'The Shield' Deserves More Respect

Media Reviews for Media People: Gritty Cop Show Is As Good As They Come, If a Bit Brutal

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Let's cut right to the chase today, shall we? "The Shield" is by a continent-wide margin the best cop/detective show currently on television. It stands beside "The Wire" as the greatest such show in the history of the genre, even if its ambitions have always been more modest (no grand sociopolitical statements, just densely packed entertainment). It deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as "The Sopranos" -- except that the game-changing HBO drama meandered lazily in its later years, whereas "The Shield" has actually quickened its pace.
'The Shield'
'The Shield'

Where is the love?
The show too rarely receives such acclaim or inclusion in high-minded discussions, for a number of reasons. "The Shield" is as intricately plotted as a James Ellroy novel, meaning that first-time viewers and closure-needy critics might have a hard time jumping in. Similarly, the characters that populate "The Shield" aren't necessarily people you want showing up at your Labor Day barbecue armed with a pile of potato salad. One of the detectives sketched from the outset as a "good" guy, for instance, celebrates his collar of a chatty serial rapist by snapping the neck of a mewling alley cat. It takes its characters to some dark, dark places -- and not in the trite "oh no! Detective Benson is sort of temporarily bonding with one of the perps! Somebody guard her hair!" sense.

This comparative lack of appreciation for "The Shield," even as it has averaged as many 3.3 million viewers per season, pisses me off. It's a cultural injustice on par with the rise of Nickelback and the fall of "Boomtown." Come with me, then, as I lapse into fanboy mode and attempt to articulate, using words like "awesome" and "unreal" and "super-amazing," why fans of "Deadwood," "Chinatown" and "The Departed" ought to treat themselves to a belated introduction to "The Shield."

Set in Los Angeles, that sparkly hotbed of moral decay for cop-obsessed filmmakers, "The Shield" chronicles the exploits of a tribe of detectives stationed in the fictional Farmington district. The department's core crew -- the Strike Team, headed by the corrupt and charismatic Det. Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis) -- inflicts its own whimsical brand of justice on the town's gangs and associated miscreants, and occasionally on one another.

Bleak vision
That basic premise isn't anything revolutionary; the raw, angular way "The Shield" deconstructs it, however, clearly is. On "The Shield," innocent people get hurt and fiends prosper, with both tacit and express encouragement from the men and women paid to keep the peace. In the bleak "Shield" landscape, good intentions are a handicap and virtue is void. The show's dramatic masterstroke may have come during its fifth season, in which it somehow rendered villainous a smart, resourceful, straight-arrow internal affairs detective, simply because he attempted to impose accountability on Mackey and his crew.

That character was played, with equal parts languor and menace, by Forest Whitaker, which should give you some idea of the talent that has gravitated to "The Shield" over the years. Actors of that caliber didn't start popping up on basic-cable series until "The Shield" raised the bar for such programming; it's no coincidence that Glenn Close served a single-season apprenticeship on the show before diving into "Damages." As for the regulars, the next actor who isn't a precise fit in his or her role will be the show's first.

The new season, debuting on Tuesday, kicks off with a vicious brain-clanging and accelerates from there. Without giving anything away, I'll say that the show remains very true to its scuffed characters and foul universe, with events from seasons past -- the death of a former Strike Team member, the Strike Team's ambush of a moneyed gang -- looming large. Complaints? Maybe it overplays the family-in-peril stuff a touch.

Also, and this may be an understatement, the show ain't for the squeamish. Within 30 minutes, we witness a pair of feet liberated from their legs and a football-field-long streak of blood. None of this should surprise "Shield" fans, but it could prevent newbies from engaging with the material.

Meanwhile, here's a bit of trivia for the diehards: The set that previously housed The Barn has been broken down and is now being used for one of McDreamy's pads. This depresses me profoundly.

Hard to stomach
While "The Shield" may be a bit too intense for some viewers -- this is kinda like saying that ten-alarm chili may be a bit too intense for some irritable bowel syndrome sufferers -- I'd peg it as cable ground-zero for guy-focused marketers. I'm not sure whether the dopey "Axe Body Spray will make you irresistible to women, if its acidic vapors don't blind you first" folks want to ally themselves with such dark material, but automakers and manufacturers of electronic gizmos should prove a neat fit. Hard-R action flicks/DVDs, too, like "Rambo" and whatever movie Jason Statham happens to be starring in this week.

Okay, I've exceeded my annual allowance of hyper-enthusiastic bleats. The blistered-earth mentality of "The Shield" may not resonate with regular viewers of "Law & Order," "CSI" and other cop shows with easily abbreviated names. The violence, salty language and twitchy hand-held camera work (now a mainstay on other cop shows) may leave some viewers feeling unmoored. But anybody who delights in ferocious, detail-perfect storytelling should begin with the show's first season and work forward from there -- starting, like, now. As far as the cop/detective genre goes, "The Shield" is practically peerless.
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