There is a scene in the pilot episode of The Shield in which Detective Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis) has been brought in to interrogate a pedophile who has kidnapped a very young girl for his own pleasure. Mackey comes in with a brown paper sack then proceeds to take out a bottle of liquor, an old telephone book, a lighter, and a utility knife. The smirking pedophile asks, “Your turn to play bad cop?” to which Mackey responds “Nah, 'good cop, bad cop' left for the day. I’m a different kind of cop.” If it clear right from the beginning that with The Shield FX was trying to make a different kind of television series.
With shows like The Sopranos and Six Feet Under, cable channel HBO was creating a new kind of television content. These shows were cinematic in style, grand in its storytelling and themes, critically acclaimed nothing like anything else in television. They proved that cable television could be more than just mindless entertainment, but true art and could reach a large audience and enter the cultural zeitgeist. FX wanted to be in the prestige-TV business. In 2002, The Shield was their first major attempt and it was a stunning success. It became the highest-rated series in FX history, won a slew of awards, and is often cited as one of the greatest television shows ever made.
This week Mill Creek Entertainment released The Shield: The Complete Series on DVD with plenty of old extras and a few new ones. For this article, I’ll be looking at the first three seasons of the series, and in a few days I’ll take on seasons 4-7.
The Shield follows Vic Mackey and his elite Strike Team in the fictional, high-crime Farmington district of Los Angeles. Mackey and his fellow Strike Team members - Shane (Walton Goggins), Lem (Kenneth Johnson), and Ronnie (David Rees Snell) are tasked with fighting the various drug gangs in the district and other high-profile, volatile cases. They prefer busting down doors and knocking heads to interviews and paperwork. They get results as violent crime has gone down since the Strike Team was formed a few months prior to the pilot episode, and they are not afraid to bend and even break the rules. We see them take kickbacks, beat and torture suspects, skim and launder money, and even get involved in the occasional murder. Their corruption is sometimes tolerated, often frowned upon, and occasionally even encouraged. In that scene with the pedophile, Mackey is brought in by Captain Aceveda (Benito Martinez) because the other detectives couldn’t crack the suspect. He does so knowing full well Mackey will use torture to get answers.
Yet for most of the series Aceveda fights against the Strike Team's corruption and is the series main antagonist. He is considered an outsider because he didn't rise through the ranks by starting out on the street, but through going to college and being the right ethnicity. He plays politics. From the start, he has his eye on a City-Council spot. When he isn't using Mackey to break pedophiles, he's working to get him arrested.
Outside of the Strike Team, the series follows several other police within the converted church, known as The Farm, that works as the district’s station. This includes no-nonsense Detective Claudette Wins (CCH Pounder) and her intellectual partner Dutch Wagenbach (Jay Karnes). Also followed are Officer Danny Sofer (Catherine Dent) and her rookie trainee Julienne Lowe (Michael Jace).
Shawn Ryan had been a writer and producer on shows like Nash Bridges and Angel before finally given his chance with The Shield to create and run a show. He wastes no time getting things started with the pilot episode. There is the aforementioned pedophile who bought a young girl off her drug-addicted father. The Strike Team is busy teaming up with a local gang leader whom they take money off of for protection while arresting members of a rival gang. Ostensibly, this keeps inter-gang violence down and gives Mackey some sense of control over the drug trade. Meanwhile, Aceveda has installed Detective Terry Crowley (Reed Diamond) onto the Strike Team in order for him to bring down Mackey. By episode's end, Mackey and Shane have shot Crowley in cold blood and set it up to look like a drug dealer did the deed.
It is that last act that has always given me trouble. The Shield was by no means a guaranteed success. Up until that point, FX had mostly ran reruns of old shows and various movies. The Shield was one of their first forays into original content. While HBO had had a lot of success with The Sopranos, no on had attempted this level of envelope pushing with violence, sex, and extreme storytelling on basic cable. On that basis, it makes sense that Shawn Ryan decided to end his pilot in such an explosive way. At the time, Reed Diamond was probably the biggest star on the series so to have him killed off by a corrupt cop was an incredible way to get people talking about it.
It is hard to argue against it since that one moment arguably sets up the vast majority of what happens for the remaining episodes of the entire series. So much of the conflict comes from various people trying to prove Mackey killed Crowley. If the pilot had not ended that way, the entire show would have been very different. And yet the rest of the series always goes a long way into indicating that Mackey is not the type of guy to kill an innocent cop just to protect himself. He is corrupt, yes. He routinely takes money and drugs from criminals. His interrogation techniques often start with violence and torture. He certainly isn’t above killing those he thinks deserve it or in order to protect himself and his crew. But like the man says, he has a code. The things he does are usually in service of the community. Sure, he might take a short cut or two, but it's always (at least until it's not) justifiable to keep bad guys off the street. Killing a good cop just to save his own skin is a step too far, even for a guy like Mackey. So to have him do it in the pilot always feels off to me.
For much of the first season things are a little rocky. It is clear that the writers are still figuring out what they want to do with the show. As a premium cable channel, HBO was able to get away with as much sex, violence, and language as they wanted to, but FX was still beholden to the censors. The Shield constantly pushed that envelope, but not always for the better. You get plenty of “God damns” and “shits” but nary a “fuck” or other too-taboo-for-basic-cable words. There are naked bums and a few naked nippleless-breasts but it all too often feels like a show trying to be edgy rather than in service of the story they want to tell.
Claudette and Dutch’s cases are all too often as outrageous as the writers could be. There is the already discussed pedophile, someone shows up at Dutch’s desk with a severed arm, a gang starts using fire necklaces (placing a gasoline soaked tire around their necks and lighting it) another gangster chops the feet off of rivals and mails it to his boss, not to mention a serial killer, a cuddle rapist, and your random assortment of psychopaths. Over and over again, their cases are shocking for shocks sake. The actors make the best of it, though, and the writers do find interesting ways of making the characters deal with the outrageousness in ways that sell it.
That isn’t to say all of this isn’t exciting or entertaining, because it is. But two decades on and countless other prestige shows with all sorts of anti-heroes and a constant pushing of the envelope, The Shield has started to show its age. Rewatching it, I still found myself often enthralled by the action and drama unfolding on the screen while at the same time shaking my head at its numerous "off" moments.
Things improve as the seasons move on. The main antagonist of Season One was Aceveda trying to catch Mackey in his corrupt act. With each subsequent season, they bring in an increasing array of smarter and tougher people to try and bring him down. The season arcs get more interesting as well allowing the Strike Team to be involved in more engaging, longer stories beyond the episode to episode case of the week.
In Season Two, a civilian auditor is brought in who has the power to shut the Farm completely down, and while she ultimately proves to be a pretty weak character, it at least brings some tension from a different place than Aceveda. Early in the season, they learn of a money-laundering operation by the Armenian Mob. A few times a year, they take a huge quantity of money and send it overseas to launder. This money train proves too enticing for the Strike Team and by season's end, they've managed to rob the train in an explosive finale that leaves several Armenians dead. This incident spills over into Season Three, the aftermath of which has consequences that continue throughout the series. One of The Shield’s greatest strengths was its ability to allow the tensions of one season hang over into the next and the next. This allows the series to feel more realistic as nothing is ever wrapped up neatly at the end of an episode or even a season.
With Season Three, the Strike Team learns the money was marked by the Treasury Department and thus if it gets spent, it will be traced back to them. Dutch gets assigned to the murders that occurred during the Money Train heist, and even though the Strike Team didn’t commit them they know it will be traced back to them. The Armenian Mob is also on their trail looking for who took their money. The tension mounts to intense proportions and by the season's finale, the Strike Team is in shambles and their relationship is in tatters.
I came late to The Shield. I had never watched an episode until somewhere in the middle of Season Three when a friend of mine asked if she could come to watch it at my house as she was moving and wouldn’t have cable for a couple of weeks. After that one episode, I was hooked. I immediately went back to Season One and binge watched my way through. I was out of the country when Season Five aired and wasn’t able to see any of it. We got back to the states about four days before Season Six premiered, so I bought the DVDs and zipped through all 11 episodes of Season Five before the next season started.
You could say I was a huge fan. I often included it in my lists of greatest television shows ever made. Rewatching it all these years later, I may have to bring that down a few notches. It remains a riveting show, but those flaws I’ve mentioned loom large. The Shield was such a front runner for prestige TV, for anti-heroes, and for raw, intense television series that it was hugely influential and very important in this history of television. But with so many similar shows that have come in its wake, many of which have improved on its template, it is hard not to see its weaknesses. Its tendency to go for outrageousness over meaningful storytelling, its constant need to push the envelope when it could have been more grounded is more irritating than I found it to be the first go around.
If memory serves, the later seasons solve some of these problems, and when they bring in big-named stars like Glenn Close and Forest Whitaker, it becomes much more grounded. I’m definitely looking forward to visiting them. For Part 2 of my review of The Shield: The Complete Series, click here.