The Shield offered a sympathetic look at dirty cops
POSTED 6:48pm | 20 JULY 2015
The Shield was a naughties cop show that was as innovative and original as it was highly derivative. Created by young TV writer/producer Shawn Ryan, it ran from 2002 to 2008, with 89 episodes spread across 7 seasons. It was a budget show on a budget network (FX) with a budget cast - but it achieved greatness through the skill and ambition of its creative team and production crew, who took the freedom offered to them by a network with no expectations and delivered a consistently clever look inside the corruption of a Los Angeles police department.
Set in the fictional district of Farmington, the show primarily followed the exploits of Detective Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis from The Commish, Fantastic Four), leader of an anti-gang unit called the Strike Team, as he attempts to reduce crime through whatever means necessary as part of a newly established police precinct in a notoriously troubled neighbourhood. Those means include police brutality, torture, planting evidence, and coerced confessions, but as long as he continues to get results his superiors, namely the politically ambitious new captain David Aceveda (Benito Martinez), are happy to cast a blind eye. Caught in the middle are the everyday beat cops and regular detectives who try to do the right thing while avoiding the bad sides of Mackey and Aceveda, from the brilliant Detectives Claudette Wyms (CCH Pounder from Return to Lonesome Dove, ER, End of Days) and her partner "Dutch" Wagenbach (Jay Karnes), to rookie cop Julien Lowe (Michael Jace from Boogie Nights, The Replacements) and his training officer Danni Sofer (Catherine Dent from The Majestic, Auto Focus).
While most characters ignore the police tactics used by the Strike Team because of their results, the bigger problem lies in the criminal behaviour Vic and his partners engage in by using the power of their badges. They skim money and drugs from busts, which are then used to either fund their own lifestyles, or buy favour with any number of gangs operating out of Farmington. They facilitate, orchestrate, and cover up murders to protect themselves or to steal more money and drugs. And all members of the Strike Team are complicit in this behaviour: Detectives Shane Vendrell (Walton Goggins from Shanghai Noon, Justified), Curtis "Lem" Lemanski (Kenny Johnson), and Ronnie Gardocki (David Rees Snell). This sets up the main dynamic that plays out over the seven seasons: Vic and the Strike Team try to get away with as much as they can while constantly under suspicion of, or even direct investigation by, their superiors or other cops, who want to see them brought to justice for their crimes but either don't have the evidence to do it, or are more worried about the political implications to their own career should crime stats start rising again.
It begins with one of the greatest opening episodes in modern television (sitting comfortably alongside the likes of Lost, Scrubs, and Friday Night Lights) which ends with the Strike Team committing the big crime that will haunt them for the rest of their lives (and the series). It's clear from the beginning that Vic Mackey is not an anti-hero who bends the rules for the greater good, but rather an unforgivable and selfish villain who feels he's entitled to more than what he gets from his colleagues, family, and employer, and who's not afraid to sell out everyone around him to get what he wants. It's also clear that David Aceveda will tolerate Vic's behaviour (even demand it), and put people in danger, as long as it helps him advance politically. He wants to be Mayor, so he plans to take the credit for the effectiveness of the Strike Team while also hoping to expose them as dirty cops: a win-win situation that will guarantee him a high profile and votes at the next election.
This corruption is not limited to Mackey and Aceveda. It is present at levels above and below, from the city officials and the police headquarters right down to the uniformed officers looking out for each other. Everyone is prepared to "look the other way" or take "a little off the top", compromising their ethics and morals, if it helps or protects them. Dutch and Wyms are prepared to let a paedophile suspect be tortured if it leads to his confession, Julien is prepared to recant his allegations of corruption to prevent his homosexuality from becoming public knowledge, Assistant Police Chief Ben Gilroy (John Diehl from Miami Vice, Stargate, Jurassic Park III) dismisses allegations because they might affect public perception and crime statistics. Even Mackey's wife Corrine (Cathy Cahlin Ryan - Shawn Ryan's real life wife) refuses to question where all their extra money comes from because it helps care for their two autistic children. Corruption is endemic within the Farmington community. It is institutionalised. It infects everything from the mundane to the criminal. What makes the Shield such an outstanding dramatic television series is the way it chooses to handle this corruption.
Before we go into that I want to explain further what I meant when I called The Shield highly derivative. Many involved in the production of The Shield have earlier credits with similar cops & crime shows like Hill Street Blues, Homicide: Life on the Street, NYPD Blue, Cracker, and Murder One. These were all shows in the late 1980s and during the 1990s that broke the rules and tried different takes on the police procedural: fallible characters, sympathetic criminals, realistic outcomes, multiple episode story arcs, gritty and realistic sets, lighting, and costumes. The Shield took on many of these aspects and developed them further, as well as the handheld documentary-style cinematography, which makes it feel like a natural successor to those earlier pioneers. Those previous shows very clearly make up a considerable amount of The Shield's DNA. Being derivative does not have to be negative, though, and The Shield sets about very early on proving that it is the natural evolution of its influences.
The thing that sets The Shield apart is that it never judges its characters. For all their failings, all their corruption, the show is always sympathetic to its characters - never coming down on one side or the other. When people complain about media being "preachy", or trying to push a certain message, they're really complaining about when a show tries to shoe-horn a certain political, social, cultural, or moral message onto their characters by having them behave inconsistently or suffer unrealistic consequences. Characters turn a blind eye to things they wouldn't normally ignore, or forget a horrific incident that happened in the previous episode just to make a different point in this episode, or suffer a comeuppance that doesn't fit their "crimes". The Shield doesn't fall into this trap. It's sympathetic to all its characters, no matter where they may fall on the good-evil scale. In fact, it mostly does away with the scale altogether.
At various points in each of its seven seasons there are clear antagonists and protagonists. Very early on we're meant to cheer for Vic while despising Aceveda. We hate Julien for his hypocrisy and love Dani for her kindness and patience. We respect Claudette for her no-nonsense attitude and distrust Dutch for his superiority complex. These characters are set up as archetypes that should follow a pretty clear development path, had they been on any other show, but instead become more human as the series wears on: Vic should win and Aceveda sacked in political disgrace; Julien should embrace his homosexuality and reject his religion; Dutch should be humbled by a mistake that leads him to become a better person. Thankfully, none of these stories follow their expected paths. The Shield is more concerned with exploring why these characters behave the way they behave, what they believe in, and what makes them tick, rather than following the standard plot direction. Its characters are more than their archetypes. They are real people, with real struggles, that just happen to live in a slightly fantastical, or heightened, world.
Julien starts off as the hypocritical devout Christian and closeted homosexual. The usual outcome for this character is to be exposed and embarrassed for their hypocrisy, reject their religion, and then find happiness in accepting their homosexuality. This is the moral outcome that society demands for these characters because the message we want to push is that it's okay to be gay. There's nothing wrong with that message, but we've seen that story played out before on TV, and it assumes that what defines that character is their sexual orientation. The Shield asks us to think of this character in more than two dimensions. What if Julien is defined by more than one label? At the core of his character is his moral and ethical code, stemming from his devout Christianity, which guides the character towards treating people decently, trying to always do the right or honourable thing, standing against corruption, because his character joined the police force to do good for his neighbourhood. When the invitation comes from his pastor to join a "pray away the gay" program, the expectation from the viewer is that this will be a disaster, because ultimately these programs are morally wrong and send the wrong message. But again The Shield follows a realistic character path, and attempts to live in a real world, where people have found peace, or success, in these programs, and allows Julien to face up to what is haunting him and somehow defeat it (or at least cage it away).
It's not the plot we expect, or demand, but that is what makes it interesting! And the key reason it works is because the show makes no judgement about whether this is right or wrong. All that matters is that it is what that character decided to do - not what he was artificially made to do by some social expectation. Judgement is left up to the characters. Dani is shocked by his decision because she wanted him to come out and be open about his homosexuality, and disagrees with the prayer programs, but the show doesn't punish him for following his heart or being guided by his faith. As a person I might not agree, but as a viewer I appreciate this approach to character development. This is the same for just about all of the characters. Stuff happens to them that they have no control over, they deal with it in a manner that is consistent with their character, and the show uses its other characters, all with their own unique beliefs and values, to judge each decision for themselves.
And this is the way the show treats its corruption as well. Characters get caught and punished for their corruption not because the show demands it, to make a moral or social point, but because those characters get caught, and face the real world consequences of their actions. It never explicitly condemns or condones its characters behaviour, but is rather sympathetic to why its characters choose to make the decisions they make, and realistically explores in detail how they come to make those decisions.
The Shield attempts to understand why these cops, who exist in a corrupt city, engage in corruption themselves. This is, I think, the heart of the show, and what makes it great. It doesn't celebrate or decry the corruption - just presents it as realistically as possible. Vic is trying to take what he thinks is owed to him. There are times when he wants to be, and is, a very good cop, and the audience might feel some sympathy towards him because of how his family is falling apart, but he's also a pathological liar who, when it comes down to it, will always put himself first above everyone and everything else. The fact that, after his unforgivable act in the pilot, the show can still make you feel sympathy for him - even to the point of hoping he gets away with it all - is a credit to the show and its writing staff.
All the characters get this sympathetic treatment, even the guest stars like Glenn Close, as Captain Monica Rawlings, and Forest Whitaker, as Internal Affairs Lieutenant Jon Kavanaugh, arrive as potential antagonists before becoming real people, under real pressure, doing a thankless job.
The Shield wasn't a perfect show. There are moments when it got a bit silly, or a bit implausible, and moments when it wasn't technically executed well. It walked a fine line between brilliance and rubbish because of its early technical and casting decisions. It's a miracle that it never once slipped on to the wrong side of that line, instead maintaining its brilliance for all seven seasons. Its strength was in the clear delineation between how the writers treated the characters and how the characters treated each other. It presented a heightened fantasy world that treated situations and characters consistently and realistically. It's the benchmark by which I judge all other media when it comes to being fair and sympathetic to all characters without losing objectivity or being unrealistic with their motivations and choices. It's remarkable how well it holds up as an example of storytelling.
If you've never seen it, or never intend to watch it, I challenge you to watch the pilot episode without getting hooked.