"Good cop and bad cop left for the day. I'm a different kind of cop." - Detective Vic Mackey
Taken out of context, this quote, said at the end of the pilot episode of Shawn Ryan's cop drama The Shield, might strike one as the sort of eye-rolling "rough justice" cop show that's been a part of the pop culture lexicon since Clint Eastwood roamed the streets of San Francisco asking punks how lucky they felt. Instead, it's the perfect summation of the series' originality and brilliance: right after he says these words, Vic Mackey removes all doubt that he's just another "loose cannon cop who doesn't play by the rules" and instead establishes himself as a monster whose willingness to fabricate, intimidate, steal, beat and murder not in the name of rough justice but his own interests edges him away from the likes of Dirty Harry and closer to Tony Soprano.
Mackey (Michael Chiklis) heads a group of hand-picked police officers he calls the Strike Team. They work in L.A.'s ultraviolent Farmington District, where politicians and top police brass -- there never seems to be a clear distinction between the two, does there? -- are so desperate to see the crime rates go down that the precinct turns its back on Mackey and the considerable results he's having on crime levels, preferring to simply run away to avoid even the slightest chance of looking the gift horse in its mouth. Only two officers have the tenacity -- and the courage, judging from the adoration Vic receives from the rest of the precinct -- to question Mackey's tactic: rival detective Holland "Dutch" Wagenbach (Jay Karnes), a goody two-shoes skilled in his psychological reading and manipulation of suspects in the interrogation room, and David Aceveda (Benito Martinez), captain of the precinct and a clear political hopeful. He's in charge of the station, but Vic answers to those even higher up on the food chain, and they both know it.
Whatever clichés the pilot evokes in its display of macho bravado crumble quickly in the face of brutal storytelling: one of the members of the Strike Team approaches Aceveda throughout the episode concerning Mackey's behavior and gives the captain a much-needed informant, but Mackey catches wind of the betrayal and kills his fellow cop during a particularly vicious raid. Placing this action at the end of the pilot not only guarantees a certain amount of interest in continuing the series -- hey, hook 'em however you can -- but draws a line in the sand demarcating the series from other loose-cannon cop shows. The murder reveals how far Vic will go in the name of self-preservation, yet it never once manages to overshadow his actions throughout the rest of the season.
For youngsters like me, Mackey more or less is Michael Chiklis, but his performance must have shocked audiences back when the show premiered in 2002: Chiklis hit the scene back in '89 as the lead in the John Belushi biopic Wired, a film so reviled that Chiklis later apologized to Belushi's brother Jim (I have not seen it, but anything that requires an apology delivered to Jim Belushi cannot possibly enrich me spiritually) and found fame in another cop program, The Commish. Andy Griffith by way of NYPD Blue, The Commish featured Chiklis as the pudgy, affable police commissioner, who solved crimes as much with homespun aphorisms and Life Lessons as serious police work. Tony Spall is the sort of person Vic Mackey would insult for being a fat desk jockey, with a gay slur or two thrown in for good measure. Mackey is a vision of fascist machismo: bald, tanned and buff, with eyes that bulge from his head when he's angry (so, always) and burn with a cold blue flame. Chiklis went from looking like a fat Keith Sutherland to Bruce Willis on crank.
Naturally, such a forceful character requires a supporting cast of equally distinctive oddballs and psychopaths, and the cops who populate "The Barn" (a reconverted church used as the headquarters of the experimental division) offer a bounty of unique and immediately differentiating traits that allow us to acclimate quickly to these characters without suffering the extended tedium of "better know a character" introductions (it also makes for an easier time matching names to faces than the more realistic Wire, which can easily throw new viewers until they manage to fully hop on-board sometime halfway through the first season). Flanking Mackey on the Strike Team are Detectives Shane Vendrell (the always great Walton Goggins), a good ol' boy who mixes Vic's sadism with "yee-haw!" enthusiasm, and Curtis "Lem" Lemansky (Kenny Johnson), about as fratboyish as Shane but the only member of the trio with a readily identifiable conscience. Their brand of corrupt crime-solving rubs up against the traditional detection of the preppy, smarmy Wagenbach and the deadpan Claudette Wyms (CCH Pounder), arguably the only cop in the whole damn place who's both competent and ethical. Rounding out the main cast are two bobbies on the beat, Officers Danielle "Danny" Sofer (Catherine Dent, who's given the most emotional range of the characters) and Julien Lowe (Michael Jace), a closeted homosexual who occasionally lashes out violently at criminals due to the pressure and self-loathing his ultra-religious upbringing and the rampant homophobia of the police force place upon him.
Compared to The Wire -- which is frankly the only crime drama that provides a worthy counterpoint to this series -- The Shield operates in a hyperrealistic, insane world. It's every bit as gritty as David Simon's masterpiece, but all the little details of Ryan's show drift just left of reality. Gallows humor abounds, but some scenarios dip into outright absurdity, such as the Strike Team installing an illegal wiretap to monitor a group of Armenians, only to realize in retrospect that the Armenians would speak their own language in private. Some of the crimes play like CSI episodes after a few seasons when the well's run dry, albeit presented as the comic situations they are (one episode revolves around a man who keeps a collection of his sperm on ice in the hopes of spreading his seed and ensuring his "survival"). Some jokes run across more than one episode, such as an extended spat between a cuckold, a lover and the woman who continues to lead both on, much to the chagrin of Lowe and Sofer, who have to put up with this fatuous back-and-forth on three separate occasions.
Balancing the skewed humor of these scenarios is the unremitting darkness of its macabre exaggeration of urban decomposition and putrefaction. Vic and co. eke information out of junkies by providing hits to those who still have needles sticking out of their veins. For all the moral outrage cops like Aceveda and Wagenbach conjure up for Mackey's tactics, everyone displays a willingness to bend rules to get what they want: Aceveda pushes officers to rat on Vic, even after he gives intimidating speeches on how informants are treated by other cops, while Wagenbach uses his psychoanalytical knowledge to extract information from suspects that lacks the physical damage of Vic's "methods" but often takes a toll mentally. The Farmington District constantly simmers under the heat of numerous Internal Affairs investigations, grandstanding against the corruption from the politicians who benefit copiously from the lowered crime numbers and outraged citizens who object to the obscene brutality of the police force as well as a restructuring of the patrol system that places almost every officer in more dangerous areas, leaving calmer sectors almost completely undefended when something does go wrong there.
It's a madcap grotesquerie, the perfect backdrop for Mackey, who effortlessly dominates this world like a Herzog protagonist. At no time can any reasonable human being view him as a hero, but Ryan and the other writers ask us to consider what might drive a police officer to such an extreme method of pacification. Furthermore, they add layers to Mackey to mold him into something more than a terrible thug, including the discovery of his young son's autism and an odd (and oddly touching) relationship with a crack whore named Connie (who strikes me at this early venture as The Shield's equivalent of Bubbles) into whom he channels whatever remains of his humanity to clean her up to raise her son. These tangential bits of minutiae help draw you into this world and place actions into context without forgiving characters of their sins.
As with The Wire, The Shield quickly establishes itself as a piece of innovative programming, albeit with a few flaws you can see it rapidly outpacing even in the first season. The use of sudden bursts of heavy metal for action shots grows wearisome, the ill-fitting, generic de-tuned guitars and screamed vocals trying to inject life into scenes that already pack a visceral punch and contain an element of horror that the music undercuts in favor of adrenaline-pumping rawk. Also, some of the earlier episodes are too damn out-there for their own good, especially the third and fourth episodes -- why, why, oh why would a secretive strike team created to crack down hard on serious crime place themselves in the middle of a rapper feud or hold up a basketball player without cause; the latter reveals the pettier side of Vic's corruption, as he locks up the player to ensure he wins a bet on the upcoming game and, on an even simpler level, just wants the Lakers to win, but it's too bizarre a distraction so early in the series. But these are minor quibbles when stacked against the sick allure of the rest of the season: the writers sew tiny threads through the first season, never crafting an overarching arc but laying the foundations for recurring subplots (the biggest concerning Vic's protected dealer and informant who constantly tests Mackey's limited patience) and even introducing a large-scale villain at the end whose schemes recall those of Noah Cross in Chinatown, though with a different course of action. Even if it contains a few problems that require ironing out, The Shield makes an unbelievably strong case for greatness in only 13 episodes. Suddenly, blind-buying the whole damn show doesn't seem like such a stupid investment.