Remembering… The Shield

A look back at The Shield (2002), one of the darkest cop shows to air on television

Each month I will be taking a look back at TV shows that made a huge impact on the medium and audiences. This month we go back to “The Barn” with Shawn Ryan’s The Shield which premiered on FX in 2002.

Before The Shield, cop shows were a dime a dozen, every channel had its crime fighters. So to have another added to the schedules didn’t really batter many eyelids. However The Shield would change the way we looked at our detectives. Some consider The Wire to be the pinnacle portraying officers of the law as not quite clean cut, but none were as dirty as Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis), the man who rewrote the anti-hero.

Loosely based on the L.A.P.D.’s controversial Rampart Division, we follow a Strike Team, led by Mackey, in the fictional district of Farmington. Their job is to tackle the local gang crime that is plaguing the city; however the methods at which they go about it are questionable at the least.

The team consisting of Shane Vendrell (Walton Goggins) Curtis Lemansky (Kenny Johnson) & Ronnie Gardocki (David Rees Snell) do whatever it takes to maintain order, always ensuring they get a little something extra out of it.

They operate out of an experimental department housed in an old church nicknamed ‘the barn’ (Farmington is known as ‘the farm’) along with a wide range of other police officers. From uniforms to homicide detectives the show is able to give a universal view of a police department in full motion. Interaction between these groups goes beyond banter in the station as they regularly assist each other in their individual cases.

But it’s with the strike team that the true drama becomes gripping and at times unbearable to watch. You could say the fuse is lit during the finale of season 2 involving an Armenian money train. From there the team slowly begins to show signs of weakening, spiralling downward toward a deadly climax.

Most television detectives are given a flaw, something that stains their sheen and grounds them. Most of the time this could be alcoholism, drug addiction or even OCD, but Mackey and his teams corruption was some of the toughest television to watch. After all it’s very rare to swing between liking your protagonist and hating them. I don’t think this is much of a spoiler, but in the first episode Mackey shoots a fellow police officer who he suspects is investigating him. From the get go the audience is left to question how they feel about this man before they’ve even had the chance to get to know him.

Kudos to the writing then for developing his character and creating a sense of empathy that allows you to understand why he did what he did, this in turn becomes a strong likability, give or take the odd act of dishonesty through bribery, extortion or theft. Not to take anything away from Chiklis’ acting, for which he won an Emmy. He makes Mackey human; especially when he’s around his family solidifying the believability of the character juxtaposed against the tough no nonsense cop on the streets.

For me The Shield changed cop shows for the better. The Wire may have touched on the aspect of cops straddling both sides of the law, but the shield explored it to its very max and then some. Plus it has one of the most gut wrenching endings of all time. Why, Shane why? If you like your cop shows definitely give this one a go, you certainly won’t regret it.

Next month I’ll be looking at The Sopranos and how it made the Mafia mainstream.

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