For some reason it’s been coming up in conversation a lot recently, so I’ve got The Shield on the brain. Here’s something I wrote back in 2008, when the show ended. My argument was that, as much as I share the love for The Sopranos and The Wire, The Shield is weirdly underrated when it comes to the great TV series of the past decade.
Truth be told, I don’t get the chance to follow that much television – episodic TV has gotten so dense and narratively sophisticated that most of the shows worth following demand one-hundred-percent involvement. It probably says something about which shows I choose to follow religiously, but I definitely haven’t watched too much TV outside of the shows I do watch that way. So I don’t know what the “Best” anything is; I only know which shows I find to be the most subjectively awesome, and this year that was The Shield.
The Shield is an ugly show, in the greatest sense of the word. It has no fear in showing the worst sides of decent people and the truest sides of truly ugly people. It’s not interested in selling you a line of bullshit, though it is interested in showing you how some people would sell you a line of bullshit. So much of television is coated with makeup, designed to sell high-priced clothes and celebrity gossip magazines. The Shield is, unusually, bravely, committed to ugliness. The look of the show follows suit: While long-time DP Rohn Schmidt is surely capable of shooting pretty pictures (see his work on Frank Darabont’s The Mist), the name of the game here is dingy steadi-cam, “found footage,” and harsh lighting. While I’m sure the cast of actors are all attractive enough people in real life, in The Shield they are unanimously brave enough to frequently be filmed in less than their best light. The most frequent subjects are of course the Strike Team: Detectives Shane Vendrell (Walton Goggins), Curtis “Lemonhead” Lemansky (Kenny Johnson), Ronnie Gardocki (David Rees Snell), and later Julien Lowe (Michael Jace). All decent-looking fellas, as that goes, but very often filmed as ogres in the course of the show – and that is of course, by design.
When an overtly attractive character appears on The Shield, it’s time to worry about their safety – pretty people don’t last long in this universe. Exhibit A: Det. Tevon Garris (Brian White), well-remembered but short-lasting member of the Strike Team. Either they get killed off, discredited, sent packing, or brutally disfigured.
One of the better in-jokes of the series is rookie officer Tina Hanlon’s last line in the final episode – “I made it.” Played by the lovely Paula Garcés, I was sure that the character of Tina was destined for extinction, but of course I should have remembered that Tina wasn’t quite as pretty on the insides.
I’m harping on this point a little too long because I think it matters. In a visual medium such as television, looks are important, and so how a meticulously planned and executed story such as The Shield looks, is a good starting point for overview. And no character is shown in as unflattering a light as Detective Vic Mackey (played by Michael Chiklis, who gives a legendary seven-seasons-long performance worthy of every acting award they can sculpt.) Make no mistake: Mackey is a bad person. There are shades of gray along the way, but those are lost in the vast blackness as the series progresses. Shield creator Shawn Ryan and his writers, and Michael Chiklis and his fellow actors (all of the ones I’ve mentioned so far and the rest I haven’t yet), are all inspiringly crafty in how they’ve laid out the moral universe of the show. Vic Mackey is very definitely a bad person. He is a corrupt cop who kills a fellow cop, because he was investigating him – this is depicted in the very FIRST episode. Yet, if we stick with the show, over the course of seven seasons we are constantly rooting for Mackey and his partners to get away dirty. (There’s no getting away “clean” for anybody here.)
That’s all to do with the charisma Chiklis brings to the character. Charisma, not charm. There’s a major difference. The audience of The Shield is caught rooting for a monster. We also get to know the various members of the Strike Team, who start out at varying levels of likability and corruption (with Lem generally considered the best and Shane generally the worst), and through their complicity with Mackey, are brought to much lower levels of the latter, and somehow, higher levels of the former.
Walton Goggins is probably the overall MVP of the show’s final seasons, as he took a character that started out as a wild-eyed racist horndog and ended the show reaching new heights of doomed sympathy, although Kenny Johnson, as the generally good-natured and guilt-wracked Lem, was far and away the sad star of Season Five, and David Rees Snell comes all the way from the background character who always seemed to get the worst of it, to a dynamic force and Mackey’s last loyal partner in Season Seven, where his luck remains unfortunately consistent.
As I start to get lost in praise for the creators on- and off-camera, I haven’t even gotten to CCH Pounder and Jay Karnes as Detectives Wyms and Waggenbach, whose characters come as close to honest and capable of real friendship as this show gets, even though she’s doomed herself, and he’s more than a little creepy (see the cat incident in Season Three). And then there’s Benito Martinez as David Aceveda, the police captain and eventual politician who is probably Mackey’s leading archenemy over the course of the series, who is arguably the bravest actor in a cast full of brave actors (true fans know I’m talking about Season Three).
Also, The Shield is better than any other show I have ever seen at logically, convincingly, and invisibly integrating bigger-named guest stars into the cast, as anyone who followed the stints of Glenn Close, Forest Whitaker, Franka Potente, and most gloriously surprising, Anthony Anderson, will agree.
But this last season, which finished airing in November, the guest star characters were all gone, and we were left with what remains of the core cast members. (Not all of the main characters make it out alive.) And I have to tell you quite honestly, the series ended with a final episode more satisfying than any other I have ever seen. More satisfying than many movies even, which at its best, is the strength of TV – the longer and the better you get to know the characters, the more impact the resolution of their story might be. And the resolution of The Shield, such as it is, has a whole mess of impact. It’s like life – the good guys, if there even are any, don’t necessarily get what they deserve, though some of the bad guys do. What you thought you wanted, you don’t get. What you thought you wanted, you get and wish you didn’t. What you didn’t know what you wanted, you get just a little of it. What you never expected to break your heart, does.
Now: Does Vic Mackey get what he deserves?
Not a question for me to answer here. I don’t want to ruin it for anyone yet to discover the last few scenes of the series. All I want to say is that I was entirely satisfied by how it ended. It felt right. I’d love to know what other people thought, and if you haven’t seen the show, start at the beginning and dig through those DVDs. It’s great. I haven’t felt this much of a vacuum at a show’s departure since The Sopranos.
The Shield has truth in it, in its way. The show started out trying to get at certain ugly truths about power and the corrupting power of lies, and its high quality and its truth stayed consistent all the way through. I’ve lived in Los Angeles for eight years, and I will tell you that, while there are certainly exaggerations for dramatic requirements, I recognize Los Angeles in The Shield. Not the Los Angeles they show you on most other shows, with the beaches and the high-end stores and the glass facades and the bleached blondes, but the Los Angeles that lives further east and to the south. The Shield has the ability to shock you, the way LA itself has the ability to shock you.
[A big salute to my homeboy Jimmy G. for first lending me the Season 1 DVD way back, which sent me tearing through the rest of the series to date.]
One last thing:
I noticed that every mention of The Shield’s finale seemed to invoke either the series endings of The Sopranos, or The Wire, or both. I’m an equal fan, arguably even a student, of all three shows. I say this having seen every single episode of all three series, some more than once. (Which explains where my twenties went.)
So while I can get into it, I’d rather not compare three series I am very fond of against each other, particularly because all three are after different thematic and creative goals.
In the case of The Sopranos, it’s an entirely different animal. First of all, The Sopranos is filled with moments of blackest comedy, while The Shield is many things, but funny is never one of them. More importantly, The Sopranos is about America, about family, and about crooks. Cops rarely, if ever, figure into it. The Shield is about L.A. in specific, family is only a pretense (at least for Mackey), and it still is very much a cop show, even though it inverts and subverts the formula that other shows continue to feed us. As a cop show, The Shield still wants to deliver on some fronts, without ambiguity. I bet you anything that even David Chase would agree that, when it comes to series finales, The Shield ends on the more dramatically satisfying note.
In the case of The Wire, it’s a little trickier. Both shows are cop shows, or at least start out that way – they take the old standard of the cop show and have their way with it. But The Wire is very different from The Shield – it has just a little to do with hope, whereas The Shield provides no such thing. As much as The Wire is very clearly an angry invective against a broken system, it still ends up on the screen as ultimately a more optimistic, even utopian, vision in some ways. The Shield isn’t going to lift you anywhere – it starts out with teeth bared snarling, and ends the same way.
But I don’t think you have to choose.
If you love The Wire, you still might love The Shield. All those Wire people who want a new drug may do well to go back and learn The Shield, especially because the two shows share a secret weapon: the under-lauded show-builder Clark Johnson, who set the directorial styles of both shows in their inaugural episodes, directed several episodes throughout, and directed both finales (and appeared in them both as an actor).
Wire fans, I ask you: What does Clark Johnson know that you don’t?