Swimming With Sharkey

American network television in the 1980s was an uncertain period roughly bracketed by the premiere of Steven Bochco’s long-running “Hill Street Blues” and the meteoric streak of David Lynch and (“Hill Street Blues” alumnus) Mark Frost’s mass cult hit “Twin Peaks.” It was a time when a number of producers and writers and directors were looking to upgrade the field and responding to the fears of network executives with the shakes from competition in cable and home video, so they latched onto the lowly cop show as a vehicle for experimentation.

These weren’t guerrilla raids by the kind of low-level genre specialists that Manny Farber dubbed “termite artists.” People like Bochco and Michael Mann (“Miami Vice,” “Crime Story”) were savvy self-promoters who really wore their ambitions on their sleeves. People too young to remember network TV before shows like these came along may have trouble understanding their impact when they were fresh. In the days when the big three networks had the field to themselves, the technical look of network TV was often primitive and disposable; even “The Rockford Files,” probably the best crime show up to its time (and still nothing to sneeze at), got way too much mileage out of the same fake-wood-paneled office set and stock shots of cars tearing down the L.A. streets while James Garner recites exposition on the soundtrack. Brightening the packaging were “Hill Street,” which loosened up narrative strictures and applied a look adapted from the Alex and Susan Raymond video documentary “The Police Tapes,” and “Miami Vice,” which brought an edgy feel and banter (especially in its early days), as well as a look borrowed not just from MTV but Mann’s debut feature film, Thief, to often paper-thin stories populated with smartly dressed cardboard cut-outs. As then-TV critic Elvis Mitchell put it (in 1985), they helped drag network TV into the ’70s.

Yet the best crime show of this period, and still one of the best network TV has ever done, was a relatively unheralded show that aired on lowly CBS (even then recognized as the Jurassic network), the creation of a ridiculously overprolific veteran TV producer best known for such jocular fender-benders as “The A-Team,” “The Greatest American Hero,” and “Hardcastle and McCormack.” “Wiseguy” premiered in the fall of 1987 and, compared to some of the flashier models on display at NBC (as well as ABC’s great investigation of the crime-solver mentality, “Sledge Hammer!”), looked a little conventional at first glance. It didn’t blast you in the face with its graphic design; it saved its originality for where it mattered: in its approach to storytelling and how far it proved willing to follow its characters into the seamier areas of their souls.

“Wisguy,” which has just made its debut on DVD, stars Ken Wahl as Vinnie Terranova, a guy from da streets who we meet as he’s emerging from prison after a stretch of hard time. This, it turns out, is the first, authenticating step in Vinnie’s real new career: he’s an FBI agent working so deep under cover that virtually no one, besides his unlovable boss McPike (Jonathan Banks, in a heroically charmless performance), knows that he’s actually one of the good guys — not his family and friends, or even the cops who start busting his balls once he’s established as a Known Associate. It’s a premise that requires a hard-nosed treatment to work at all, and Cannell — who’d established himself as a first-rate scriptwriter for “The Rockford Files” before achieving success as TV’s foremost packager of “spoofy” car chases — seemed to latch onto it as his last chance to save himself from advanced diabetes of the career.

The real narrative breakthrough that made the show’s quality possible was Cannell’s decision to break its episodes into strings of self-contained “story arcs”: Vinnie would latch onto a target and the show would play out that string until the target was brought down, then reinvent itself. “Hill Street Blues” had let events spill over from episode to episode, and Mann’s hugely ambitious “Crime Story” had tried to build a serial epic by following a major-crimes officer (Dennis Farina) in his efforts to bring down a rising young hood (Anthony Denison). That show, which premiered a year before “Wiseguy,” had its moments of brilliance — the feature-length pilot, available on DVD from Anchor Bay, is as good as anything its director, Abel Ferrara, has ever done — but it was crippled by its stale devotion American series TV’s traditional enslavement to formula. “Crime Story” was built on the notion that if the cop ever nailed the hood for good, the series would have to end. (It’s the same notion that Lynch and Frost, for all their originality, turned out to be married to on “Twin Peaks”; they inadvertently wore out their show’s welcome because they didn’t trust the audience to stick around after the murder of Laura Palmer was wrapped up.) By building stories with a beginning, a middle and an end, “Wiseguy” allowed its creative crew to raise the stakes higher than viewers were used to seeing on series TV. It was a challenge that the show’s writers — initially, principally Cannell, his co-producer Frank Lupo, and David Burke, Eric Blakeney and Steve Kronish — and directors and actors were itching to rise to.

The four-disc DVD set “Wiseguy: First Season, First Half,” comprises what’s become known among cultists as “the Steelgrave arc,” a mini-gangster epic that pairs Wahl’s Vinnie with Ray Sharkey as Jersey-bred “businessman” Sonny Steelgrave. Sonny, who dresses like a shark and operates out of a high-rise office, is a mobster for the Reagan-Michael Milken era: Little Caesar as CEO. His brother and partner in crime is killed in the pilot, and he has to break a sweat hustling to shore up his flank and demonstrate to his rivals and other assorted enemies that he’s not a man to be written off or rolled over. Like the ultimate gangster antihero, Michael Corleone, he’s a little man with a fire of ambition that’s been lit under him by family tragedy, but unlike Michael he never had a shot at anything better — there was never any possibility of a “Senator Steelgrave, Governor Steelgrave” in his future — and maybe because of that, he has no qualms. Sonny takes what he wants from those who aren’t strong enough to stop him and protects what’s his with a junkyard dog’s ferocity, and if anything affects his sleep, it isn’t guilt. He sees himself as entitled, as Vinnie puts it to him late in the arc, “just because your flame burns brighter.”

He’s also almost insanely likable. In an interview shortly after the Steelgrave arc had completed its rerun cycle, Sharkey said that he’d warned the writers that nothing they could give him to do would turn the audience against him, and he was right. It’s not that the scripts rig things his way — Sonny is often horrendously unreasonable, and in the great cliffhanger episode “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,” he performs an act of violence that’s no less shocking than Tony Soprano’s instantly legendary offing of a “rat” in “Pax Soprano.” Yet Sharkey sensitizes a viewer to the man’s fears and feelings that brings him too close to viewers for him to be hated. Part of the sting of the conception is that Vinnie himself, who gets plenty of opportunities to see his new boss at his worst, is sort of on his side. Joining the family, Vinnie steps into the hole left by the death of Sonny’s brother, and soon he and Sonny are themselves, as the gelatinous mole Sid Royce (Dennis Lipscomb) puts it, “like brothers.” Vinnie actually tries to arrange the inevitable big bust to come at a moment when it’ll leave Sonny looking to be the victim of his enemies — a gesture that Sonny unknowingly defeats with his stubborn insistence on having an autonomous existence.

Proposing marriage to the daughter of an old-time don, Sonny talks about his fear of death and his need to have his name live on when he’s gone. “Give me sons!” he urges the woman, and though the language is plain enough, the emotion that comes through is the kind that Italian operas are written about. The emotion is probably something that Sharkey didn’t have to dig too deep to capture. A ferret-faced little guy with an early balding pattern (the ostentatious toupee he wears as Sonny is like a joke he’s sharing with the audience), Sharkey must have seemed like unlikely star material, but from his earliest film roles (in such movies as Who’ll Stop the Rain? and the little-seen Hot Tomorrows), he always displayed the kind of mysterious, crowd-clearing charisma and audience rapport that are like a neon sign above an actor’s head spelling “A STAR IS BORN!” After starring in the 1980 “The Idolmaker” — a performance that Cannell has said he couldn’t get out of his head until he’d arranged to work with Sharkey on “Wiseguy” — he seemed well on his way, but Sharkey turned out to have a party-heart, self-destructive streak that reacted about as badly to a little success as it’s possible to react without taking out whole city blocks. A longtime dabbler in drugs, he turned to heroin and was soon annoying the director of a 1981 TV movie in which he was starring by literally nodding off during takes. For half a dozen years his career was virtually over, replaced by a string of car accidents and a $500-dollar-a-day habit. Desperate to reclaim his career, Sharkey had just wrapped up a stint in detox when Cannell offered to take a chance on him. He gave the performance of his career in “Wiseguy,” slipping in takes between regular drug tests.

Sharkey had always been a flashy performer, but his work as Sonny demonstrated a new depth and commitment to character — and to working and playing well with others. Wahl, whose own attempt at a film career had petered out after major roles in The Wanderers, Fort Apache, the Bronx, and the blighted Jinxed!, does the best work of his career in his scenes with Sharkey, maybe because the two weren’t entirely acting; they liked each other and had a warm bond on the set that comes through as the characters’ brotherly feeling. (Compare it to Wahl’s lack of rapport with his on-screen lover in Jinxed!, Bette Midler; Wahl, always eager to make friends, told reporters that he’d gotten through his love scenes with the Divine Miss M by thinking about his dog.) Sonny and Vinnie’s manly love for each other gives the show its emotional core and sets it to roiling. Towards the end, on a long sequence with the two of them trapped together, Sharkey performs a sweat-stained, dancing monologue about growing up mookish that’s set to the Rascals’ “Good Lovin’,” then collapses on the floor for a long, breathtakingly unembarrassed exchange of close-ups between the two men that’s scored to the Moody Blues’ “Knights in White Satin.” It’s a joke on the homoerotic implications of the Butch-and-Sundance relationship, but with too much honest emotion in it to be anything but moving. (Aggravatingly, problems with the music rights means that this scene will play in the DVD without the song. They really need to get this stuff sorted out better in the future, or there’ll be no point whatsoever to the inevitable DVD sets of “Miami Vice.”) Sonny won Sharkey his career back; he worked steadily and well, albeit in such middling movies as Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills, Wired, Zebrahead, and his swan song, Cop and a Half, until his death in 1993. (Sharkey was an AIDS casualty, probably a victim of shared needles.)

During its first season, Wahl was “Wiseguy’s” mild card, a hunky guy with a slightly recessive presence who quietly exudes decency while taking a back seat to the special guest villains. Before “Wiseguy,” his best role and performance was probably in Phil Kaufman’s The Wanderers, a 1979 adaptation of Richard Price’s novel, in which he played a neighborhood guy who’s on his way from hot young stud to pot-bellied working dad. The character might have grown up enduring the sneers of a young Sonny Steelgrave as he passed him on the way up. Wahl is also burdened with scenes involving his family — a brother who’s a priest and a moralistic mother, played by a Gertrude Stein lookalike with an Old World accent — that are like leftovers from a 1930s James Cagney movie. But Wahl is well-used as a guy who spends a lot of time quietly soaking up information. A huge lug with a comic-book jawline and a suggestion of lycanthropy in his eyebrows and hair helmet, you can see how people plotting villainy would take his presence for granted, like a lamp. And in a medium where viewers are often asked not to notice the apparent dimness of the nominal heroes, the show gets some choice laughs out of the mystery of where Vinnie the hood’s apparent dimness ends and Vinnie the Quantico graduate’s intelligence begins. When Sonny barks “Hanh?” after he’s been condmended as “draconian,” Vinnie helpfully explains, “Means like Dracula.” It’s anyone’s guess whether he’s joking.

Paul Patrice, Sonny’s chief rival, is played by Joe Dallesandro, the same slab of beef who made his name in such Andy Warhol/ Paul Morrissey pictures as Trash and Flesh, where he seemed content to loll zonked and naked across the screen, sort of like a pornographic Ken Wahl with track marks. Here, fresh from his unexpectedly sentient-seeming appearance as Lucky Luciano in Coppola’s The Cotton Club, he’s a hefty chunk of steaming menace, unable to contain his disgust over Sonny’s failure to simply concede that he’s the better man and fall over dead. He’s surly in a way that’s simultaneously both scary and funny. As the slimy Royce, who serves as Patrice’s veneer of respectability, Lipscomb redefines “lugubriousness,” going beyond spinelessness into near bonelessness. One especially notable guest appearance comes in the episode “One on One,” featuring Annette Bening as a smooth social operative with a complicated agenda. Bening gives a smart, daring performance that predates (and outclasses) her movie debut in Milos Forman’s Valmont.

“Wiseguy” was never as tightly knitted and inexorable in its drive as the Steelgrave arc, yet the second half of the first season — due out on DVD at the end of December, just in time for people looking to upgrade their returned Christmas gifts — would be essential viewing if it had nothing to recommend it but Kevin Spacey’s performance as the Malthusian arms-and-drugs tycoon Mel Profitt. As Mel, a psychotic genius with a habit of taking a mysterious medicinal cocktail between his toes and an incestuous bond with his sister Susan (Joan Severance), Spacey gives a stunning, weirdly seductive performance that’s all the more amazing considering that the young actor was still something of a novice. (Aside from a cable-TV transcription of the 1986 Broadway production of “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” in which he co-starred with Jack Lemmon, his only previous acting on camera had been a guest spot on “Crime Story.”) Some of Spacey’s sliest brilliant-bad-boy mannerisms first surfaced here and they never found a character they fit better. (And no one who saw this performance before seeing The Usual Suspects was ever in any doubt as to the true identity of Keyser Soze.) Mel is too scarily unpredictable for Vinnie to develop the kind of closeness towards him that he had for Sonny — and his maniacal, murderous tantrums make Sonny look positively cuddly — but he, too, is a strangely sympathetic monster, a damaged orphan whose compulsive need to get the better of people stems from memories of God knows what childhood hell. A slightly warmer brand of psycho is offered by William Russ as Roger Lococco, a former Green Beret who works as chief of security for the Profitts and who, it turns out, has his own plans. The Profitt-Lococco arc is further enlivened by other striking guest performers, among them the mighty Jon Polito, who in the episode “Player to be Named Now” comes out on the wrong end of a business deal with Mel and is last seen being led back to his guest quarters while Mel advises Roger to make sure not to leave any sharp objects within his reach.

The full first season of “Wiseguy” on DVD will fill an aching hole in the lives of some of us and should enlighten some other benighted souls who may wonder why some of us used to care so much about the K-PAX guy. In its later seasons, “Wiseguy” continued to showcase terrific guest performances — by Fred Dalton Thompson as a shifty dealer in race hatred, by Tim Curry as a music magnate, by Stanley Tucci as a rising young mob lord — but the show itself went soft, partly because of a sudden tendency to give Wahl his head and let him suffer Big Dramatic Moments in a misguided attempt to court Emmy voters. (The relationship between Vinnie and McPike was softened too, and the two began exchanging buddyisms and even sharing concern about each other’s feelings, a gruesome sight and probably a violation of God’s law.) Wahl himself quit the show before its run fully ground to an end; it’s typical of the poor guy’s career overall that, during what turned out to be the best post-first-season “Wiseguy” arc, the one featuring Tucci (alongside Jerry Lewis as a garment-district patriarch and Ron Silver as his son), Wahl was sidelined by an injury and replaced for the duration of that storyline by “Crime Story’s” Anthony Denison. Life is like that — the body is unpredictable, inspiration flags, daring gives way to sentimentality. But the good stuff stays good. And DVDs, like diamonds, are forever.