The Shield

the shield

The 2000s were chock-full of prestige dramas featuring protagonists that were conflicted, corrupted and very unlikeable. The Sopranos and Breaking Bad are two of the most successful and well-known examples of this sort of drama, but there’s one that tends to get overlooked, even though it was one of the first of its kind and one of the best.

The Shield was a tough, dark police drama that focussed on a team of corrupt cops. The team members were very good at their jobs, catching criminals regularly and easily, but their questionable methods made their boss suspicious, and he was determined to bring them down.

I watched all seven seasons of it in a couple of months during that long, long break between the eight and ninth episodes of Breaking Bad‘s fifth season last year. It’s been on Lovefilm/Amazon Instant Video for some time, and this week it suddenly appeared on Netflix, so now’s a good time to check out this unfairly-ignored drama if you haven’t already.

Our ‘hero’ is Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis), the leader of the Strike Team, a team that takes on the toughest crimes and cases in the fictional LA district of Farmington. Operating from an old church that was converted into a police station, Vic is arrogant, charismatic and fond of using brutal methods to get the job done. In the first episode, while in the middle of an interrogation with a suspect who is obviously guilty but smugly insists that he can’t be arrested because there’s no evidence, Vic turns off the camera in the interrogation room and beats the suspect with a phone book until he confesses his crimes.

Unlike, say, Walter White, Vic does not start nice and turn bad. He’s bad from the start, and as the series progresses, he only gets worse and worse. He is a man with a lot of confidence, a lot of greed, a fierce glare that makes even the toughest criminals whimper with fear, a schoolboy sense of humour, a deep love for his family and a need for control that makes him a fantastic and complex main character. You’re not really supposed to want him to succeed, but you do anyway because occasionally he does something really clever and badass.

Vic’s closest friend Shane Vendrell (Walton Goggins) is another member of the Strike Team. Shane is Vic with more greed and without the charisma or the competence, so he can be repulsive and unpleasant. He clearly wants to be just like Vic, but when he copies Vic’s unorthodox way of policing it doesn’t always end well.

Curtis ‘Lem’ Lemansky (Kenny Johnson) is the most moral member of the Strike Team, always the first to object or hesitate when the Team suggests that they do something particularly unethical. Often comes into conflict with Shane, who has far looser morals and is often the one suggesting the bad idea in the first place.

Ronnie Gardocki (David Rees Snell) is the fourth and final member of the team. He says and does so little in the first few seasons that he’s barely a main character, but he rounds out the team nicely and gets plenty of chances to shine later on.

To balance the corruption of the Strike Team and give you characters whom you can root for without feeling bad about it, the show also follows two detectives, Claudette and Dutch, who work together to fight crime by-the-book, along with other officers Julien and Danni.

Police Captain Aceveda (Benito Martinez) is in charge of the Team and the rest of the police force in Farmington. At the start of the series, he recruits another police officer, Detective Terry Crowley (Reed Diamond), and tasks him with infiltrating the Strike Team to get evidence of their misdeeds and send them to jail.

Will he succeed? Will the Strike Team get caught with their hands dirty? That’s what drives the plot of the series from the very start. As the series progresses, the Team finds themselves in deep trouble and watching them panic and scramble and narrowly escape justice, only to end up in even deeper trouble, is thrillingly tense.

The shit hits the fan on a regular basis, and the stress and pressure of covering up their growing number of misdeeds begins to take its toll on the Team’s relationships with each other, their families, and their consciences, and the team are forced to take more and more drastic measures to get away with their crimes. It becomes increasingly clear that this cannot possibly end well for them.

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Utopia

utopia

The first series of Utopia was one of the most talked-about British shows of last year. It had an eye-poppingly vibrant visual style, a strange soundtrack, a wry sense of humour, a labyrinthine conspiracy plot and, most controversially, frequent scenes of grisly violence that clashed with the show’s colourful comic-book look and caused complaints from squeamish viewers.

I remember the torture scene at the end of the first episode causing several complaints and prompting shock and outrage in the media the next day, as did a school shooting scene in the third episode, which aired a week after the Sandy Hook tragedy.

Like many popular British dramas, it’s been picked up for a US remake -would it be brave enough to do the same controversial scenes as the original? There’s not much point in remaking it anyway, it’s not like it’s in a foreign language, unless HBO doubts that Americans will understand Becky’s Welsh accent.

It also received a second series, which started this week and, since I’d never seen the whole series, I decided to catch up on what I’d missed and refresh my memory of what’s happened so far.

The two hitmen, one a sharply-dressed torturer with a quiff, the other a baby-faced man in a leather jacket insistently asking “Where is Jessica Hyde?”, are still just as chilling as before. Their mere appearance in a scene can instantly create an atmosphere of dread and menace and if they’ve brought their bright yellow bag of fun that’s never a good sign.

Their targets are a group of unlikely heroes brought together by a legendary graphic novel called Utopia. The graphic novel’s unusual origins and unpublished sequel spawned plenty of conspiracy theories and online discussion. The group meet online to discuss Utopia, and when one of them reveals that he has the manuscript to the sequel they decide to meet up. But when this meet-up is organised the group become targets for the two hitmen, who are working for a mysterious organisation that also wants to get its hands on the manuscript.

Meanwhile, a senior civil servant is blackmailed into doing the bidding of the same organisation by a Russian who is threatening to expose the civil servants’ affair, which would ruin his political career and his life.

All of these characters quickly find themselves scared, confused, hopelessly lost and out of their depth, as the organisation that seems to have people in high places everywhere tries to track them down, manipulate them, or kill them. Nowhere is safe.

The scenes of violence still shock, though I noticed that during the torture scene that concluded the first episode on 4oD it occasionally cuts to a black screen just before the worst parts – did it do that when it aired? Surely I would have noticed? Or did I look away? Either way it’s still horrific – you can’t see the worst bits, but you can still hear them.

It’s very effective, and it’s similar to the scene near the end of Se7en where they reveal what’s in the box. It’s a disturbing scene but, remarkably, it never actually show the box’s contents. I’ve spoken to a couple of people who insist that it did and how horrible it was, but no, it leaves the imagery up to your imagination.

Utopia racks up an astonishing body count in such a short amount of episodes as our heroes are forced to commit fairly un-heroic acts to survive while on the run, and the network which is simultaneously trying to stop them and carry out a villainous plot nationwide quickly shows that it has no qualms with killing innocent people.

It’s not always an easy watch, but it’s a good one, and it has unexpected moments of wry humour to make the dark subject matter and violent scenes more palatable. It also has a bright and colourful style that is unlike anything else on television and makes everyday British scenery look stunningly pretty and almost otherworldly.

This style is something which I hope the remake keeps, though the remake’s director, David Fincher, is known for using grimy yellow filters and moody darkness in most of his films, so maybe the style will be drastically changed in the HBO version. That would be a shame. Utopia‘s cinematography and over-saturated visuals are what makes it really shine.

Utopia is on Tuesdays at 10pm on Channel 4. This week’s double-bill and all of series one is on 4oD. If you don’t have time to watch 6 hours of television to catch up to series two and don’t mind spoilers, here’s a three-minute recap.

Community 105: Advanced Improbable Resurrection

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My last post about Community ended with a hopeful “Welcome back Dan Harmon. Welcome back Community“. Although the show had been almost-cancelled several times over the years, there were several reasons why fans could be optimistic about its future, for a change.

The show had returned for an unlikely fifth season, which had included some of the series’ best episodes, and the show’s creator had been re-hired, in a move which was unprecedented in the history of television. Ratings were decent, reviews were positive, and NBC had even adopted the fandom’s #sixseasonsandamovie hashtag for the show’s official marketing campaign, which suggested that a sixth season and a movie was actually possible.

Then it was cancelled.

It was a bit of a shock. NBC had got our hopes up and then cruelly dashed them. But there was a glimmer of hope. Sony Pictures Entertainment, which owns the show (NBC just aired it and paid some of the production costs), was reportedly desperate to find the show a new home elsewhere. It was a race against time – the cast’s contracts for the show expired in a few weeks, and there weren’t many options.

Netflix was pestered with requests by fans, but they decided not to have it. Hulu, which owned the online streaming rights to Community in America, seemed like an obvious place for the show to continue. However, with a week to go before the cast’s contrasts expired, Hulu made a statement saying that they would not be picking up Community for a sixth season.

At this point, everyone had given up hoping for more Community and were slowly accepting that this quirky, clever little comedy was finished.

It was great that it had managed to get this far. No-one had really expected it to last this long anyway. The whole ‘six seasons and a movie’ thing was just a silly joke from the show that fans had turned into a message of support for the show itself, and used as a rallying cry for when the show was in trouble, which had been quite often.

The phrase became particularly prominent when fans flooded social media with the hashtag #sixseasonsandamovie after Community was abruptly pulled from NBC’s television schedule halfway through its third season. Being taken off air usually means ‘cancelled’, but the show’s most dedicated (ie: slightly obsessive) fans protested wherever they could. The hashtag trended worldwide every Thursday (when the show should have been on the air), flashmobs were organised outside NBC’s headquarters in New York City and, after a couple of months, the show returned to the airwaves.

Unbelievably, it lasted for two more seasons after this. It had ended on a high note. The last episode didn’t quite work as a series finale, but it was much better than season 4’s god-awful final episode. Let’s just be grateful it got this far.

The expiration deadline came and there was still no news. Not that anyone was really expecting any. It was done. It was over. Community had overcome some crazy obstacles in the past that other shows would have never managed to get past, but it would take something truly insane and out of left field to save it now.

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