TV: The Shield (Season 1)

February 1, 2013

Well, I gave it the old college try, and I mostly liked what I saw. But it took me nearly three months to work through the first season of The Shield (2002–2008), and I’m not sure how enthused I am to continue through the rest of its run.

The Shield is an LA-based cop show set in the fictional neighborhood of Farmington: “the Farm,” a dangerous neighborhood with a high crime rate and more than its fair share of PR problems. The precinct is led by straight-arrow, politically ambitious Lt. David Aceveda (Benito Martinez), who wants to run for city council on an anti-corruption platform. There’s only one problem: he has a loose cannon in his squad, Detective Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis), who may be the dirtiest cop in town. Mackey leads a strike team of similarly disreputable thugs, and along with cronies Shane Vendrell (Walton Goggins) and Curtis Lemansky (Kenneth Johnson), he runs roughshod over law and procedure. Unfortunately for Aceveda, Mackey also gets results, and higher-ups in the chain of command, notably Assistant Chief Ben Gilroy (John Diehl), have his back.

While the Mackey-Aceveda battle serves as the show’s central conflict, a number of side characters contribute to the mix. There’s bookish, quirky up-and-coming detective Dutch Wagenbach (Jay Karnes), a shrewd and thoughtful investigator determined to make his mark. His partner is cagey, no-nonsense veteran Claudette Wyms (CCH Pounder). Then there are the uniforms: chiefly, experienced beat cop Danielle Sofer (Catherine Dent). Danny is bringing along a troubled rookie partner, Julien Lowe (Michael Jace), a highly religious man struggling desperately to come to grips with his homosexuality.

While these four characters bring plenty of story to the table, everything orbits around Mackey, a black hole of crooked scheming.  Even when his heart is in the right place, his methods are ever morally questionable. Mackey’s precarious balancing act at work constantly threatens to creep over into his personal life, where he and his beleaguered wife Corinne (Cathy Cahlin Ryan) struggle to raise two children.

The Shield was created by Shawn Ryan, and I came to this show on the strength of Ryan’s short-lived PI series Terriers. While the two shows share certain characteristics, including the requisite FX-network high testosterone quotient, there’s really no comparison. The Shield is good TV without being great, at least based on this thirteen-episode sample. My main reservation is that it feels derivative of earlier, more ground-breaking cop shows, so nothing feels fresh. I’m pretty familiar with NYPD Blue and Homicide: Life on the Street, and The Shield strikes me as a network cable hybrid of those two shows. It aspires to Blue’s edgy gloss and Homicide’s authentic precinct vibe, ultimately landing somewhere in the middle. The wild card in the mix is Mackey, who, while well played by Chiklis, is a pretty standard twenty-first century antihero. Picture Tony Soprano doing the Dexter Morgan “will he get caught” dance, and you’ve got the idea. I was more interested in the side characters, especially Dutch, who has some of the more interesting story lines. But even so, it’s hard not to see Dutch as a direct descendant of Homicide’s Tim Bayliss, a fish-out-of-water idealist wrestling with harsh realities.

In the end, The Shield whips along entertainingly enough, but I never found myself enthralled. The season finale did strike me as prologue for potentially intriguing later developments, so I wouldn’t rule out watching more, but I’m not feeling much urgency about it.

  • Ted February 1, 2013 at 5:05 pm

    Personally, I think The Shield is what Dexter could have been, if Dexter’s writers had had more guts. While it’s not apparent in the first season, the series as a whole is possibly TV’s best depiction to date of the consequences of an antihero’s dark side. It may look as if Mackey is getting away with everything, but he’s not: it all comes back to him in the end. I consider the series one of the great achievements of modern television.

    • Chris East February 1, 2013 at 6:52 pm

      Wow, now that’s some high praise! Although I’ll stand by my assessment of season one (particularly that it feels derivative), I may have to reconsider my viewing agenda — particularly if it improves dramatically in later seasons. Thanks for chiming in!

  • Tim Pratt February 2, 2013 at 1:49 pm

    Oh, man. There’s no arguing with taste, but… I’d suggest you stick with it. I think I liked the first season better than you did, though I’ll admit it’s uneven. But later on the show gets AMAZING. Some of the season-long arcs are astonishing. The money train! Forrest Whitaker as an obsessed IA officer! Glenn Close as a pragmatic captain! And the series finale is simply one of the best I’ve ever seen on a TV show. (Most shows just kinda trail off. But the Shield has a dynamite ending, without being too pat or wrapping things up too neatly.)

    • Chris East February 2, 2013 at 3:56 pm

      That’s two opinions I trust telling me to keep going…looks like I should stick with this one after all! A lot of shows take a while to ramp up, so maybe I was too quick to dismiss this one…