The Shield is a milestone of a show.
A few years after HBO started The Sopranos, basic cable’s FX began The Shield. Both are tales of men keeping their masculinity and giving in to their darker side, despite working to care and provide for their family. Where Tony Soprano is a mob boss, however, Michael Chiklis’ Vic Mackey is a hard-edged LA cop, raring to raid anything and everything with his team, while the rest of The Farm (the HQ for the particular district) solve crimes.
The opening episode sees Mackey’s unit taking out a new recruit who could easily out them to anyone else for the misdeeds they do to get the job done; they tread a fine line between law enforcers and law breakers. Mackey is a great man and a horrible one: he will do anything to stop criminals, but he will bend backwards to take what he needs for his family, no matter where it is from. He is a dishonest criminal in the guise of a cop, and quick to anger.
As the years pass on The Shield, weekly crimes build up the detective characters, such as Mr. By-The-Books Dutch and Wyms, the one woman who seems to comprehend Mackey even if she doesn’t much like it. There are on-the-ground officers we focus on, those dealing with the day-to-day of LA crime, all the way up to The Farm’s Captain Aceveda, who seeks political reputation, which Mackey’s misdoings may damage. People come in and people leave – some in body bags, some with their tails between their legs – and a lot of the time, it is due to Mackey and cohorts’ actions and attitudes, their way of crime prevention being a little leftfield for most.
Big names also appear in supporting roles. In one later season, Glenn Close plays a new captain who understands Vic. Their relationship is one of the golden moments of the show, especially compared to Forest Whittaker’s Internal Affairs Lieutenant, who looks over Mackey’s shoulder really trying to find reason to stick the knife in his career.
The Shield is dark and dripping with masculinity, it is often angry and brutal, but plays everything to a smart degree, with a final run of episodes that turn what is essentially a hard-nosed procedural drama into something extraordinary. It knows what television is, plays up to it, yet between the characters, the situations, and what its creators can do off-network, the show goes deep, goes edgy and broaches some really nasty subjects from many angles.
It’s not an easy watch, but The Shield is fondly remembered for a reason – not least because Walton Goggins as Mackey’s right-hand man, Shane, is one of his finest works in a career of outstanding character performances.
This is great television. Sublime, teeth-sinking – and perfect for binge watching.