Monday, July 26, 2004

Holes in the Ozone

A new kind of hero debuted in a new kind of TV show in the late 1980s. The hero was Vinnie Terranova, an enormously conflicted cop assigned to infiltrate criminal organizations, get close -- very close -- to their leadership, and take the whole thing down. The show was Wiseguy, the first to expand beyond the usual episode-by-episode format and tell stories over sprawling, multi-episode arcs. Vinnie had spent a year in the joint to give him the kind of street cred necessary to cozy up to the bad guys -- charismatic, eccentric types like Sonny Steelgrave and the Profitt siblings, Mel and Susan. Wiseguy's writers and producers often allowed the crooks to take center stage, giving the audience a chance to see why Vinnie would end up bonding, in a way, with them. After tearing down whichever criminal empire he was investigating in a particular arc, Vinnie would torture himself with feelings of disloyalty and treachery -- sure, he had taken down evildoers, but those people had trusted him, and he had betrayed that trust. He'd retreat into a haze of booze and self-loathing until his boss, Frank McPike, would wander onto the beach where Vinnie was brooding and stoically convince him to return for his next assignment. Which Vinnie would do.

Ken Wahl played Vinnie with just the right combination of Italian machismo, vulnerability, and cool, and he and the show quickly won over critics, if not viewers. Talk about a guy who should have had it all. But if you thought Vinnie was troubled, you ain't seen nothing yet, boyo. Dalton Ross's interview with the uber-reclusive Wahl in the current issue of Entertainment Weekly is a disturbing portrait of wasted talent and self-destruction. Stephen J. Cannell couldn't have cast a better guy to play Vinnie Terranova. In many ways the trajectory of Wahl's life has mirrored that of Wiseguy, which exploded onto television with layered, complex storytelling and pitch-perfect actors in all roles, then veered into a self-conscious, esoteric weirdness before finally collapsing, just three years after its promising beginning. Ken Wahl needs help, but you have to wonder whether, like Vinnie, he's too proud to seek it.


At July 26, 2004 at 4:40 PM, Blogger Wyatt Earp said...

To quote The Comic Book Guy: "Greatest show . . . ever!"

I proudly display my Wiseguy DVD collection, which includes the Steelgrave and Profitt arcs. William Russ has never been better. Somebody bring this show back, post haste!!!

BTW, the "Garment Industry" arc was also just released.

At July 26, 2004 at 4:41 PM, Blogger Wyatt Earp said...

Also, terrific title here, Tommy!


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