Mike Flaherty
April 26, 1996 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Pity Wiseguy‘s beleaguered fans. During its four seasons (1987-1991), they watched the show’s lukewarm ratings coexist with critical acclaim; endured the sporadic absence of its star, Ken Wahl (who missed the last season entirely); and finally witnessed its creeping demise. Now they commiserate on the Wiseguy website while grumbling over the show’s spotty presence in cable syndication. So the announcement that ABC will be throwing them a bone by reviving the show in the form of an eponymous TV movie (May 2 at 9 p.m. EDT) is sure to inspire glee among its long-suffering acolytes.

A cerebral morality play in cop-show clothing, Wiseguy was, in the end, too smart for its own good. The premise was hardly innovative — O.C.B. (Organized Crime Bureau) agent Vinnie Terranova (Wahl) is assigned to infiltrate and bring down criminal conspiracies. What gave the series its compelling edge was Terranova’s eternal conflict: By so successfully immersing himself in the lives of his merciless targets, he (and we) ultimately came to care for them.

”It wasn’t about cops and robbers,” says producer-creator Stephen Cannell. ”It was all about the seduction of Vinnie Terranova — this guy’s moral center and what was happening to his compass.” That ever-shifting moral landscape found Terranova torn between the humanity of the criminals and the frigid, amoral bureaucracy that employed him — a post-Iran-contra take on the Feds that provides a bridge between the noble G-men of, say, the 1960s series The FBI and the outright paranoia of an X-Files. ”These guys are not the knights in shining armor we were led to believe they were by Efrem Zimbalist Jr. and his agents,” observes Jim Byrnes, who played Lifeguard, the O.C.B. communications expert in the series and the movie. ”Some of them are the guys in the conspiracy theories.”

Wiseguy‘s groundbreaking programming structure — in which stories were presented in the form of 4-to-10-episode ”arcs” — allowed the viewer to experience each of Terranova’s gradual seductions. According to Cannell, this was the first prime-time drama to employ such a protracted, slow-burn narrative. The delayed viewer gratification that resulted stalled Wiseguy‘s acceptance by CBS — the original home of the series — and largely accounts for its difficulties in syndication (it is currently syndicated in just 30 percent of the country). But its structure is also its most enduring legacy; these days, there’s nary a crime show that doesn’t rely on overlapping subplots (Murder One being the extreme, with one season-long arc).

Another Wiseguy signature — grotesque, utterly charismatic villains — was abetted by the casting of screen-eating character actors: the late Ray Sharkey as Mob kingpin Sonny Steelgrave (a performance that has taken on near-mythic proportions among the show’s fans) and Kevin Spacey as Mel Profitt, the manic-depressive junkie, global dope dealer, and arms merchant whose relationship with his sister, Susan (Joan Severance), is incestuous. (Curiously, Cannell’s latest TV series, Profit, centers on a similarly ruthless character with an almost identical surname.) ”Wiseguy‘s writers did stuff that was outside the lines of mainstream TV,” says Joel Surnow, who wrote the telefilm. ”I’d look at it and go, ‘You can’t do that.’ Like Susan Profitt injecting heroin between her brother’s toes, not to mention sleeping with him. That was just so delicious.”

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