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, Wiseguy: Sonny Steelgrave And The Mob, Season 1, Part 1, 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 so easy to catch. Agent Vincent "Vinnie" Terranova, fresh out of prison having served 18 months of real time to establish his credentials, is 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), plays on his similarities to one of the brothers, Sonny (played by the late Ray Sharkey), hoping that it will establish him as a trustworthy employee.
As the show progressed, it became evident to Vinnie, and the viewer, that the mobsters he was sent to arrest were not the single dimension characters from a cheap novel but rich, complex family men who treat those they trust far better than Vinnie's actual employers (the government). Time and again, Vinnie's loyalties are tested by both sides, with his only real lifelines being his immediate supervisor, Francis "Frank" McPike (Jonathan Banks), and his telephone connection, "Uncle Mike" (Jim Byrnes). Mike is the one Vinnie calls to report in or request help, helping minimize the chances that he's spotted with a fed. Frank is the ruthless supervisor who, initially at least, seems to think Vinnie may cave into the rich lifestyle and his neighborhood heritage, or at very least has a life expectancy of a few months at best.
The monetary temptations aside, in his first week on the job, Vinnie is handed the keys to a Porsche and an executive apt with the warning by Sonny that there's a lot of pressure to succeed and if things don't work out, Vinnie will not have to worry about anything else, ever again. A lot is made of the fact that while Vinnie comes from a modest background in the neighborhood, and that Sonny has always been surrounded by the sharks of the mob world, the two share a lot in common-both were amateur boxers while growing up, both are the same age, and a host of other similarities that tell the viewer that these two were flip sides of the same coin. Vinnie could have easily been just like Sonny had circumstances been slightly different.
Over time, Vinnie and Sonny become more than employee/employer-they become what amounts to brothers. Outside forces, primarily in the guise of a mobster slightly higher up the food chain than Sonny, Paul "Pat The Cat" Patrice (Joe Dallesandro), and his henchman Sid Royce (Dennis Lipscomb), start to eat away at Sonny, driving him into increasingly risky behavior. This pushes Sonny further into Vinnie's confidence, ultimately setting him up for a fall. The twists and turns kept the story fresh, even when specific episodes weren't as good as the overall story.
Okay, the acting and writing were really good. This kept the show from falling into the trap that effects far too many other series. The very real possibility of Vinnie switching sides was made clear and driven home on a regular basis. More than once, Vinnie breaks the law to either fit into his cover or because it seems like the right thing to do, no matter what the regulations say. The question of: "Will he cross the line one too many times?" helped make the show stand above the dozens of one season wonders revolving around cops and mobsters. In a related note, that the lead gangsters were written far more human (and humane) than the public servants chasing them. Only a couple of times is it pointed out, by the weakly written afterthought of a character of Vinnie's mother Carlotta (Elsa Raven), that the crooks are only appearing good on their surface. Vinnie's proximity to them is coloring his view and she tried to drive the point home better than his supervisors ever could.
The chemistry between Sharkey and Wahl made the show far more interesting than it otherwise would've been and the ability of the writers to expand on the big picture (long term aspects of the story) and the weekly show (which were mostly able to stand on their own for new viewers) helped a lot. While television series these days may routinely take this approach, that was not the case back in 1987 (has it REALLY been 16 years?!?).
The boxed set was the same used for the fold-out digipacks many other series have been using which kept the discs on the hubs but weren't overly hard to pop the discs off of either (a real concern for those of us not relishing the idea of snapping a disc in two). There were 12 episodes (13 if you count the double episode pilot as 2) with the entire Steelgrave arc included along with two stand alone shows from later seasons. I have my reservations about this format for releasing the show. In general, I greatly prefer to get such shows as full season sets and while I understand that this allows fans to pick which of the 6 boxed sets they're going to buy, a true fan will only be happy getting all of them (perhaps minus the last season where actor Wahl wasn't involved). I can't begin to guess at how many folks will settle to buy the Steelgrave set and the Profitt Saga (sets 1 and 2 respectively) alone, skipping out on some other, very solidly made, arcs. Reports of missing music due to copyright issues (and costs) have been greatly exaggerated so far, and only the Dead Dog Record arc, a personal favorite of mine, will possibly be greatly impacted because of it.
I liked this series from the first time I watched it, in repeats during the first season, so the content has always appealed to me. The dvd treatment, while it involved the serious compromise in how the episodes were released, was well done with one other problem, the individual episodes had no chapters. It couldn't be too hard to add in a chapter stop at each commercial break and maybe even set it up to play all the episodes without the beginning/ending credits, could it? I'm rating it as Highly Recommended for all fans of police/mob dramas but I think a lot of others will appreciate it too.
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. Most such problems were minimal and the dvd transfer, while introducing some edge enhancement, looked solid with no compression artifacts. It was clear enough to notice some occasional scratches on the print but those were few and far between.
Sound: The sound offered a choice of a remastered English 5.1 Dolby Digital or a simple 2.0 track with no subtitles or closed captioning. While I didn't notice any problems with the soundtrack, it didn't have any real channel separation either. It was clearer than I remember when originally broadcast, and the mix between the vocals and music well done. None of the original music was noticed to be missing here either.
Extras: The extras included an audio commentary track by star Ken Wahl on the final two episodes of the Steegrave arc, The Marriage Of Heaven And Hell and No One Get's Out Of Here Alive. He didn't provide a lot of background data on the tracks, other than to praise the people involved with the production of the series. I hope future commentaries will include him and other cast members, maybe even a few of the production team, to add material of interest to them. A booklet was also included that was 12 pages long and contained episode overviews and an essay on the series by Edward Gross. There was also a couple of "bonus" episodes here, People Do It All The Time from the third season with the episode focusing almost solely on Uncle Mike and his family, and Meet Mike McPike from the same season where McPike shows his human side as well. There was also a blooper reel taken from various seasons where the focus was on flubbed lines and the cast swearing a lot. Lastly, there were interviews with Jonathan Banks and one with series creator Stephen J. Cannell. Neither was particularly informative but considering the age of the show, not bad.
Final Thoughts: The content of the show was very solid, especially for a television drama made so long ago, and the overall package here merits a high rating. The acting, writing, and other elements of the show make it well worth checking out. Most cop shows don't age nearly this well and as the series progressed, it showed it was more than just a one hit wonder (ie: the Steelgrave story). Here's a list of the episodes with their original release date:
Pilot Episodes 1.1, 1.2: Date 9/16/87
New Blood Episode 1.3: Date 9/24/87
Loose Cannon Episode 1.4: Date 10/1/87
Birthday Surprise Episode 1.5: Date 10/8/87
One On One Episode 1.6: Date 10/15/87
Prodigal Son Episode 1.7: Date 10/22/87
A Deal's A Deal Episode 1.8: Date 10/29/87
The Marriage Of Heaven And Hell Episode 1.9: Date 11/5/87
No One Gets Out Of Here Alive Episode 1.10: 11/12/87
Last Rites For Lucci Episode 1.11: Date 11/19/87
People Do It All the Time Episode: 3.7: Date: 11/8/89
Meet Mike McPike Episode: 3.13: Date:1/10/90