Thursday, December 4, 2008

Commenting on The Shield

Over the last two years or so I discovered what is currently my favorite television series ever, The Shield. It's this amazing police/crime drama that aired on FX, and actually just finished its seventh and final season a week or two ago (it started in 2001). When the program debuted it set the record for Emmy nominations for a cable drama, but basically after that it sort of lurked beneath the radar of TV entertainment for the rest of its run. It wasn't as flashy as 24, not as aspirational as Lost, not as 'steamy' as Grey's Anatomy, and not as headline-grabbing as The Sopranos (or The Wire retroactively). Heck I feel like even Nip/Tuck eclisped The Shield in "buzz" on its very own network.

However, noticed or not, The Shield is a fantastic endeavor. Here's why I like it, without spoiling much. I think The Shield took advantage of being on cable instead of network or premium TV. Network television is very dependent on maintaining massive-viewership numbers, so programs have to always be accelerating in their ideas and events, until they fly out of control. 24 suffers from this need to one-up itself until finally jumping the shark and becoming a virtual laughing-stock (I used to be a huge 24 fan). On the premium channels, there is a lot more "freedom," both in terms of content and creator control, due to the culture and they have fewer legal restrictions. This however can result in overindulgence, I have a working theory that creativity is most productive when it has to confront some sort of boundary. The controversial series finale of The Sopranos (and much of its later run) is an example to illustrate what I'm talking about.

By contrast, The Shield was on FX, a cable network. While this means it would never have the ratings of the big networks nor the hip factor of the paid-channels, there are some definite benefits. For one, The Shield was able to develop mature content and really push the limits of cable tv standards by somewhat flying under the FCC's radar. For a program on standard cable, The Shield was allowed to display far more mature content (like partial nudity, graphic violence, "adult situations," and profanity) than any other show I've seen on cable. That said, FX is not HBO, and there were definite boundaries the show would never be able to cross, which promotes creative storytelling and alternative possibilities.

Because of this "constrained freedom" the show operated under, The Shield was able to develop a fantastic atmosphere, which is the second thing I liked about the show. It takes place in a fictional county of Los Angeles, known as the poorest, most crime-riddled, and rife with various street gangs. There's a palpable sense of desperation and futility in Farmington District, in many respects the show portrays society on the brink of collapse. In order to make this world convincing, you need "adult situations" to make it plausible.

So now we have this bleak world, teeming with street drugs and street crime, rival gangs, and ethnic feuding, and we focus on the local police department. Another thing The Shield does great is its portrayal of the different aspects of the department; really four elements that intermingle throughout the episodes/season. Our main character, Vic Mackey (increasingly brilliantly portrayed by Michael Chiklis) is in charge of a special task force devoted specifically to cracking down on gang violence. Then you have the homicide detectives who investigate the other violent crimes that occur in Farmington, a number of "street level" regular police officers driving their beats, and the administrative and political workings of the captain's office. This allows you to view how the police perceive and affect society, and what society thinks of and how it influences the police force.

That is just what the show is structurally about. Thematically I could go on for a whole other essay, which I'll spare you (for now!). Briefly however, the show is a great analysis of corruption, loyalty, brutality, race, authority, society, anarchy, and (in)justice. In many respects the show becomes a tragedy in the Shakespearean sense, but I won't say more on that since it would spoil everything for a new viewer. There is a great team of actors filling out an excellent assortment of supporting characters, from Claudette Wyms, a dogged obsessively moral detective, to Julien Lowe, a rookie officer who's strict Christianity runs counter to his homosexual leanings, to Dutch, a well-intentioned but awkward homicide investigator with a penchant for profiling serial killers.

All this text aside, at the heart of the show is Farmington's unique anti-gang Strike Team, whose activities and members dominate the series; Vic Mackey, Shane Vendrell, Curtis Lemansky, and Ronnie Gardocki. What I haven't explicitly mentioned until now is that Mackey and the Strike Team are essentially corrupt police officers, but surprisingly sympathetic ones. Every end justifies their means; from planting evidence, to ignoring warrants, to much, much worse operations. From the very first episode, you'll be boldly demonstrated how "bad" these cops can be, but somehow you end up feeling sympathy for their actions and lives, and the show ends up asking you why it's so easy to become complicit in their deeds as an audience viewer.

In the very first episode Vic confronts a suspected child molestor/rapist/murderer in an interrogation room after the detectives couldn't sweat a confession out of him. The suspect looks at Mackey stalk into the room, and smugly asks, "What is this, the old good cop, bad cop routine?" Mackey stares him in the eye and replies "No, I'm a different kind of cop," and proceeds to 'acquire' the information from him using only the local Yellow Pages... it's a great, (very) raw show who's protagonist is practically the show's villain; and which gets better and deeper with every season, pretty much unheard of in my television viewing life.

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