Kevin Spacey? Stanley Tucci? Jonathan Banks? All Roads Lead to ‘Wiseguy’

Stephen J. Cannell's 1980s crime show cast a long shadow thanks to talent and storytelling

Wiseguy CBS 1987

Reading about Kevin Spacey returning in “House of Cards,” watching Jonathan Banks breaking bones on “Breaking Bad” and Steven Bauer in “Ray Donovan,” and seeing Stanley Tucci stealing scenes in the “Hunger Games” sequel, lately it feels like all roads lead to “Wiseguy.”

Once in a while there are TV series that in hindsight appear ahead of their time, or that provided a launching pad for an inordinate amount of talent. “Wiseguy,” which aired on CBS from 1987-90, managed to do both.

Starring Ken Wahl as Vinnie Terranova, a cop working undercover as a criminal enforcer, the series introduced Spacey as part of an incestuous brother-and-sister team (that’s Joan Severance pictured with him above), Tucci as a ruthless mobster and Banks as Wahl’s taciturn boss. Featuring one of composer Mike Post’s best themes (if you know it, you’ll likely be humming it the rest of the day), the Stephen J. Cannell production also proved inordinately adroit – so much so that when Wahl was sidelined by an injury, the producers brought in Tony Denison as a temporary replacement for an arc of episodes (featuring Tucci, Ron Silver and Jerry Lewis) that were among the program’s best.

Wahl eventually left, and was briefly replaced by Bauer. But by that time, the ship had pretty much sailed, but not before “Wiseguy” had left a pretty indelible impression.

NBC flirted with rebooting the show a couple of years ago, but those plans fizzled, which is probably just as well. For starters, it would likely be impossible to reassemble the kind of talent featured in those early seasons, unless the producers got awfully lucky in the casting process. And like a lot of revivals, this one would feel particularly unnecessary, since “Wiseguy” has been knocked off a half-dozen times, at least, in the intervening years.

Perhaps foremost, the way the episodic arcs were structured allowed Terranova to infiltrate an operation, bring it down, and start over again – with new bad guys and guest stars. In that respect, it mirrored a device being employed by various limited series or in a slightly altered manner something like the “American Horror Story” franchise, except that “Wiseguy” usually made sense.

As Time’s James Poniewozik astutely wrote in a 2010 remembrance of Cannell, “The dark CBS crime drama introduced Kevin Spacey in a memorable arc as villain Mel Profitt, but it also was influential in popularizing the idea of long-running serial stories in primetime series (something that had evolved as well with earlier shows like ‘Hill Street Blues’). If Cannell had a tremendous effect on big-network TV over the years, he also, with ‘Wiseguy,’ helped establish the template for cable dramas as we now know them.”

Indeed. So while this might seem like nothing more than a nostalgic look back, in terms of students of TV drama understanding how we got here, they’d be wise to familiarize themselves with “Wiseguy.”