Friday, January 16, 2004


and you thought the meter
maid was tough

If you've never seen an episode of The Shield (on FX), do this immediately: go rent or buy Seasons 1 and 2 of the show in time for the beginning of Season 3 (March 9). Trust me - this is one of the best things on television right now and certainly my favorite show (though Alias has to come in at a close second).

I've had a hard time figuring out just what it is I like about The Shield so much. Certainly, it was well casted, written, directed and acted but not more so than Sopranos which is probably t.v.'s most accomplished show in all these categories. Nor does it offer the sheer joy that seems to accompany ever episode of The Simpsons. Yet, I find The Shield both more entertaining and compelling than anything else on t.v. right now and I surmise it really comes down to the central character at heart in the series: Vic Mackey (played by Michael Chicklis, who won an Emmy for his role after Season 1).

For those of you who have never seen the show, there's not too much to explain: imagine Denzel Washington's Alonzo Harris character from Training Day, make him white, bald and with a small tummy and then give him a fully realized, human personality. Mackey is the dirtiest of dirty cops in the fictional city of Farmington (somewhere in L.A. County) where he leads up the Drug Task Force. In essence, Mackey is running the Farmington drug game as part of his own private fortune, he exerts control over who can sell and who can't, taking a cut for himself and his partners on the Task Force and conveniently making sure that any potential opposition is eliminated. Meanwhile, he has to deal with the scrutiny coming from his co-workers, especially his police captain David Aceveda (played with simmering frustration by Benito Martinez) and Detective Claudette Wyms (played beautifully by C.C.H. Pounder). His double life is also a huge source of tension with his wife Corinne (Cathy Ryan) who is not aware of Mackey's criminal enterprises.

This basic narrative set-up is certainly not that original. There is, of course, a long history of films that revolve around the lives of corrupt cops - Training Day and Bad Lieutenant come immediately to mind. Coming from the other side, The Sopranos has famously "redefined family" by accentuating Tony Soprano's daily grind trying to keep his family and the New Jersey Mob happy (which in turn, borrows heavily from The Godfather and other seminal gangster films). Where the unique and compelling execution of The Shield comes to play is with Mackey/Chiklis.

For a guy who was doing bad sitcom just four years ago (the short-lived Daddio), Chiklis imbues Mackey with a depth of character that took many (myself included) by surprise. Mackey is a study in tension and conflict - here is someone who is holding things together, but only by the sharpest of margins and every episode is guaranteed to find him looking on the verge of exploding (on very rare occasions, he has a meltdown but Mackey tends to express his frustrations outwards, not inwards).

This is in marked contrast to other, ostensibly similar characters. Mackey borrows very little from Training Day's Alonzo Harris who is a monster cloaked in charisma. Mackey, on the other hand, is very much a character who earns your sympathy even though his actions are morally beyond redemption. He know he does bad but he also shows genuine care and affection for those around him (so long as they're not trying to get in his way). Sure, he's an alpha dog with an arrogant swagger, especially in how he brusquely treats criminals (potential and real alike) but he exhibits a leader's charisma that comes from his force of will rather than charm.

This too is different from Tony Soprano, t.v.'s other major anti-hero. Both are men dealing with lives that are out of control, both of their own making. The main difference is that Mackey has a razor-sharp focus on all things whereas Soprano often times seems caught up in forces far beyond his ability to handle. Both are subject to human frailties but ultimately, you get the sense that Mackey can handle his business when he needs to - Soprano is always one step away from a very long fall. To put it another way, in a showdown between the two, it's not even a fair fight: Mackey would take out Soprano faster than he could say, "badda bing".

Suffice to say, Chiklis makes the show, followed closely by C.C.H. Pounder who brings such fantastic gravitas to Claudette's character. She's the only character in the whole show not scared or cowed by Mackey and is able to communicate so much weight in just a stare. While I like some of the other satellite of characters (in this respect, The Sopranos is considerably better), her and Chiklis are the two best reasons to watch the show, especially in Season 3 where the two of them are destined to roll head-to-head more oftne.

By the way, it doesn't even matter if you like cop shows - in general, I don't at all. I never grew up watching Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue or even Starsky and Hutch but I adore The Shield far less because it's about the police (snooooze) and far more because it offers such rich stories, both within each episode as well as the long arc of each season. Believe me - try this. You'll like it.