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 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, Wiseguy: Mel Profitt, Season 1, Part 2, 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 Lococco (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, Lococco 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 Peter Principle, if you do well, you get rich and powerful but if you fail, you wither away and die.
Vinnie is told that if he enters this world, one far more lucrative but dangerous than the one he came from, he'll live or die by his value to the company. Vinnie soon finds that he's out of his element in more ways than one as his history with the mob never prepared him to deal with the insane manic depression of Mel (who suffers from a bipolar disorder but is otherwise a super genius who, when paired up with Susan, also extremely intelligent but mentally unstable, can out think just about anyone. He's so far up the food chain that Vinnie's bosses at the Organized Crime Bureau (OCB) have never even heard of Profitt or his organization, making him a tempting target to pursue. As the show progress', we also see that Roger is not all that he appears to be, and suspects Vinnie of being an agent. Roger is far more dangerous to Vinnie in the short run because his paranoia has kept him alive for decades. His own background is soon uncovered and the tension ran high as the two confronted one another, with Frank's (Jonathan Banks) life held in the balance.
I liked how the focus shifted in the second half of the season, with Vinnie almost in a background role as the crazy antics of the two Profitt siblings took center stage. Kevin Spacey himself admits that this role made his career and Joan Severance was the perfect (as well as beautiful) counter to his mood swings. In mind opinion though, it was William Russ that stole the show. His character was the actual focus of the show, even though Spacey had the wild, flashy character so many fans identified with. From the first episode of the arc, Independent Operator, where he was the target, to the revelations of Dirty Little Wars and Date With An Angel, his understated performance was as compelling as could be for me. In almost every situation, Roger was in charge and in top form, with the later episodes showing how he and Vinnie were cut from the same cloth, even though each took a different path. Just as Vinnie's biggest danger from Sonny Steelgrave was not the immediate threat of discovery but of his changing sides, Roger's willingness to do anything to achieve his objectives, some of which were quite noble, was shown as a powerful corrupting force for a man, Vinnie, who was obligated to follow a great deal of rules and procedures that typically let the bad guys go free. Much like Vinnie's attraction to Steelgrave, his reluctant attraction to Roger and disgust for Mel fueled this arc more than anything else.
I also liked how various issues were played out. When the show came out back in the late 1980's, the country was dealing with the aftermath of the Iran-Contra hearings. For those of you that are history-impaired, that was where agents of this country set up programs to circumvent the will of Congress, using any means available. Roger seemed very much based on a man some of you may remember, Oliver North, and that lent some immediacy to the writing of the show. The other major issue (the arc actually had a lot of themes going on) was how the bigger players in the drug wars, then heating up into a full-scale war, were able to do as they pleased with impunity. All of us know that catching the street corner dealer does nothing because there'll always be some loser willing to fill their place and nature abhors a vacuum.
Some aspects were trivialized of course but the overall acting here was better than the Initial Arc and that took some doing. Series creator Steven Cannell admitted that most people involved with the show wanted Sonny Steelgrave to live since no one thought the now late Ray Sharkey could be topped but Kevin Sharkey's performance was nothing short of excellent and William Russ provided the perfect counterpoint to Ken Wahl's Vinnie. The supporting cast were also allowed to grow, Frank's meltdown in Not For Nothing, Susan's breakdown in Phantom Pain, Carlotta's (Elsa Raven) marriage in the bonus episode Aria For Don Auippo, and Herb Ketcher's (David Spielberg) inevitable fate in Date With An Angel (with a guest appearance by former child porn star Tracy Lords) were all fine examples of why some entertainment snobs might want to reconsider their views on the quality of programming offered (albeit rarely) on network television.
The quality of the acting being so solid and the thematic issues so well developed, what about the stories themselves you ask? Again, the individual episodes were all well made and served as stand alone volumes in the series but each contributed to the overall arc in many ways, with a host of threads carrying through the show. The replay value was top notch since you could find more underlying themes with every viewing (there's a very short list of television programming from back then that achieved this) and the little touches (from Roger's comment at the end of Not For Nothing to Vinnie, "I bet you have a few surprises for me. I know I have a few surprises for you.", to the name of Profitt's company, S&M Profitt Enterprises) were many in number and interesting in scope.
I'm rating the set as Highly Recommended for all the above reasons and more. You can find out for yourself by renting or buying the boxed set and you really can't go wrong with the quality of the show. The technical aspects were a bit weaker on average than last time but rarely an issue to those of us who appreciate the show. There was discussion when the show came out that the following seasons were far weaker than the first, mostly due to the lack of compelling central figures like Steelgrave and Profitt, and even a fan like myself, one who appreciated the Dead Dog Records arc, would have to agree but those are reviews for another day and I think most people would be entertained by the Steelgrave and Profitt arcs.
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. The worst of the episodes was Phantom Pain but others suffered from some grain and mosquito noise too. Most such problems weren't too bad and the DVD transfer, while introducing some edge enhancement, looked fair but on average, the set looked slightly worse than the first one.
Sound: The sound offered a choice of a remastered 5.1 Dolby Digital surround English or a simple 2.0 track with no subtitles or closed captioning. For the most part, the episodes sounded good although they didn't have a lot of separation between the channels. Unlike the first volume of the set, there didn't appear to be any noticeable alterations in the music track this time (if there were any changes due to copyright issues, they weren't as important this time-or in the upcoming Dead Dog Records Arc).
Extras: There was an audio commentary with star Ken Wahl on the episode, Player To Be Named Now, where he made a few comments from time to time about his personal experiences on the show but no major revelations or details were unveiled. There was a lot of dead air this time and it further convinced me that a commentary by the writers, producers, or creator Cannell himself would be a leap forward in terms of value. I was really disappointed that William Russ (Roger Lococco) wasn't given at least one such track since he was a pivotal character in the show's development. The extras also included a bonus episode, Aria For Don Auippo, which focused on Vinnie's mother getting married to the former mob chieftain after a courtship of sorts. Lastly, the fourth disc included a series of interviews, including: 14:17 minutes with Stephan J. Cannell, 11:43 minutes with David Burke, 7:51 minutes with Both Burke and Cannell together, 17:10 minutes of Kevin Spacey, 8:45 minutes with Joan Severance, 10:50 minutes of Elsa Raven (Vinnie's Mom), and 6:40 minutes with William Russ.
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 (i.e.: the Steelgrave story) with the Profitt saga even better. Here's a list of the episodes with their original release dates:
Independent Operator: 1.12: Date 1/4/88
Fascination For The Flame: Episode 1.13: Date 1/11/88
Smokey Mountain Requiem: Episode 1.14: Date 1/18/88
Player To Be Played Now: Episode 1.15: Date 1/25/88
Merchant Of Death: Episode 1.16: Date 2/1/88
Not For Nothing: Episode 1.17: Date 2/8/88
Squeeze: Episode 1.18: Date 2/15/88
Blood Dance: Episode 1.19: Date 2/22/88
Phantom Pain: Episode 1.20: Date 3/14/88
Dirty Little Wars: Episode 1.21: Date 3/21/88
Date With An Angel: Episode 1.22: Date 3/28/88
Aria For Don Auippo: Episode: 2.5: Date 12/7/88