Wednesday, October 8, 2008

QQF: Looking on the "Brite Side" of Wisgeuy

I was a fan of Stephen Cannell’s Wiseguy from the very beginning. I don’t know what made me start watching it back in 1987 when it debuted as a lead in to Knots Landing, amid a landscape that included Matlock, thirtysomething, and Beauty and the Beast. But Vinnie Terranova (Ken Wahl) and Sonny Steelgrave (Ray Starkey) were a flash of something cool and dangerously homoerotic with none less than the Moody Blues as their soundtrack. Next came Mel “the toes know” Profitt with an unknown Kevin Spacey and I officially entered fandom.

An offhand reference to the Steelgrave arc by a colleague got me thinking about the series other great arc—Dead Dog Records. He kindly brought me DVDs from his own collection, and a bout with the flu gave me the time to watch them.

It was great to watch the arc as a continuous piece. The cast is even more fabulous than I remember: Glenn Fry, Paul McCrane, Deidre Hall, Paul Winfield, Patti D’arbanville, and the real stars, Debbie Harry and Tim Curry.

The arc follows the music business as Vinnie resuscitates a bankrupt label. Deborah Harry plays a washed up singer trying to make a comeback, and Tim Curry is the evil record producer Winston Newquay. She was cutting the album Def, Dumb, and Blonde at the time and released the single “Brite Side” through the episode. It’s hard to reconcile the current Spamalot Curry with the FrankNFurter Curry who could sing a searing version of “Sloe Gin.” But that’s the great cheap thrill about this time machine: Tim Curry here still has the mystique of endless nights lived close to the edge.

Glenn Fry gets some great lines that as a rocker he can put across:

Vinnie: “What’s out in Jersey?”
Travis: “The graveyard of the industrial revolution and the toddlers of rock n roll.”

There are lots of delicious high points: Ken Wahl himself, the Chris Noth of an earlier generation who, alas, never met a Carrie Bradshaw; Deidre Hall and Debbie Harry flaunting full 80’s regalia in a Dynasty-inspired cat fight; Mick Fleetword as a music superstar who likes air hockey and pastrami.

The arc had one of the great fake-outs in tv history. Newquay on a jail cot, disturbs his cell mate who was sleeping under it. A tall, menacing black guy snarls at the petite Tim, then gets in his face. It looks like Winston is finally going to get some karmic payback. Then the guy asks if he is WN, and he starts singing "Soul Man." Curry looks shocked, horrified, relieved, and then joins in, perfunctorily at first, and then letting it rip.

Tim Curry had two more memorable scenes: dancing on the grave of his competitor Isaac, dressed as Fred Astaire humming “Lullaby of Broadway,” when Isaac’s recorded voice yells “Gotcha”; and then in full leather Elvis, in his office in front of a mirror, singing as he descends into madness. And for just a few seconds on prime-time tv, there’s a flash of authentic Curry and the dark side.

Be bop a lula, she's my baby
Be bop a lula, I don't mean maybe
Be bop a lula, she's my baby,
Be bop a lula, I don't mean maybe
Be bop a lula, she's my baby doll, my baby doll, my baby doll


AW said...

That "Soul Man" routine was my favorite TV scene of the '80s, with the possible exception of a few from "Hill Street Blues." It took a while for television to get that good again. Thanks for reminding me of the graveside and Elvis scenes!

M.A.Peel said...

Thanks for stopping by AW. Wiseguy doesn't come up that often in the cultural conversation anymore.