The Shield: 10 Years On
10 years since it first premiered on FX, WhatCulture looks back on Shawn Ryan’s gritty cop drama which changed the face of TV.
(Please Note: This article looks back at the entire run of The Shield, making occasional spoilers somewhat inevitable)
When The Shield first appeared out of the blue on March 12th 2002, many were quick to immediately dismiss it. On first glance it seemed like just another routine cop drama, featuring yet another cliché maverick cop who refused to play by the rules. The fact that it was on FX didn’t help either – a then low-key cable network with little experience in producing its own original drama and better known for showing re-runs of shows like Buffy The Vampire Slayer and The X Files. To make matters worse, for UK audiences the show ended up in a late-night slot on Channel 5, which back then still had a reputation for peddling softcore porn and dodgy films.
Anyone who tuned in to the pilot episode was quick to find out that this wasn’t just another run of the mill cop show. Many of the characters were far more realistically flawed than most TV shows we’d seen before, while crime had never been depicted so brutally or honestly on the small screen. Uncompromising and shot in a gritty handheld documentary style, The Shield immediately established itself as a force to be reckoned with. It also concluded with lead character Vic Mackey shooting another police officer in the face, which pretty laid the show’s cards well and truly out on the table.
Created by Shawn Ryan, The Shield remains for me and many others as one of the finest TV shows ever to grace our screens. Driven by a powerhouse performance by Michael Chiklis as the manipulative and brutal Vic Mackey, The Shield was a TV drama like no other. Depicting the social unrest and high crime rate of a fictional L.A suburb known as Farmington, The Shield went far beyond what many of us expected from a basic crime drama and featured a cast of unforgettable characters and some of the best writing ever seen in a TV show.
Whereas most TV detective or crime dramas had an upright moral compass of characters who upheld the law, The Shield focused on a group of corrupt police officers whose actions were often more contemptuous than the criminals being arrested. With Vic Mackey leading, the acts of The Shield’s strike team included murder, theft, torture and blackmail, yet the wonderful performances and solid writing kept us invested in characters who could have easily been evil one-sided caricatures. Mackey himself was often borderline psychotic yet also charming, effective and even sympathetic, putting the viewer in the uncomfortable position of rooting for someone who should be utterly loathsome.
Somehow, even after kicking off with a season which included an episode titled ‘Cherrypoppers’ The Shield never lost its ability to make jaws drop. If anything it became even more audaciously surprising as time went on. Later seasons contain moments which easily rank as some of TV’s most shocking moments of all time. Despite the popularity of the show and a swathe of Emmy and Golden Globe awards, the content of The Shield was so uncompromising that advertisers were even too scared to buy up advertising slots in the episodes.
Its controversial reputation for showcasing grim depictions of violence and torture as well as frequent allusions to graphic sexual acts such as underage rape, meant that it’s a show which sounds like an unbearably bleak experience. While it’s true that The Shield is about as tough going as TV gets, there‘s far more to the show than mere shock value. Alongside the crime element of the show it deals with themes of family, politics, friendship and ethics. The varied cast of likable and rounded characters also makes it often surprisingly funny, even when often dealing with a bleak subject matter.
The performances across the board are stunning. While Chiklis’ masterful portrayal of Mackey always remains centre stage, each character in The Shield is equally engaging and well acted. There’s Jay Karnes as socially awkward but brilliant detective ‘Dutch’ Holland Wagenbach to the haunting performance from Walton Goggins as the deeply unhinged Shane Vendrell. Every actor on the show gives their respective characters an astonishing level of depth, while few shows can match the level of likeability that The Shield’s characters offer over the course of its seven seasons. Look no further for proof of this than the endearing partnership of detectives Dutch (Jay Karnes) and Claudette (CCH Pounder), which acts as a heartfelt counterpoint to the brutality and corruption of the Strike Team.
More so than any other TV show in recent memory, each and every character was also deeply and humanly flawed. You wouldn’t tune into House to find Hugh Laurie strangling a stray cat to death, but The Shield never turned away from allowing us to love – but more crucially hate – its excellent ensemble of characters.
Then there’s also the cascade of guest roles which included Oscar winners Glenn Close and Forrest Whitaker and even Andre 3000 from hip-hop group OutKast. Each guest star in the show was excellent – especially those who often inhabited the interrogation rooms of each episode – but particular praise has to go to Whitaker, dominating the outstanding fifth season as Ltn. Jon Kavenaugh. His performance provided the show with one of the strongest threats the Strike Team ever faced, and his astonishing commitment to the role sees him not only becoming more unhinged as the season unfolds, but physically changing as his campaign against Vic Mackey takes its toll.
As The Shield went on it managed to thematically mature into something which broke free from the shackles of its almost pulpy thrills to deliver something truly Shakespearean. Nothing symbolises this more than the riveting final season which gave us the greatest finale that’s ever graced a TV show. In the space of a few hours, Mackey’s world came crumbling down around him in fittingly tragic circumstances.
This was a rare show that satisfyingly brought us completely full-circle, with Vic and his team finally paying the inevitable consequences for the murder which opened the series. It was a conclusion which was unpredictable, moving and astonishingly brave. Unlike some other TV show endings, it was a finale which tied up all loose ends definitively and wasn’t simply a good episode, it was as powerful and gripping an hour of television that you could ever ask for.
Unfortunately, in the years following the show’s conclusion, it’s been almost impossible to discuss The Shield without the critically acclaimed shadow of The Wire hanging over its reputation. While both shows deal with similar themes of corruption and civil unrest in some of the U.S’ most crime infested areas, mere comparisons between the two are futile. The Wire is an ambitious achievement, offering an intellectual and journalistic study of social breakdown in modern Baltimore – its intention being to raise questions which go beyond its simple cop show trappings.
However, perfect it ain’t. The Wire is just as guilty of many of the same flaws that plague other TV shows, with many of them being swept underneath the rug of unanimous acclaim. Even Wire obsessives (or if you prefer, Guardian readers) will contest – after a few nudges – to the multiple problems with the messy fifth season, or acknowledge the problematic near-absence of Jimmy McNulty in the fourth season. Some fans will simply tell you that the second season wasn’t quite up to scratch, despite the fact that it’s probably the most accomplished of the lot.
The Shield on the other hand is pure, unadulterated entertainment. It may not be as intelligent or as multilayered as David Simon’s ambitious epic, but it doesn’t aspire to be either. Few other TV shows are as unbearably tense, gritty and as emotionally powerful as The Shield, and mere comparisons with another show are unfair. Despite occasionally lapsing into sensationalism, The Shield wasn’t a dumb show either. Its plotlines were often complex, while the often grim subject matter was handled with both in-your-face realism and poignancy. Both shows deserve to be held in equally high regard, as they’re both shows which represent the very best TV has to offer.
In the wake of The Shield, FX has continued to up the stakes with original drama. Most notably, Shield writer/producer Kurt Sutter went on to create Sons of Anarchy, a show which almost feels like a spiritual successor. Dealing with an equally corruptible bunch of bikers, Sons of Anarchy features guest roles from Shield alumni including Benito Martinez, Jay Karnes and David Rees Snell. It’s not quite as good as The Shield – lacking the same level of morality and opting for more outlandish and soapy plotlines – but Sutter’s drama follows neatly in its footsteps as another FX cult-classic. Without The Shield, it’s highly unlikely that FX would have had the freedom to create such other well received dramas as Rescue Me and Damages.
Elsewhere its influence can continue to be felt in both television and film. Director Frank Darabont – who guest directed an episode of The Shield’s sixth season – went on to helm The Walking Dead‘s first season, bringing with him various Shield veterans including producer Glen Mazarra. Show creator Shawn Ryan has gone onto shows such as The Unit, Terriers and Lie To Me – of which an episode featured a partial Shield cast reunion. Most recently, Woody Harrelson has won critical acclaim for his portrayal of a Vic Mackey-like corrupt cop in Rampart, a feature film based on the same real life scandals that inspired The Shield.
It’s never quite had the mass acclaim and popularity of shows like The Sopranos and The Wire – to which is often unfairly held in comparison – but The Shield is a true underrated TV masterpiece. It might still be a little too brutal for some viewers, but Vic Mackey’s Strike Team and the Farmington PD have left a remarkable stamp on TV history, and one which continues to be felt 10 years later. If you’ve never seen it, buy the box-set immediately and prepare to become addicted. If you have, then you really don’t need me to continue banging on about how good it is, you probably already know.
“Good cop and bad cop left for the day, I’m a different kinda cop” – Vic Mackey
The Shield Seasons 1-7 are available on DVD from Sony Home Entertainment