as fully developed as I would've liked and that limited it's replay value but the Garment District arc was great. That's no slight to Ken Wahl, I think he would've been solid in it as well but the supporting actors just were standouts in so many ways and Denison's icing cold portrayal as an agent that "didn't go out on a win" in his last mission, was enough that he should've been in a spinoff. I'm going to rate this one as Recommended since fans will definitely want to buy it but fans of police stories will get a lot out of it too. I just hope future boxed sets don't change the music, especially the Dead Dog Records arc since the music is so important to the story, and include better extras.
Picture: The picture was presented in 1.33:1 ratio full frame, as
originally shot for television. Most of the time, the colors and fleshtones
were accurate although a few episodes looked slightly dark and suffered from
what looked like problems with the source material. A few episodes were not as good looking as the rest but most looked fine for their age.
Sound: The audio was presented in a remastered 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround rather than the original simulated stereo it was taped in back in the 1980's. There wasn't a lot of separation between the channels and the dynamic range was limited but it was exactly what you'd expect from the show. The worst limitation this time, and apparently in earlier episodes, was the removal of the original music over copyright issues. The producers didn't want to shell out the additional money and this led to some music being changed. In this third set, the music wasn't as important as the end of the Steelgrave saga or in the upcoming Dead Dog Records set but fans want to know (Wahl points this out in the commentary tracks).
Extras: The only real extras this time were the two audio commentaries by Ken Wahl on the four "bonus episodes". I didn't think of them as bonus episodes since they were part of the show but that's coming from a guy that would've preferred seeing season sets released instead of the arc-centric releases we've gotten to date. Wahl's commentaries were, on average, somewhat limited in terms of content (lots of dead space and only a few anecdotes provided for your time-I listened to each of them, all the way through), but it was still interesting to hear what he had to say. He indicated more than a few times that he answers all his own email and to go to his website if you have any questions at www.kenwahl.com.
Final Thoughts: I really liked the show when it originally aired and the boxed sets give me a chance to see the show without the commercials of the old days but I wish the music hadn't been changed and the extras were more plentiful. Further, I wish the sets were being released in full season sets since that was more in line with how television is watched and remembered but the lure of the show to fans of dramatic television remains even this long after the show aired. Check out Sonny Steelgrave Saga: Box One
and Mel Profitt Saga: Box Two for the most well received episodes of the series but these were pretty good too in their own fashion.
White Supremacy Saga:
Going Home: 2.1: Date 10/26/88
School Of Hard Knox: Episode 2.2: Date 11/2/88
Revenge Of The Mud People: Episode 2.3: Date 11/9/88
Last Of The True Believers: Episode 2.4: Date 11/16/88
Garment Business Arc:
7th Avenue Freeze Out: Episode 2.6: Date 12/14/88
Next Of Kin: Episode 2.7: Date 12/21/88
All Or Nothing: Episode 2.8: Date 1/11/89
Where's The Money: Episode 2.9: Date 1/18/89
Postcard From Morocco: Episode 2.10: Date 1/25/89
Stairway To Heaven: Episode 2.11: Date 2/1/89
White Noise: Episode 2.12: Date 2/15/89
The Reunion: Episode: 3.8: Date 11/15/89
The Romp: Episode: 3.15: Date 2/7/90