‘Wiseguy’ Gets Older--and Wiser : Television: Co-creator Stephen J. Cannell has returned to simplify the CBS series, which has a new star and writing staff. Last season, he said, ‘you couldn’t figure what was going on.’
It’s not the same old “Wiseguy” that will be kicking off its fourth season Saturday night. The CBS series will boast a new star, Steven Bauer, a new female cast member, a new co-executive producer and a new writing staff.
“It is sort of like bringing it back from the dead,” said Stephen J. Cannell, the co-creator and executive producer who has returned to “Wiseguy.”
Though never a ratings blockbuster, “Wiseguy,” which followed the exploits of an undercover federal agent who infiltrated crime organizations, was a critical success that boasted such diverse guest stars as Ray Sharkey, Kevin Spacey, Jerry Lewis, Ron Silver, Joan Chen and Tim Curry. After its second season, the series received numerous Emmy nominations, including one as best drama series and one for leading actor Ken Wahl.
Last season, however, the small-but-loyal audience began tuning out in droves because of muddled story lines and the absence of Wahl for several episodes, due to an ankle injury. As a result, “Wiseguy” didn’t make CBS’ fall schedule, receiving instead a mid-season pickup for 13 episodes.
The problem, Cannell said, was that “Wiseguy” became too wise for its own good.
“If you didn’t watch (regularly)--and not only watch it, but make a graph of it--you couldn’t figure what was going on,” he said. “What happened is that people would tune in, get confused and stay away.”
Cannell wasn’t involved much in the show last season, but he is now. His intention is “to go back to the same kind of storytelling we did in the first and second seasons.” Although some story lines will still have an arc over several episodes, each installment will also have self-contained stories to accommodate casual viewers.
Wahl’s exit from the show was the subject of controversy last season. Wahl told The Times in June that he was dropped from the show against his will, while the producers maintained that the actor had wanted to leave. Cannell acknowledged recently that the two did have creative differences. He said that he wanted to deal with the moral problems that an undercover agent has, while Wahl, he said, “thought it was very difficult for him to be playing a guy who had any naivete about his situation.”
The upshot is that Saturday’s two-hour season premiere finds Wahl’s character, agent Vinnie Terranova, missing and presumed dead. Agent Frank McPike (Jonathan Banks) conducts an investigation that leads him to Miami and to an uneasy alliance with Michael Santana (Bauer), a disbarred Cuban-American prosecutor who had worked with Terranova.
Santana is drawn into the investigation when it leads to Amado Guzman (Maximilian Schell), a powerful Cuban-American businessman for whom Santana’s father works. Santana gets a job with Guzman’s company when he discovers that Guzman’s freight airline is a cover for illegal activities.
“The easiest thing we could have done is the ‘Son of Vinnie’ and do something about another Sicilian American from Brooklyn in the mold Ken Wahl created,” said Peter Lance, the show’s new co-executive producer. “But when Stephen finally fixed on Steven Bauer as the new hero, we looked to his roots. He was born in Cuba and came to America, so we said, ‘Why don’t we explore that?’ The Cuban-Americans, next to the Vietnamese, are the most interesting recent ethnic group to come to America. They have completely revitalized Miami, so we decided, why not go in this direction?”
“I couldn’t ask for a more ideal situation,” said Bauer, who appeared in such films as “Scarface” and the Emmy Award-winning NBC miniseries “Drug Wars: The Camarena Story.” “The show had loyal supporters and I am part of its new chance, its new life. It can only get better unless with me it dies, but I don’t think that will happen. The character is brand-new and he is coming from an ethnic cultural background that is brand new to TV.”
Actress Cecil Hoffmann, who appeared on the short-lived NBC series “Dream Street,” also is joining the cast as attorney Hilary Stein, who was Santana’s co-counsel and now works with Guzman.
“We decided the show needed the involvement of a woman in a big way,” Lance said. “Even in the first season, with Vinnie and Susan Profitt (with whom Vinnie fell in love), there was a sense that women could watch the show and have some franchise in it. It had taken a turn away from that.”
Lance said that “Wiseguy” is going to have an uphill climb in order to succeed, however. In its regular time slot of Saturdays at 10 p.m., it will be competing with “Carol & Company” on NBC and “Twin Peaks” on ABC.
“So many people left the show last year that (CBS) pulled the reruns this summer; that’s how bad it got,” he said. “There’s also the Jane Pauley Syndrome, which is a valid one: The public gets angry when you change heroes. (But) what we have tried to do is so ambitious and so different, I have a lot of faith in the American public. . . . Audiences love their heroes and heroines, but people also like a good hour of TV.”