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Review: Wiseguy Season One Volume One (contains spoilers)
March 17th, 2011 by NumberSix

Wiseguy: Season One Volume One DVD cover

Wiseguy: Season One Volume One DVD cover

This posting does not deal with the usual subject matter of this blog, but I recently finished watching the “Wiseguy Season One Volume One” DVD set, so I thought I’d share my thoughts on it:

Wiseguy First Season Volume One
Mill Creek Entertainment
2 Discs (the box says 4 discs, but I assure you there are only 2)
7 hours 33 minutes
Color
I first encountered “Wiseguy” circa 1990, when CBS starting airing reruns after the cancellation of “The Pat Sajak Show” (1989-1990), and quickly fell in love with the show. I’m not really sure what prompted my initial affinity for the show, although I had been a fan of shows like “Danger Man” (a.k.a. “Secret Agent”) and I liked the idea of the main protagonist fretting over the unpleasant consequences of his own actions. I also liked the idea of multiple episode story “arcs”, which something the show does particularly well. While each episode conceivably could be viewed in isolation, each one containing its own denouement and certain issues resolved within it, most of the episodes are part of a larger arc that are meant to be viewed in sequence.
“Wiseguy” was created by producer Stephen J. Cannell (“The Rockford Files”, “Baa Baa Black Sheep”, “The A-Team”, “21 Jump Street”), whose shows have provided endless hours of escapism. The series followed Vincent Michael “Vinnie” Terranova, an undercover agent for the Organized Crime Bureau (OCB), presumably a fictional division of the FBI, as he infiltrates and brings down various criminal enterprises. Although the scriptwriting is of a high caliber, much of the appeal of the show derives from the cast. By 1987, when the show first aired, Ken Wahl, who starred in the show as Terranova, was a veteran actor best known for his roles in “The Wanderers” (1979) and “Fort Apache: The Bronx” (1981). Jonathan Banks, who played Terranova’s superior, Frank McPike, was probably best known as one of the bad guys in “Beverly Hills Cop”. Jim Byrnes, who plays Daniel “Lifeguard” Burroughs, Terranova’s contact person, did not have any television roles before “Wiseguy”, but later appeared in “Highlander: The Series”.
This budget-priced DVD set covers the first ten episodes of Wiseguy, covering the entire Sonny Steelgrave arc, as Terranova infiltrates the organization of Atlantic City crime boss Salvatore “Sonny” Steelgrave (the late Ray Sharkey).
Other recurring characters introduced in this arc include Elsa Raven as Carlotta Terranova, Vinnie’s mother, and Gerald Anthony as Father Pete Terranova, Vinnie’s older brother. Pete Terranova was killed off at the beginning of the second season; Carlotta Terranova appeared sporadically over the first three seasons. Here’s a synopsis of the episodes (SPOILER ALERT):
1. Pilot (part one): Vinnie Terranova is released from Newark State Penitentiary, where he has just completed an 18-month sentence designed to establish his cover. When his training officer is killed by David Steelgrave (Gianni Russo), Vinnie sets his sights on bringing down the Steelgrave empire. He succeeds in getting himself hired as Sonny Steelgrave’s driver, although Sonny’s right-hand man, Tony Greco (Robert Miranda) and his brother David remain wary of him. He runs afoul of a redneck sheriff, the appropriately-named Lewis Butcher (played by Cannell favorite Jack Ging), who goes about his business in a manner as subtle as a flying mallet. The Steelgraves soon uncover a plot by Norman Winfield to ship guns from their docks without the Steelgraves’ consent. This intransigence costs Winfield his life, but who was his buyer? Part one ends with Terranova being arrested for a hit-and-run incident involving Butcher.
2. Pilot (part two): Terranova locates the buyer of the contaband guns using a motel receipt he found in Winfield’s pocket. This leads to a meeting with the buyer, Renaldo Sykes (Mark Rolston), in which David Steelgrave is shot dead by Sykes’ associate Raya Montenegro (Adriana Baron), while Sonny and Tony Greco are both wounded. Terranova soon realizes that Sykes’ claim that he had already paid $100,000 to have the guns shipped may be true and that Greco, who runs the docks on behalf of Steelgrave, may have pocketed the money without the Steelgraves’ knowledge. In any case, Terranova has the OCB deposit $100,000 in Greco’s bank account. Greco finds out Terranova is a federal agent, but by then Sonny realizes that he is a turncoat and Greco has no choice but to cooperate with the OCB in exchange for enrollment in the Witness Protection Program. A final showdown with Sykes results in the death of both Sykes and Montenegro, although the police arrive, seizing the weapons and arresting Terranova yet again. Soon Terranova is installed as Sonny’s new right-hand man after he apparently helps Sonny kill an FBI agent.
3. New Blood: In the wake of David Steelgrave’s death, Sonny feels the squeeze from both New York City mob boss Paul “Pat the Cat” Patrice (Joe Dallesandro), who forces Steelgrave to allow his accountant Sid Royce (Dennis Lipscomb) to become his business manager, and corpulent Philadelphia mob boss Mack “No Money” Mahoney (Joe Shea). Special prosecutor Anthony Serrera (Vic Polizos) is investigating Steelgrave, and Patrice is behind an attempt to assassinate Serrera, hoping to frame Sonny. Terranova manages to pinpoint a pizzeria which is behind the attempt he and Steelgrave manage to narrowly thwart the plot.
4. The Loose Cannon: Patrice insists that Sonny collect the full 15 percent protection money from local hood Cecil DeMont (Raymond Forchion), which precipitates a war with DeMont and his henchmen. In the meantime, Sonny’s nephew, Lorenzo Steelgrave (David Marchiano) arrives in Atlantic City, but the younger Steelgrave appears to be, as the title implies, a loose cannon. Terranova dates local girl Gina Augustina (Yvette Heyden) who eventually figures out that Vinnie is a federal agent, leading to an exciting climax for this episode.
5. The Birthday Surprise: Terranova investigates the murder of his cousin Danny Tessio (Eddie Pagliaro). Sonny decides to do business with drug smuggler George Zaratzo, against the advice of Patrice and Royce. McPike uses strong-arm tactics to find Danny’s killer, and Sonny’s attempt to smuggle Zaratzo’s drugs into the U.S. via Buffalo is thwarted.
6. One on One: When several attempts to smuggle contraband via the docks are thwarted, Terranova begins to suspect that the local police have an undercover agent inside Steelgrave’s organization. This comes in the form of Karen Leland (Annette Benning), who is having an affair with the married Royce in order to obtain information about Steelgrave’s business. Royce, however, has his own ideas about who the mole is, and has Patrice’s henchmen kidnap McPike, hoping to get him to reveal the identity of the undercover agent. Terranova and Leland arrive at a Patrice-controlled laundromat and free McPike. Leland subsequently disappears and is presumed murdered, with Royce as the prime suspect.
7. Prodigal Son: Terranova’s mother is mugged, leaving her in the hospital. This prompts Vinnie to finally reveal his identity as a federal agent to his mother, against OCB policy. He also finds out that Steelgrave is head of a drug distribution network operating in Patrice’s territory. McPike must decide whether to report Terranova’s violation to his superiors.
8. A Deal’s a Deal: When singer Joey Romanowski has a hit, he wants to renegotiate his contract with Steelgrave, much to Sonny’s chagrin. He instead hires two rogue cops (Dan Lauria, Steve Vinovich) to rough up Joey. They get overzealous and crush his larynx, ending his career. Overzealous does not equal smart, however, and they are the first officers to arrive on the scene of their own mugging. McPike suspects the cops are responsible for the mugging, but they in turn take pictures of Terranova meeting with McPike, which puts Vinnie’s cover in danger.
9. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: Sonny decides to marry Theresa Baglia (Martina Finch), daughter of Bronx mob don “Joey Bags” Baglia. Patrice finally decides to kill Sonny, perceiving him as a dangerous rival, and seeks someone inside Sonny’s organization to help him. Vinnie agrees to help him, but also arranges to have the OCB raid Sonny’s bachelor party 15 minutes before Sonny is to be killed. Sonny learns of the plot and garrotes Patrice in front of a V.I.P. crowd at his bachelor party.
10. No One Gets Out of Here Alive: Sonny decides not to kill Vinnie for his treachery, but realizes Vinnie is a cop and flees his bachelor party minutes before the OCB raids the place. Terranova pursues Sonny and both end up locked in a closed movie theater. After a violent fist fight, the two settle in and wait for the cops to show up. When they do, Sonny electrocutes himself rather than face the death penalty for murdering Patrice. In the meantime, Don Baglia’s son, Aldo Baglia, who presumably would have become Sonny’s new right-hand man, disposes of Patrice’s body and apparently evades the OCB dragnet.
Comments: I picked up this low-budget DVD set for $2.50 at WalMart. Although I was a fan of the show, I hadn’t seen any of these episodes in over 20 years, and I wondered if the show was as good as I remembered it to be. It was. Particularly memorable was the late Ray Sharkey’s performance as mob boss Sonny Steelgrave. He succeeds in taking a murderer and turning him into a likeable character. The supporting cast was also good; Jonathan Banks plays his role as the cantankerous McPike with relish, establishing an unusual on-screen chemistry with Wahl (speaking of which, how many shows have one of their key episodes ending with the hero being arrested by his partner?). Jim Byrnes does not have a lot to do here, although he would have a chance to shine in subsequent episodes. Elsa Raven and Gerald Anthony are worth a mention as his mother and brother respectively; they both provide some depth to the main protagonist and ultimately become fully developed characters in their own right. We also get some good performances by Joe Dallesandro as Patrice and Dennis Lipscomb as the oily Harvard-educated Sid Royce. While I generally abhor violence, many times during the arc I kept wishing Sonny would punch Royce’s lights out (“Go ahead, Sonny – this one’s justified”). And let’s not forget Annette Benning towards the beginning of her career as Karen Leland, and veteran actor Dan Lauria (this may have been another case of Cannell preferring actors that were already in his shows; I think Lauria guested in an episode of Cannell’s “The Greatest American Hero”).
There are several strong episodes here, but the best episode – and the most memorable one – in my opinion was the last episode in the arc, “No One Gets Out of Here Alive”. In this episode, Vinnie and Sonny, locked in a movie theater and waiting the arrival of the Feds, have some riveting dialogue. Sonny, realizing the net is closing, tries to justify his behavior and rails against Vinnie’s betrayal. One of the downsides of the DVD release of this episode is the absence of the Moody Blues’ “Nights in White Satin”, presumably due to copyright issues. The substitution of generic music diminished the scene in which it was used somewhat, but this is still easily the best episode of the arc. This episode also provides a good example of why I like this show: loose ends are rarely left as loose ends without a reason. Aldo Baglia, who we last see burying Patrice, surfaces in a later episode. A wanted felon in the U.S., he flees to Vancouver and has to suffer the indignity of working in a butcher’s shop and staying in a second-class hotel. He discovers Vinnie is also in Vancouver and tries to kill him. (Sid Royce also surfaces in a later episode, having joined the Witness Protection Program and working in Iowa as a shoe salesman under the alias Elvis Prim.)
If you’re looking for extras, this isn’t the set for you. There are no extras, and with 5 episodes on each DVD, the video quality isn’t the greatest. It would have been nice to see interviews with the cast members (especially given the direction which Ken Wahl’s career has taken), which might have provided some insight into the making of the show. Nevertheless, if you just want to see the episodes (the first season is also available on YouTube), and especially if you’re a fan of the show or of this genre, you can’t go wrong.

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