With the release of Wiseguy on DVD, one of the best TV series of the 1980s gets a new lease on life. Long before Donnie Brasco brought similar drama to the big screen, Ken Wahl brought charisma, credibility, and chutzpah to his small-screen role as Vincent Terranova, a handsome 30-year-old agent with the FBI's Organized Crime Bureau. As conceived by cocreators Stephen Cannell (of The Rockford Files and The A-Team fame) and Ken Lupo, Wiseguy followed an innovative "story-arc" structure, allowing Vinnie's deep-cover missions to last only as long as necessary to bring each case to a sensible conclusion. Since copied by countless TV shows, this unique approach to storytelling attracted a devoted following of viewers addicted to the self-contained plots that forced Vinnie, his sourpuss OCB handler Frank McPike (Jonathan Banks), and disabled covert liaison Dan "Lifeguard" Burroughs (played by double-amputee Jim Byrnes) to achieve their objectives within 6 to 10 hourlong episodes. Season 1, Part 1--the first of six Wiseguy DVD sets--includes the entire nine-episode arc (plus pilot) in which Vinnie infiltrates the New Jersey mob family of Sonny Steelgrave, a silk-suited kingpin played by Ray Sharkey in his finest TV role. Their brotherly relationship poses a moral dilemma for Vinnie (giving the arc its dramatic core and primary source of suspense), and Wiseguy earned its reputation as a well-written series that favored character-driven tension while providing the requisite pulp fiction (i.e. occasional murder and mayhem) that kept viewers and advertisers happy. While the DVD packaging gives bogus equal billing to Annette Bening (who appears here in one pivotal episode), her pre-stardom appearance is indicative of the show's consistently high standards in writing, casting, and stylish direction. The styles may be dated (including poodle-puff hairdos for women, including Bening), but there's not a weak episode in the bunch, including the stand-alone shows (involving domestic crises for McPike and Burroughs) that allowed character growth beyond the story-arc structure. It's all good, apart from a dispensable gag reel and commentaries by Wahl (on his two favorite episodes), who says little of interest between long gaps of silence. (He promises more on later DVDs, so Wiseguy devotees are advised to keep listening. Next up: the "Mel Profitt" arc, with guest star Kevin Spacey.) --Jeff Shannon

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