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.
The Shield is one of those rare series that gets better with each season rather than worse, building and building to an incredible, shocking and perfect finale that is one of the best endings to a television series ever. Season one may not immediately hook you, though the pilot will definitely pique your interest, but each season builds on the last, nothing is forgotten and every episode is important – except for maybe the flashback one. That one’s a bit pointless.
The show is packed with stellar performances, particularly from Chiklis and Goggins. Even the random one-off criminals are usually well-acted. It also has Glenn Close and Forrest Whitaker in season-long guest-star roles as formidable opponents to the Strike Team. Whittaker’s season, season five, is one of the best seasons of television that I have seen in any drama.
Plenty of police dramas call themselves ‘gritty’ and ‘tough’ and ‘EXTREEEEEME’, but The Shield is probably the only one that really earns those descriptions. It’s brutal and tough to watch and unflinchingly looks at a series of gruesome crimes and horrible people doing horrible things. It’s also filmed in a hand-held style with a grimy filter that, while not very pretty (making any Blu-Ray transfers of this show would be utterly pointless), serves the show well.
It can occasionally seem like the show is going a little overboard in trying to be so grim. It sometimes feels like the writers were brainstorming ways to give a routine but horrific case an extra nasty twist to make it a bit more fucked up. So there’s a rapist – no, a serial rapist – nah, still not enough, how about a serial rapist who only rapes grandmothers – no, uhhh, a serial rapist who only rapes grandmothers and breaks into their homes in the middle of the day when they’re alone – oh, and then he cuddles with them for several hours before leaving.
That’ll do. Get Dutch and Claudette on the case, they’ll solve it before the season’s over. ‘Cos they’re awesome.
Seven seasons of one of the best police dramas of all time is on Netflix and Amazon Instant Video, just waiting for you to give it a try. It’s uncensored, too, unlike the season 5 DVDs that, bafflingly, cut out a large chunk of that season’s fantastic finale. I rewatched a couple of episodes before writing this to check if it’s as good as I remember, and it still holds up well.
So give it a try.
Go on, do it.
Go on. Or Vic’ll come after you, and you don’t want that.
No, trust me. You really, really don’t want that.