A U.S. television series that ran on CBS for four seasons, 1987-1990, centered around Vincent "Vinnie" Terranova (played by actor Ken Wahl), an undercover agent for the OCB (Organized Crime Bureau), a fictional division of the FBI. A major theme was the constant ethical dilemmas faced by the protagonist, who had to befriend criminals with the eventual intention of betraying them.Created by veteran hit producer Stephen J. Cannell and Frank Lupo (yes, the same pair responsible for The A-Team), Wiseguy veered from the traditional "bad guy of the week" police procedural by breaking the drama into multi-episode Story Arcs that followed an infiltration — and its charismatic criminal target — to its logical conclusion, no matter the cost to criminal, innocent civilian, or cop (though there were standalone Breather Episodes in later seasons, mostly dealing with the personal lives of the characters). The show influenced writers like Chris Carter, Joss Whedon, and David Simon to build on the trope of showing both sides of the morality play in humanizing detail.
Tropes in this series include:
Absurdly High-Stakes Game: Isaac Twine bets his record company against $10 million of Winston Newquay's money in a single hand of poker. He loses, and later discovers that the game was rigged.
Mel Profitt, although his drug business gets more attention.
As You Know: Starting in Season 2, Vinnie, McPike, and the OCB honchos have a habit of gathering every few episodes to tell each other the broad strokes of their current investigation and the identities of the major players (of which they are all already well aware) for the benefit of those in the audience who came in late.
Audit Threat: In the Eli Sternberg arc, McPike is trying to get some information from a company that does business with the group that they are investigating. They refuse, until McPike says "If you don't let me in, I will call my friends at the IRS. They eat guys like you for breakfast". The company lets him in immediately.
Becoming the Mask: Vinnie's OCB handler Frank McPike often has to remind him that his job is to lock up the bad guys, not be their friend. It doesn't help that Vinnie is regarded as a trusted associate by the criminals, and a scumbag lowlife by the police.
Cold-Blooded Torture: Harriet Weiss and Charlie Boden make a recalcitrant goon talk by breaking his toes with a bowling pin.
Conveniently Unverifiable Cover Story: Averted as Vinnie uses his own identity, including an eighteen-month prison sentence to establish his credentials as a criminal. Unfortunately this alienates him from his own mother, who doesn't know he's a federal agent.
Winston Newquay and Isaac Twine, record company owners who make bootlegs of their own artists' albums, sell them under the table, and pocket the cash. (Newquay also has his artists invest their money with a firm that he secretly controls, allowing him to embezzle from them.)
Amado Guzman, whose empire of airlines, jewelry stores, and banks conceals a money laundering operation for The Cartel.
Harriet Weiss, owner of a carting company that illegally disposes of medical waste.
Jack Bishop, a defense contractor who makes bogus airplane parts and has a whistleblower killed.
The new generation of mafiosi style themselves like this, particularly Rick Pinzolo, who uses his garment industry connections to work a massive stock scam.
Digital Piracy Is Evil: In the Dead Dog Records arc, the OCB treats record bootlegging the same way they previously treated drug smuggling, weapons trafficking, stock fraud, and extortion. (Ironically, this is the arc most subject to piracy since the show's original run, since disputes over the music rights have prevented it from being rebroadcast or released on DVD.)
Diplomatic Impunity: After the fecal matter hits the windmill on his criminal dealings, Amado Guzman takes refuge in the El Salvadoran consulate, where the FBI can't touch him, and then arranges to be smuggled out of the country.
Evil Duo: International Arms Dealer Mel Profitt and his sister Susan. As teens they killed their foster brother (by hanging him upside down until he passed out, then throwing him in the swimming pool) when he found out about their incestuous relationship. Together they form a "psychotic critical mass", as McPike describes it.
Evil Old Folks: Don Baglia, "No Money" Mahoney, Don Aiuppo, General Masters, Harriet Weiss, Charlie Boden, and Amado Guzman.
Fake Nationality: Austrian actor Maximillian Schell as the very Cuban Amado Guzman.
Faking the Dead: Roger Loccoco. Also the prosecutor Vinnie 'kills' to prove himself to Sonny, though an ambitious prosecutor willing to hide for years just to uphold an agent's cover is a bit unlikely.
Gaslighting: Roger Loccoco does this to Susan Profitt after Mel's death.
Go Among Mad People: In "White Noise," Vinnie checks into a hospital for a physical and, due to the machinations of Daryl Elias, ends up committed to the psychiatric ward, where he is kept physically restrained and drugged at all times.
Government Conspiracy: A secret group within the Washington D.C. hierarchy plans to use Mel Profitt to finance a coup against a communist regime in the Caribbean. When Vinnie causes this plan to fail they frame him as the mastermind behind another conspiracy to destabilise the Japanese economy with counterfeit yen.
Hair-Trigger Temper: Sonny Steelgrave, Mel Profitt, Calvin Hollis, Joey Grosset, and Albert Cerrico all suffer from this.
Hammer Space: In the first episode The Mafiais surprised to see an Arms Dealer bring a woman to their meeting. As things go badly we see her casually unbuttoning her skirt (how she does this without attracting attention is not explained), then she somehow produces an Ingram MAC-10 and starts blazing away. Now admittedly the MAC-10 is quite small for an SMG, but it's still a large chunk of metal to be hiding between your legs while wearing a tight skirt. It's worth noting that this was based on a scene in The Underground Empire where the narrator noticed two women at an arms deal were concealing firearms between their legs just from the way they sat down.
Heroic BSOD: Vinnie considers resigning after his first target (Atlantic City mob boss Sonny Steelgrave) commits suicide rather than face prison; when the suicide of another target reminds him of this event he suffers a complete breakdown and flees the OCB. The protagonist of the Garment Trade Arc, retired agent John Henry Raglin, suffers PTSD from an earlier case where two whistleblowers were murdered.
In the first episode Sonny Steelgrave, already partly suspicious of Vinnie, declares the only way he can prove himself is to shoot a prosecutor who's been hounding him.
Roger Loccoco has Vinnie join him on a hit before bringing him into the Proffits' business.
Humorously subverted in the Lynchboro arc: Vinnie thinks Volchek is testing him this way when he tells him to "get rid of somebody," but Volchek is really just telling him to throw him off the property. When Vinnie shows up with an urn ostensibly containing the troublemaker's remains, Volchek is shocked.
Initiation Ceremony: Played for humor when Vinnie becomes a made man — Sonny thinks it's no longer relevant in this day and age, while none of the old-time mobsters can agree on what the correct procedure is.
Lighter and Softer: The Dead Dog Records arc is this to the rest of the show. The crimes under investigation are copyright evasion, embezzlement, and tax fraud; violence is almost nonexistent and on one occasion Played for Laughs; and the only deaths are two accidents and a heart attack.
Mission Control: Daniel Burroughs, AKA "Lifeguard", a disabled agent who communicates mostly via telephone (posing as Vinnie's "Uncle Mike"). Vinnie calls him daily to pass on and receive information; he also has codewords for when he's in trouble.
Overlord Jr.: Aldo Baglia tries mightily to be this, but fails. Rick Pinzolo does a better job of it.
Perma Stubble: Vinnie sports one whenever he's not working a case.
Pet the Dog: Most villains have these moments at one time or another, leading to Wangst on the part of the hero. It's Vinnie's own mother who points out that Adolf Hitler and Attila the Hun had moments of genuine compassion too, but that didn't offset the evil that they did.
During the Pilgrims of Promise arc, the NYPD thinks Vinnie killed an off-duty cop and they beat nine kinds of hell out of him before McPike and Elias manage to spring him. When the real killer is arrested, he's last seen antagonizing these same cops...and is later reported to have hanged himself in his cell.
During the Rag Trade arc, Raglin pistol whips Pinzolo and breaks his jaw. At the end of the arc, he guns Pinzolo down in cold blood to protect Vinnie's cover.
Knox Pooley and his follower Calvin Hollis, leaders of the white supremacist group Pilgrims of Promise. Pooley turns out to be a Con Man just in it for the money, while Hollis suffers a Villainous Breakdown after Pooley rejects him.
Mel Profitt has a tendency to hurl ethnic slurs at Vinnie when he's upset with him.
In "Sins of the Father," a sting is blown because Carlo Spoletta refuses to do business with black people.
The corrupt CIA agent White has a few choice things to say about "Latin males."
Properly Paranoid: In his intro episode, Mel Profitt causes a gang war by insisting that an associate's fiancee is a Deep Cover Agent for the federal government. Despite the fact that his only "evidence" is that her family is from Virginia, he turns out to be right.
Rewarded as a Traitor Deserves: "Pat the Cat" Patrice plans to have Vinnie killed after Vinnie helps him assassinate Sonny Steelgrave, because "I despise a betrayer."
Ripped from the Headlines: The Mel Profitt arc (and the pilot episode where Sonny Steelgrave gets into a hotel gunfight with a weapons dealer) draws from the non-fiction doorstopperThe Underground Empire by James Mills.
Running Gag: People love to make fun of Rick Pinzolo's juicer. When David Sternberg finally loses it, he takes great pleasure in destroying the contraption in front of Pinzolo.
The machete-wielding ex-Ton Ton Macoute boss in the Guzman arc. When he makes the fatal mistake of insulting Guzman's manhood, however...
Hilariously subverted when music mogul Newquay is locked up in a cell with a Scary Black Man who's twice as big as he is. Newquay clearly fears the worst, only to have his fellow inmate join him in an enthusiastic duet of "Soul Man".
Schrödinger's Cat: Ken Wahl returned for a reunion movie in 1996, with no explanation of what happened to him in the Guzman arc.
Winston Newquay has heavy political pull and isn't afraid to throw it around.
Amado Guzman's drug and money laundering operations have been bulletproof for decades because of his involvement in CIA covert ops in Latin America.
Screw the Rules, I Have Money!: Prescott Wilson rolls like that. And it works, too: he muscles his way into a closed-door session of the Senate, tells everyone off without even bothering to be sworn in to testify, and walks right back out. No one bothers to stop him.
Secret Test of Character: Amado Guzman pulls this on both Santana and Dagoberto Machado. Santana passes, but Machado fails.
Superdickery: The promos for "The One That Got Away" showed Vinnie threatening to shoot Bobby Travis and Winston Newquay, neither of which happened in the actual episode.
Suspiciously Similar Substitute: After Ken Wahl broke his ankle in an on-set accident, he was replaced by Anthony Denison (playing John Henry Raglin). This was Written-In Infirmity as Vinnie having his leg broken by loan-shark Johnny "Coke Bottles". After a dispute with the producers Ken Wahl was replaced by actor Steven Bauer, playing disbarred Cuban-American prosecutor Michael Santana. Vinnie had ostensibly been killed by a death squad while investigating the smuggling of Salvadorean refugees.
In the Mafia Wars arc, Don Aiuppo tells Vinnie that Cericco is planning to have him killed, so Vinnie is to follow him and see who he meets. "They will be the assassins." Vinnie reports this to Frank McPike.
Vigilante Man: After white supremicists murder his brother Pete (a Catholic priest) Vinnie considers killing the man responsible. Vinnie eventually decides to bring him to justice only for the villain to be killed in custody by local police for his role in the death of a black officer.