It's not as if cops are under-explored figures on television. But it's only since the modern era of cop shows began with Hill Street Blues in the early 1980s that your typical TV Joe Friday has been depicted as anything other than a badge and gun loosely connected to a human being.
20th Century Fox
Michael Chiklis as Det. Vic Mackey
Since then, we've gotten to know our boys (and occasional women) in blue as much for their inner lives as their working lives. Capt. Frank Furillo of Hill Street Blues fame had an affair with the public defender. Andy Sipowicz of NYPD Blue was an ex-drunk. Frank Pembleton of Homicide was haunted, and so was Lennie Briscoe of Law and Order — though a Dick Wolfe cop show always depends on referring to, not reveling in, a character's demons.
20th Century Fox
CCH Pounder as Det. Claudette Wyms
Vic Mackey, the rogue detective on The Shield, doesn't have demons — he is one. As the program's central character, he's the most likeable antihero this side of Tony Soprano. As portrayed by award-winning actor Michael Chiklis, Mackey exudes the kind of squad-room machismo and street daring that make him a cop's cop — and a cop fan's cop as well.
But as was made clear in the pilot episode, this is not a principled lawman bending the rules for the greater good. Sure, that's what he tells himself, and clearly the members of his elite "strike team" buy it — but they're willing participants in bribery, graft and outright theft. In one episode, Mackey kills a fellow cop who's only transgression was getting wise to the strike team's corruption.
20th Century Fox
Benito Martinez as Capt. David Aceveda
In the first three seasons, Mackey's nemesis, if not his opposite, is Capt. David Aceveda. Benito Martinez plays Aceveda as a sly and sometimes dangerous political operator who tries to convince himself he can keep his tiger on a leash. It's notable that Catherine Dent and CCH Pounder — two great actresses in fully realized roles — play the only two members of their precinct who consistently stay on the side of morality, often to their professional detriment.
20th Century Fox
"A" cameraman Bill Gierhart
The rest of the cast is equally incredible — with the exception of Walt Goggins, who plays Mackey's chief flunky Det. Shane Vendrell. The character is played as too hot-headed and careless to have escaped serious censure for this long. I'm particularly intrigued by Jay Karnes as Det. Holland "Dutch" Wagenbach, a kind of criminology geek who has evolved from bumbler to sleuth — except when his adherence to the cerebral gets too smarty-pants.
The mostly excellent DVD commentaries that accompany every episode in year one, and a few in subsequent years, can be truly revealing. When novice writers attempt a Shield script, the temptation is to have Mackey forcefully interrogating suspects or planting evidence for no reason other than that's what Mackey does. But to Mackey, brutality is a tool, never more artfully demonstrated than in the strike team's plan to rip off the Armenian mob's "money train." The dividend is a series of cleverly wrenching plot twists that drive almost two full seasons.
The soap-opera techniques of other cop shows — for example, the randy interoffice romances that seem to permeate every Steven Bochco-invented station house — are barely present in The Shield. The show does push the envelope in some ways. There's partial nudity, and sex and even rape is depicted — but not even the presence of David Mamet behind the lens for one episode was enough to inspire the FX Network to let the "f-word" fly. FX isn't NBC, but it's not HBO either, so while we're not in Kansas anymore, we're also not yet in Oz.
The shortcomings of The Shield, beyond the occasional hiccups of unbelievable plot contrivances inherent with episodic drama, is actually not the fault of the program — it's the fault of many of the show's fans. Viewers get an adrenaline rush when Mackey crashes through, rather than goes around, a wall, or when drugs are planted as a more direct means of rooting out evil.
Check the fan boards, or just glance at the record-setting (for FX) ratings, and you know that viewers are using The Shield as a release, even though so much of what's depicted should make us all very uncomfortable. Like the members of his strike team, the women he beds, and the colleagues he flatters, we have been sucked in by Mackey's charisma. That's fine, so long as series creator Shawn Ryan remembers his charge as the keeper of order in The Shield universe.
David Chase, Ryan's counterpart on The Sopranos, depicts an act of brutality or betrayal every few episodes in order to tweak viewers and remind them that these are bad people they're watching. The Shield will remain vital so long as Ryan — unlike most everyone who's ever met Mackey — doesn't become dependant on him.
One of the special features on the third-year DVD compilation is a mini-documentary about the police station house set — by the end, you think of the station house as a character itself. Features on cinematography and directing also work well, including a key trick that gives the show much of its visual tension: by shooting the show as if the cameraman doesn't know where the action is going to be coming from, The Shield achieves the "faux verite" style NYPD Blue suggested but never fully committed to. If the camera doesn't spin around fast enough when a bad guy gets shot on The Shield, all the viewer sees is the aftermath. The DVD commentaries inform us that doing otherwise would be too Streets of San Francisco.
Credit series creator Ryan for caring enough to fill the commentary tracks with meaty content — and not the, "Huh, what scene is this?" laziness characteristic of too many other DVDs. In the DVD compilations for the first and second years of the series, Ryan acts as something of a talk-show host, and acquits himself well. There's even a fascinating discussion with the head of the FX Network, who talks about the thought process behind the series' marketing campaign.
On the disk sets for seasons one and two, deleted scenes appear on the final disk of each set. Thankfully, by season three, deleted scenes appear after the relevant episode. That way, viewers still dazed from Mackey's latest outrage can conveniently see the excised beat-downs and wisecracks, without having to get up and change disks.