Television Reviews

DVD Review – Wiseguy: Sonny Steelgrave and the Mob – Before “The Sopranos” There Was Wiseguy

Wiseguy was a television show dealing with the mob that first aired in 1987. Instead of the traditional “one episode, one story”, Wiseguy had both a season-long story arc and stories contained in the individual episodes. The DVD boxed sets are broken up to represent each of the story arcs. The first one is subtitled Sonny Steelgrave and the Mob and follows undercover Organized Crime Bureau Officer Vinnie Terranova as he infiltrates the New Jersey mob and rises to become one of the top men in the organization led by Sonny Steelgrave.

The individual episodes propel the season-long arc as well as stand up well in their own right. As a boxed set, the collection tells the entire story better than when I first saw it, catching the show midway through this story. Although many of the actors would have liked to have seen this story arc be an entire season, the indecision about whether or not the network would commit to an entire season of the show forced it to be shortened to half a season. In some ways, this is a shame because the cast really came together well. On the other hand, this arc is very tightly written and doesn’t drag in the least.

Ken Wahl portrays Vinnie Terranova. Terranova works for the Organized Crime Bureau division of the FBI. To make him a convincing “wise guy” he’s set up for a series of arrests over four years and then sent to prison for eighteen months. Just as he comes out, his mentor in the FBI is murdered. Vinnie makes a promise to nail the guy who was responsible, Dave Steelgrave.

Vinnie’s brother, Pete (portrayed by Gerald Anthony) is a priest in Brooklyn. He knows Vinnie is working for the FBI, but neither of them can tell their mother or the rest of their family. Both brothers know it hurts their mother deeply, who is so disappointed in Vinnie’s alleged involvement with the mob. The distance Vinnie’s job has with his family due to their perceptions of him as a “hood” are evident throughout the series and is one of the tragic parts of the storyline. Vinnie must cope with the apparent overdose of his cousin in one episode as his family tells him to stay away from the funeral and his mother is mugged and ends up in the hospital, all the while pushing him away.

Jonathan Banks is Frank McPike, Vinnie’s connection at the FBI. He’s got a bit of a sardonic wit to him and spends most of the time trying to reassure Vinnie about what he’s doing. He’s separated from his wife and sees his son periodically. He also has an elderly father living in an old-age home that he’s trying to take care of.

Jim Byrnes is “Lifeguard”. He’s an FBI agent confined to a wheelchair who monitors Vinnie as his “Uncle Mike”. Not much is said about how he got that way, but he’s got some great instincts and monitors Vinnie well. He’s divorced with at least one grown daughter who lives with her artist-husband in the East Village.

Ray Sharkey is Sonny Steelgrave. This was a masterful performance, possibly the greatest one of Sharkey’s career. He has some powerful scenes, particularly when he and Vinnie are locked in a movie theater closed for the season. The speech he gives about how the U.S. government is similar to the mob is powerfully delivered, and also indicative of the great writing this series had.

It’s a bit unconventional as Terranova is fully undercover. He’s involved with the big boys and at times ends up in situations that would cause most undercover agents to bail, such as helping to bury the body of a man murdered by one of Steelgrave’s men. McPike even admits at times he has trouble knowing what to do since they never had a man this deep undercover before. Watching the wavering in Vinnie’s character as he becomes close to Sonny to the point of a deep friendship, really puts the conclusion of the story in question.

Wahl is very nice to look at during this stage of his career, in his early thirties with smoldering good looks. He is convincing both in the role as both the agent and the hood. He looks comfortable (and just as good) in a sweatshirt and denim jacket as he does in a suit and tie.

There were some terrific guest stars throughout this series. A lot of the actors were just on the cusp of what they would become. Annette Bening guest stars in one of the episodes as a local cop undercover trying to flesh out information on Sonny’s operation. Eventually the cat and mouse game about whether or not Vinnie’s true identity takes over and seems to be the focus of what’s going to happen as the story arc wears on.

Once that particular story arc is over there are a few episodes that would typically be thought of as “filler” but they give some great insight into the main characters seen throughout the series up until now. The next story arc is picked up on the next set of discs. This is a nice way of viewing the series as it breaks it up a bit more and gives a sense of finality to particular storylines. The only problem is these “filler” episodes are already showing the opening sequence for the next story arc, so there’s a bit of a spoiler there, as well as also a bit of teaser.

This was the late 80s and although they tried hard to create a show that would seemingly fit into any time period, it shows in the “big hair” on the women… and men at times. The computers were big and clunky as were the “portable phones” which looked like suitcases. Although the show was supposed to take place in New Jersey and more specifically around Atlantic City, it was actually filmed in Vancouver, Canada like many of Stephen J. Cannell’s shows in the 80s. This might not be a big deal but there are some scenes that are supposed to take place with New York City in the background and it’s just very apparent that it’s not New York City in the background but someplace else.

Mike Post scored the series as well as wrote the theme. Too bad most of the original music was taken out, such as “Nights in White Satin” while Vinnie and Sonny are in the movie theater together. This has happened all too often with the series that are released on DVD, and it’s getting to the point where I won’t buy them anymore because of that.

Stephen J. Cannell was the co-creator and producer, as well as the writer. This was one of his top series of the eighties, and the one it took the longest to get made. Networks didn’t want a show that needed the type of commitment on the part of the audience that Wiseguy did. Executives fretted over picking up the audience on positive word of mouth – how would they do that after six episodes had already told a good chunk of the story? Eventually, CBS did agree to make the show.

There’s some heavy-duty violence, more than I can ever remember seeing before on network television. It doesn’t come close to The Sopranos, but for its time Wiseguy really created a lot of waves.

The DVD transfer is good, although it’s like a lot of the transfers I’ve seen lately that have their uneven moments when the picture is fuzzy or grainy. Most of the time it’s a clean, crisp print, though. The later episodes as it is transitioning into the next story arc didn’t seem to have their opening sequence remastered just yet.

I highly recommend this series to anyone. It was a great show that sparked early and then died off, but while it was good it was one of the best shows on television at the time.

Disc One:
New Blood
Loose Cannon

Bonus Features:
Trailer – for the six boxed sets “Before Goodfellas… Before The Sopranos….

Disc Two:
The Birthday Surprise
One on One
The Prodigal Son
A Deal’s A Deal

Disc Three:
The Marriage of Heaven and Hell available with commentary by Ken Wahl
No One Gets Out of Here Alive available with commentary by Ken Wahl
Last Rites for Lucci

Disc Four:
People Do It All the Time
Meet Mike McPike

• Gag Reel (for mature audiences only, mainly for language) – This includes outtakes from all of the story arcs including the one with Kevin Spacey
• Interviews with Stephen J. Cannell and Jonathan Banks

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