Saturday, May 15, 2010

The Shield — Season 2

The Shield established itself as one of the most unique cop dramas to hit television even faster than The Wire, with its initially confusing structure and multilayering, hit its stride. Despite softening antihero Vic Mackey with the pressure of an autistic son, a desire to help a prostitute informant clean up and raise her own child and a commitment to clean up the streets of a crime-ravaged district, creator Shawn Ryan and his team of writers never forgave Mackey for his brutality. They never presented his corruption, up to an including killing fellow cops who might rat him out, as a justifiable course of action regardless of the horror of the Farmington District's crimes, and while no officer working at "The Barn" has completely clean hands, those who recognized Vic's dangerous anomie were never marginalized as annoying bureaucratic pissants. From the start, The Shield examined all those tough-guy, loose-cannon cop tropes with more clarity, wit and maturity than any film that comes to mind.

The first season finale managed to keep the show grounded even as it dealt with a full-scale riot in the Farmington District, and it set up new developments in Vic's personal life that gave the unstoppable brute pause. Season two opens with the detective still searching for his wife and children after Corinne caves from the stress of living with her husband and drives a wedge in their marriage that lasts through the season and forces Vic to contemplate the price of living his personal life as he does his professional one.

Not that work also doesn't prove difficult, as the effectiveness of the Strike Team cannot save them from investigation by Internal Affairs and a civilian auditor who initially seeks to expose the glaring flaws of Aceveda's precinct before being so consumed by The Barn's rampant corruption that she cannot afford to expose it without destroying the district's entire infrastructure (such as it is).

The auditor's appearance marks the elevation of the political side of law enforcement, as Capt. Aceveda considers a run for a council seat and the chief of police worms through the precinct's issues, attempting to dump responsibility for all of the corruption charges leveled against The Barn upon Aceveda's shoulders while taking credit for the precinct's impressive statistics regarding crime rates. No one can argue with the Strike Team's effectiveness, and it's amusing to watch Aceveda, Vic's nemesis, argue those figures to the chief; their back-and-forth throughout the season proves to be a captivating battle of wits as Bankston tries to force Aceveda into spending more time campaigning on a doomed platform than he does cleaning up Farmington, thus sending Aceveda into oblivion while the captain routinely matches and even outmaneuvers the chief at times.

But all roads lead to Vic. Neither the captain nor the chief has any affection for the detective or his methods, yet both need Vic's results to pin to their own resumés. Somehow, however, Vic manages to delve even deeper into illicit methods and questionable allies, not blurring the thin blue line but stomping all over it and crossing freely between territories when it suits him. His usual practice of looking the other way for dealers and hookers who cooperate takes a turn when his main snitch starts putting out tainted heroin and Vic gets a great deal of blood (and foamed spittle) on his hands.

This situation is made worse when a ruthless new drug tyrant, Armadillo, enters Farmington and begins to horrifically assert authority by placing competitors and incompetent members of his own organization in gasoline-soaked tires and lighting them ablaze. Armadillo becomes a more considerable enemy for Vic and his Strike Team to face, a sadist who forces the audience to truly question if they accept Vic's methods against such a terrifying criminal. Armadillo is a rapist, a torturer and a murderer, and even a liberal viewer wouldn't mind seeing him come to some sort of grisly demise.

Yet Ryan still doesn't let Mackey off the hook. Not only are the methods the Strike Team take even more outrageous and unforgivable than when they were roughing up gangbangers practically for fun, Ryan introduces the second major plotline of season: the Strike Team's plan to rip off the Armenian mob. With the civilian auditor knocking around The Barn and Armadillo openly declaring hits on Mackey's team, Vic makes the insane decision to knock off a money exchange that would give the Strike Team enough cash to retire in luxury, provided they could outwit investigation by the authorities and by vengeful Armenian mob bosses.

The strain takes its toll on Vic, who also attempts to put his private life back together after testing Corinne's patience one too many times. With lingering fears of his old friend Gilroy returning and new concerns over danger from Armadillo's Mexican gang and the Armenians, Vic makes matters worse by placing Corinne under constant surveillance without ever telling her that she may be in jeopardy. The truth can only stay covered up for so long, though, and Vic's secrecy only further damages the relationship. Impressively, Ryan and co. believably weave together this private plotline with the arching cases of the season, painting a more complex portrait of the cop and giving his more belligerent actions an emotional anchor.

To watch The Shield is to be reminded of the limitless potential of television when a program is blessed with strong writing. I apologize for this pullquote-esque blanket praise, but I've had a rough TV season this spring. I always end up missing episodes of my favorite shows after the winter hiatus, and TV has become so (to its immense benefit) plot-driven now that even comedies like Community and The Office require dedicated viewing. So, I kept missing episodes until I decided to wait for DVDs, leaving me only to watch the final season of Lost as it airs, which has been such a trying exercise that I'm going to have to take a month off after it ends to review it just so I don't end up smashing my new laptop in inchoate rage. That show has spiraled so far out of control in its endgame that one could spend hours with puns about being lost or adrift or out to sea as characters break whatever loose logic had been established for them and plots move without direction as writers scramble to make sense out of the series' countless loose ends.

Returning to the Farmington District, I see television drama as it should be: dramatic and compelling not because of left-field plot twists thrown at the audience to distract from weak storytelling but a concrete emphasis on character and a steady hand. Ryan has a clear head for cop jargon and office politics, giving the surreality of many of the cases to land on desks in The Barn a bedrock of realism to provide a solid footing. As such, its exaggerated elements do not compromise the show's relation to the real crime problem sweeping our cities, and Vic becomes an increasingly three-dimensional character. Corinne's crackdown on her husband's behavior prevents him from seeing his children, yet we know her actions are justified and so do the writers. Vic does as well, and for the first time he evaluates his methods and tries to change his personal life by altering his professional conduct, only to find himself unable to fully break from his methods. That layering of internal and external forces, far from exclusive to Vic, gives The Shield a layering no less complex and revealing than The Wire's.

Consider how Ryan and co. flesh out the other characters through the cases and the oddball bit players who filter in and out of The Barn. Dutch, seen before and after as a smarmy know-it-all, not only gets knocked down a peg or two but demonstrates a heretofore-unseen depth when he must try and force a confession out of a man suspected of maiming and killing women. The episode's plot may be predictable, complete with a final twist you'll surely spot, but it gives us a splendid battle of wits between Dutch and someone who also knows his way around psychological warfare. The intensity of their war of words and Dutch's ability to absorb the many blows this guy lands changes not only the audience's opinion of the detective but the rest of the Barn's, and it's a development that is not forgotten once the credits roll and the next episode starts. Julien, attempting to "rehabilitate" himself from homosexuality, enters into a relationship with a woman but begins to suffer severe harassment when his secret gets out, while Danni endures a string of bad luck that begins when she shoots and kills an Arab man brandishing a gun and incurs his wife's wrath. These are all plot details, but each brings out a different side to the characters and explores existing traits more deeply, from Danni's slow breakdown to Claudette's increasingly assertive call for accountability as Aceveda slips into a more political frame of mind that reveals her leadership capacity.

As with the last season, the only discernible flaws are minor ones. The occasionally iffy aesthetic can be chalked up to TV budgeting and the need for more street-friendly cameras over fancy and bulky film stock. In terms of the storytelling, Aceveda's actual campaign receives little attention, focusing more on how he begins to neglect his police work without following him on the trail. This approach is clever, but it does not sufficiently add tension to the captain's run and never explains how or why he makes gains and losses in the polls. Also, a flashback episode placed late in the season seeks to take stock of the lost and altered characters by showing The Barn as it was started, but the flashbacks don't reveal much other than how a few partnerships started and the mixture of projected innocence and almost overt corruption that continue to swirl around the precinct.

However, the second season so skillfully expands upon the scope of its plot, the depth of its characters, the and the sharpness of its wit and humor (including one hilarious interlude in which Aceveda spends a day out on the streets in cop blues and ends up mistakenly stealing a kid's bike) that a single unnecessary episode cannot mar its considerable successes. The cast handles the new advancements in their characters without missing a beat, from Chiklis' sympathetic reflection rubbing against his repulsive exterior to Jay Karnes turning Dutch from a socially inept jackass into part of the show's moral center, the lighter side of Claudette's firmness. (I continue to be amazed by Walton Goggins, who plays Shane as someone, if possible, even more repugnant than Vic even as he also has his moments of humanity.) I grew up on cop dramas that quickly grew stale, but programs like The Wire and The Shield reveal just how gripping police drama can be when in the hands of artists, and The Shield's second season cements it as one of the finest programs of the modern era, and already I am lamenting that I only have five more seasons to watch.

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