It would be easy to dismiss The Shield as “The Wire for meatheads”. And, to be fair, there’s some validity to that assessment. But there’s something about this show that compelled me to finish all seven seasons. Was it the quality of the show, or the ridiculous goofyness? Yes and yes.
On a surface level, the show plays out like a conservative masterbation fantasy: Vic Mackey, a proudly un-politically correct cop and his band of beefy crackers keep the world safe for the white man, while minorities, women and intellectuals stand weak-willed before the oncoming tide. The character of Mackey is a cross between Superman and the Road Runner; He’s stronger, smarter, and more morally righteous than any other character, while also being nigh invincible.
David Simon, creator of The Wire, said that “the war on drugs became a war on the lower class”. If Shawn Ryan, the creator of The Shield, shares the same views, it’s certainly not clear from the narrative. So, let’s nip this in the bud: Both shows are about cops and criminals, and both shows are bookended by Clark Johnson episodes. Beyond that, we’re talking about two different animals.
So, what do I like about this show? I love when it embraces it’s pulp roots as a noir fantasy. The two part season one finale, in which Vic and nerd detective Dutch have to team up to take down a rogue cop, compares positively to the works of James Ellroy. It’s tense, it’s fun and it’s way over the top. This show doesn’t just jump the shark, it flies over the shark in a rocket, and I love every minute of it. The actors are hit or miss, though the regulars I found to be generally solid. The distinctive look of the show, with the extreme close-ups and weird zooms, added quite a bit to the energy of the whole thing (How much of that style was Clark Johnson’s idea, I wonder?).
Most delicious of all is every episode’s need to out-do the last in viciousness. Little girl getting her eyes burned out? Check. Girl being crushed under the fat man who was raping her, and then died of a heart attack? Yep. Cop strangles a cat to death, for no apparent reason? Uh-huh.
What don’t I like about the show? Well, there’s a lot of recycled story ideas. There’s a series of desperate prostitutes that Mackey befriends, that could all have been the same character. There’s a couple of serial killers who are looking for their missing relatives. I feel like the show could have been compressed to 3 or 4 seasons, and been much more enjoyable to me.
And there’s never a Lex Luthor to Mackey’s Superman. You have an amazing actor like Forest Whitaker playing a Internal Affairs agent out to get Mackey, and there’s a lot of potential for great drama. But Forest’s character is never a credible threat, because from his first episode on he acts like a complete boob. I repeat; Mackey always has the upper hand, which doesn’t make for a lot of really tense situations. The tension comes more from the consequences of his actions inflicted upon other people.
There’s a lot of stupidity going on in this show. It’s fine when the show is embracing its pulpyness, but when it actually wants me to take it seriously, it doesn’t work so well. It’s almost unbelievable that these people would actually be police officers, particularly the Strike Team (aka The band of merry crackers). The Strike Team kicks down doors, makes threats, and encounters very little in the way of resistance (Because, according to the show’s internal logic, minorities are a cowardly and superstitious lot). God help them if they actually had to gather up evidence, or knock on a door for a gentle chat. On the flip side, if I were a murderer being grilled by master interrogator Dutch, I would most likely be laughing my ass off at his painfully obvious attempts at psychological manipulation. The smart characters on this show act like smart people written by dumb people.
And my biggest beef with the show is this; The pilot was great. I mean, as great as something can be that has a montage scene scored by Kid Rock. They do a great bait-and-switch, and Mackey is set up as a mean bastard in the mold of Denzel’s Oscar winning role from Training Day. “OOOOhhhh!” I say, “This show will be about the survival of the baddest”. But Mackey, after that episode, is never that character again. It’s like comparing Gojira to Godzilla vs The Smog Monster; something has been softened. Were they afraid to have a straight up villain as the protagonist of the show? Unfortunate, because I feel like it could have been a lot more compelling.
The last season, and particularly the last episode, really stepped it up a notch. I was completely satisfied with the resolution, both in the narrative and in my viewing. It’s been a long and generally amusing trip, but I’m glad it’s over.