Cop dramas. They seem to be as old as television itself. Some (Hill Street Blues) are better than others (Cop Rock). For me, an avid fan of any number of past and present cop dramas on TV, it’s pretty hard to come up with anything in this genre that I haven’t seen a million times before. And once Homicide: Life on the Streets fizzled into oblivion a few years back, I was pretty confident I would just have to nestle up with NYPD Blue for the rest of my life and try not to feel too bitter about it. Thankfully, (and surprisingly) FX had the balls get behind a cop drama that is, to put it mildly, refreshingly different.
The Shield has gotten a lot of press for being “groundbreaking” which is most usually interpreted as meaning “rife with boobies and swear words”. And while this show absolutely stretches the boundaries of what’s previously been allowed on non-HBO television, the thing that’s most groundbreaking about it to me is the exceptionally inspired and intelligent writing and acting.
I love any show that cares enough about its audience to reward them for paying attention, and The Shield, while not necessarily a serial, definitely gives all the characters, even the seemingly second string ones, giant, juicy, interesting story arcs to follow from episode to episode. So even though watchers can definitely jump feet first into the middle of a season and still find a whole bunch of things to be entertained by, the real fun (and the reason why it’s so cool that they’ve released the first season on DVD) is watching the episodes back to back to back. As though it’s not wonderful enough that this show is packed full of interesting story and character development, it also boasts what is pound for pound one of the most consistently amazing examples of ensemble acting on television today. And I watch The Sopranos. And The West Wing. Religiously. (Author’s note: I just want it noted for the record that this article was written BEFORE The Shield won a Golden Globe for best dramatic series while The Sopranos and The West Wing, well, didn’t.)
Michael Chiklis has gotten a lot of (well deserved) attention and accolades for his work as Vic Mackey, a cop described in the first episode of The Shield as “Al Capone with a badge.” It’s most certainly to Michael Chiklis’ credit that he’s able to breathe real life into a character who, in less seasoned hands, would probably end up being just a despicable, irredeemable monster. I contend that Vic Mackey is, certainly, despicable, but he’s not JUST despicable. He’s about a million other things on top of and including despicable.
Like the Sopranos, The Shield tries to get its audience to empathize with a man who does horrible things to earn a living and take care of his family. The Shield one-ups this already difficult task and asks us to empathize with a cop who does horrible things to keep crime rates down and does them better than anyone. My husband’s problem with the show is that it’s set up, from episode one, that Vic Mackey is a bad cop. And not just a skimming-off-the-top-of-drug-bust-money kind of bad cop, but a murderous, methodical, merciless kind of bad cop. And in hubbyman (and other people’s) estimation, that makes him an irredeemable character. He’s a bad guy. The end. I tend to disagree with that assessment. But even if I didn’t, there are PLENTY of other things going on in the show (and lots of ways in which Mackey’s character and character flaws drive the story lines into all sorts of unpredictable directions) that make up for anyone’s discomfort with the protagonist also being the antagonist.
Besides, there is a veritable slew of other characters who are just as complicated and interesting to watch as Mackey. I think I probably would have lost interest in this show episodes ago if I only had Chiklis’ riveting acting to get worked up over. And while I’m happy for Chiklis because I’ve always enjoyed his work, I’d say it’s about time everybody else in the cast got some much deserved attention (again, this was written prior to the show’s Golden Globe win, which changes everything). Just in case you’ve never seen the show, this’ll be a good primer. It’s one of the many services we provide here at the MRFH.
CCH Pounder as Claudette Wyms, a senior detective who sees more than she lets on and doesn’t suffer fools gladly. Why I haven’t made CCH Pounder one of my You Know, That Guys is well beyond me. She’s been around forever, handing in tremendous, subtle, fantastic work for decades and I, for one, leapt up off the sofa and did a little cheer when I first saw her name go by in the credits. Her performance here grows in nuance in every episode and season two is shaping up to be a doozie for Claudette. Mackey’s a pit bull, but I sure as hell wouldn’t want to get in an interrogation room with Claudette. In a role originally written for a man, Pounder has taken this part and made it impossible to imagine anyone else in her place.
Catherine Dent as Danny Sofer, a female cop with a new recruit to train and two of the most diametrically opposed suitors in the history of romance. Dent’s taken a pretty standard female beat cop role and turned her into a woman with tremendous street smarts and toughness tempered by equal amounts of vulnerability and weakness. Just like everyone else here, she’s taken a character who could have been one-dimensional and made her a real person.
Walton Goggins as Shane Vendrell, the loose cannon member of Mackey’s corrupt Strike Team. That face. Those teeth. That hair. Just when I thought Walton Goggins was going to play Shane Vendrell for all the doofus, backwoods, lunkhead he could muster, he keeps pulling out these great dramatic moments where all of Shane’s bravado and macho crap gets reduced down into these glimpses of understanding into his inner turmoil. I underestimated Goggins when the series began and I’m here to officially declare that I was wrong.
Michael Jace as Julien Lowe, just your average self-hating, gay Christian Black rookie cop with a conscience. Given the inherent complexities of his character, Jace takes all the juicy developments the writers can throw at him and spins gold. A scene toward the middle of the first season where Julien puts his gun away after cornering a suspect and basically asks to be shot rips my heart out every time I see it.
Kenny Johnson as Curtis “Lemonhead” Lemansky, the Strike Team member with some discernable sense of empathy for his fellow man. Like Goggins, Johnson could have easily made Lemansky a thick-necked thug, but instead, he’s equal parts tough guy who gets the job done and sweetheart who wants to do the right thing. Johnson only had a handful of opportunities to stretch his acting muscles in the first season but he took every opportunity and really fine-tuned this character. Here’s hoping that coming episodes will include story lines for Johnson to show the promise on display in season one.
Jay Karnes as Holland “Dutch” Wagenbach, a thinking man’s cop with and a serious case of naivete. Dutch is my favorite non-Chiklis character on The Shield and it has everything to do with Jay Karnes performance. He starts the season as the schmuck, the wimpy detective who takes a lot of crap (literally) from his co-workers and is always 5 minutes behind the ever unfolding craziness going on around him. But in one particularly excellent episode, he uses his intelligence to crack a case nobody else could, and the acting Karnes turns in to do it is nothing less than breathtaking.
Benito Martinez as David Aceveda, the Hispanic man in charge, with political aspirations that sometimes supercede his desire to run a clean squad. Aceveda and Mackey are set up early on in the show as adversaries and it’s an amazing dance they do through the course of the season trying to figure out how to use one another for their own purposes. Aceveda seems like a typical hard-assed boss at the beginning of the series, but that changes quickly as we figure out how adept he is at creating opportunities for himself to exploit. Martinez plays scenes where Aceveda looks like a push over or a buffoon just as specifically and precisely as he plays the scenes where Aceveda is utterly in charge, plotting and deliberate.
Throw into this mix a huge number of amazing guest actors (who play the perps, street thugs, crack whores, and child molesters littering every episode) and you’ve got yourself some of the best TV on TV.
While the pilot does something that most pilot’s can’t or don’t do (create an hour-long drama that stands on its own as a fine example of dramatic television), the rest of the season’s episodes are all exceptional. And I don’t mean that cumulatively. I mean that each episode stands on its own as being a tremendous example of what good TV should be. And anybody who watches TV regularly can tell you, that level of consistency is hard to find these days. Even my favorite shows like Law and Order and (yes, I’ll say it) The Sopranos, have slipped a few times and handed in episodes that kind of sunk to the bottom quicker than I would have liked. And sure, The Shield may eventually get to the point where the story lines stop making sense or the characters start doing things completely against their natures. But for 13 glorious episodes (and the two new episodes I’ve seen of season 2) every minute of this show has reinvigorated my faith in TV and comforted my need for a well-written cop drama. If you haven’t seen the show yet, hop down to your local video store and devote your next weekend to getting caught up or be brave and just jump into whatever episode is, I’m sure, playing on FX right this second.
DVD extras: Most TV shows on DVD are just the episodes without commercials and that’s it. The producers of this DVD however have really gone above and beyond. Each episode contains a commentary track by various cast and crew members which gives a whole bunch of behind the scenes info and also provides a surprising number of laughs along the way. At a certain point the proceedings get a little too self-congratulatory, but since I love the show so much, I also tend to agree with them when they get all soapy about how great they are. Also, there are two “making of” documentaries, the entire pilot script to peruse and audition tapes for the majority of regular characters on the show. It truly is a DVD that fans of the show will certainly find worth investing in.