The Shield Season One
Starring: Michael Chiklis, Kenneth Johnson, Benito Martinez, Catherine Dent, Walton Goggins, Michael Jace, Jay Karnes, CCH Pounder
Series Creator: Shawn Ryan
I’ve spent the past few years trying to catch up on all the great cable dramas of recent vintage that I missed (in part because until recently, most of them weren’t covered here in Canada until a network would pick them up after they had started airing). It’s been a mostly rewarding experience, but can be an expensive one (particularly at HBO DVD prices. Thankfully, other cable networks, like FX, don’t charge as much as HBO), as well as a risky one, as I don’t generally like to purchase DVDs of things I haven’t seen. For The Shield, I was able to get around the cost and risk by craftily buying season one for my brother-in-law’s birthday, hoping he’d take it from there (lending them to me along the way, of course). The plan was such a success (he went out and bought the rest of the seasons available on DVD), that he just might be getting The Sopranos for Christmas.
My hesitance with The Shield came down to the fact that the cop show genre is one that I stopped being interested in sometime around season three of Homicide: Life on the Streets. But that didn’t stop me from checking out The Wire, which turned out pretty well (as in, overcoming my cop show bias to watch The Wire lead me to experience the greatest series in the history of television). Of course, what I liked about The Wire was that it was so much more than a cop show, to the degree that it superseded the genre.
This is not the case with The Shield, which is firmly a genre show. However, it succeeds not by superseding the genre, but rather by subverting it. Creator Shawn Ryan works within the genre and its conventions of brotherhood, quickly solved crimes, and determined officers, and uses them to tell the story of a different brand of police officer. Instead of yet another show featuring righteous officers of the law pursuing those who mean society harm in the age-old story of good guys vs bad guys, The Shield is instead interested in what happens when the bad guy is given a badge.
Michael Chiklis stars as Detective Vic Mackey, leader of an experimental LAPD Strike Team designed to combat gang violence (based on the real life Rampart Division CRASH unit of the LAPD). Mackey and his Strike Team will do anything they deem necessary to manage the gang situation in their district, all the while finding ways to cut a profit for themselves off of the drug trade in the district. New Captain David Aceveda (Benito Martinez) is suspicious of the Strike Team’s methods, hoping to catch the corrupt Mackey in order to further his political agenda.
The series starts off with a bang with a pilot that works hard to push the concept that this isn’t business as usual, from the cinéma vérité presentation to the obvious corruption of its protagonist. Then the final scene plays out, and the series tosses out any expectations you may have had for this character and this show.
It proves a willingness to go to a level not previously seen on television, which was probably necessary to distinguish itself from all the cop shows that came before it, and its network as a place for edgier material. It certainly shocked me out of my complacency. But I’m not sure it was the best move for the series as a whole, as the show struggled a bit in the immediate aftermath of the pilot with exactly how to deal with such a huge event. It’s one thing to make your protagonist an anti-hero, or even the bad guy (The Sopranos had been doing it for a few years at that point). But starting the season with such a shocking, and frankly deplorable action made it difficult for the show to find the right balance for Mackey going forward, a character for whom they obvious wanted to exhibit shades of grey, but started out with only black.
While it struggled with that balance in the early episodes, I’ll admit I wasn’t too into the series. The potential was evident, and I had no thoughts of not watching it, but it wasn’t must-watch television for me (and in fact laid dormant for a couple weeks during the Olympics). But the show started to find a way to deal with the consequences of its shocking pilot (largely by ignoring it and hoping we’d forget, at least for a while), and started to develop its ensemble cast. It didn’t matter if viewers weren’t quite sold on Mackey (in fact, I get the impression that we’re never supposed to be, but rather should be seduced by him from time to time, only to get burned later), because the show gave us other characters to root for, chief amongst them Detective Holland “Dutch” Wagenbach (Jay Karnes) and Detective Claudette Wyms (CCH Pounder).
In fact, I’d say the show started picking up momentum with its sixth episode “Cherrypoppers” (as an aside, NOT a good episode to watch in public on your laptop if you’re afraid of what someone might see on your screen while walking by. I say this from experience), largely because a significant amount of the episode is turned over to Dutch, ending with Mackey being forced to give Dutch credit for being a good detective. This momentum continues in the eight episode “Cupid & Psycho” which puts Mackey and Claudette together on a case. The show benefits not only from Chiklis sharing the spotlight with two of the more talented members of the cast, but also in showing more of Mackey in relation to more characters than merely his SWAT team lackeys or his feud with Aceveda (which was wisely backburned a bit, as the cat and mouse game between them was getting repetitive). Bonus points goes to “Cupid & Psycho” for pairing Dutch with Walton Goggins‘ hilariously venal Detective Shane Vendrell, one of Vic’s lackeys.
I became hooked on the show with its tenth episode “Dragonchasers”, which culminated a multi-episode storyarc began in “Cherrypoppers” in a satisfying way. By this point, the show has its formula down pat, finding the right balance between case of the week stories and its ongoing stories, along with a good feel of what works best for Mackey and a cast all comfortable in their roles. I’m not saying that it took ten episodes to get there, and there’s definitely plenty to enjoy up until this point, but this was the episode where it all came together for me and when I knew I was in for the long haul (and probably not coincidentally, the episode features a great moment for Dutch).
The show manages to play out the rest of the season on the high it establishes here, upping the ante until reaching its explosive climax with the season finale. In doing so, The Shield succeeds in elevating itself beyond the conventions of its genre, while still firmly remaining a genre piece. The first season was a bit uneven, struggling a bit early on with the difference between edgy and compelling, but as the season develops, it found the necessary balance. Guided by strong performances and a unique take on the cop show genre, The Shield delivers a promising first season, leaving me excited for what’s to come.