ROOTING FOR THE BAD GUY: A Look Back at The Shield
It’s no secret that David Chase’s creation of Tony Soprano changed the face of television. The multi-dimensional anti-hero character was born the minute Tony first entered therapy, presented as both loving family man, and later as a brutal and greedy murderer. Throughout The Sopranos six season run creator David Chase developed Soprano into a complicated television archetype–always empathetic while being equally despicable. As we watched Tony’s inevitable downward spiral into paranoia, anger and (depending on how you view the show’s closing moments) his demise, we couldn’t help but feel compassionate for the man, despite his countless wrong doings.
The FX original series The Shield, a fast-paced, gritty L.A. cop show, premiered on the heels of The Sopranos, and its countless other spawns, as a show focused around the world of another benevolent anti-hero. The main character, Detective Vic Mackey (played with equally balanced intensity and charm by Michael Chiklis) is the perfect dichotomy–a rogue and effective force against the troubles plaguing his surroundings who is also a dirty, selfish infliction on society. Yet despite constant reminders of his evil, or shall we say his questionable ways, the audience can’t help but root for the guy.
The series is currently wrapping things up with its final 13-episodes seventh season. While it has a loyal following and has been well regarded by critics since its incarnation, the show remains niche.
To say The Shield is a cop show is taking the easy way out. Like HBO’s late masterful series The Wire, the inner workings of The Shield go way beyond the formulaic cops and robbers serial. At its core The Shield is a character study. It tugs at the recycled themes developed on the cop show–revenge, loyalty, and sense of duty–while also diving into the atypical and more human aspects seldom seen on a show of this nature.
Like Tony Soprano, Mackey is a loving family man, willing to do anything (legal or morally questionable) to ensure his family’s well being. In his job he is an effective enforcement tool, a brute of a man who lets very little stand in his way when it comes to getting the job done. Torture, deception, and murder, all serve as implements of successfully battling crime.
He and his team of equally complicated but sympathetic Strike Team minions at first appear to be the superheroes of their district but slowly we get the full picture. Cutting corners and taking the easy way out both plague and aid the show’s characters with Mackey using his rampant ways to ceaselessly take down crime-lords while also thicken his wallet.
Similarly to The Wire, The Shield also presents the bureaucracy of the war on drugs and the inner workings of the police enforcement agencies that make up L.A.’s fictional Farmington district (although, like The Wire this show could be set in any major urban backdrop as the themes are much larger than its setting). Mackey and his team are not the only pieces of a corrupt system, and are at times miniscule problems in the grand scheme of things. From the politically career driven police Captain Acevada (an equally fascinating character) to the revenge driven Internal Affairs agent in the show’s fifth season (portrayed beautifully by Forrest Whitaker, who is in many ways as corrupt as Mackey, the man he’s intent on crushing), The Shield has also managed to branch out over its run giving us one of the most convincing looking “cop shows” out there.
This is not to say the show is perfect. Like The Sopranos (which was hindered by running one season too many) The Shieldhas had its low points, specifically with its fourth season, which brought on a convincing Glenn Close as the new operations major for the crew’s district, but ultimately played up a forgettable season long storyline.
In fact the show’s finest moments were in its initial season, jumpstarted by one of the most exhilarating pilot episodes of any series in the pantheon of the genre, and the past two outings, which have returned to the show’s highlights. The introduction of Vic in the pilot depicts him as a rough but efficient cop and team leader. By the end a shocking murder changes our view of the character completely.
The stuff in between still manages to be one of the more thrilling reasons to tune in to late night FX, besting that of the more formulaic cop show offerings on the market, mainly the many Law and Order incarnations, the overly glossed C.S.I.family and every other mediocre police themed show come and gone in recent years. The minor characters each get their own development with the bookworm detective “Dutch” Wagenbach carrying the most entrancing minor character arc on the show.
Watching Vic and his gang combat the harsh streets of urban L.A., while also battling their inner demons has been a treat over the years and as the current season begins to heat up there is an equal level of anticipation and sorrow for the show’s culmination. Like The Sopranos’ nail-biting final moments, the end of The Shield is already creating an troublesome dilemma–should Mackey receive the justice he deserves, no matter how harsh it may be or do we root for an escape from the deep hole he’s dug over this show’s run.
The television arena has always and will always have its share of garbage but lately, thanks to the no-holds barred attitudes of programs like The Sopranos, or its predecessor the equally unconventional Oz, television series have been able to serve as visual extensions of great literature featuring multi-dimensional characters. The Shield took the concept in a different direction.
Tony Soprano is a hard-bitten criminal who also suffers from self-pity, yet he still manages to mesmerize the viewer. The drug kingpins on The Wire reap the benefits from a bleeding society but still we are burdened with empathy once we see the larger picture regarding society’s infrastructural woes. Vic Mackey kills and steals to get his way, yet we can’t help but root for the guy who, after all, is merely trying to support his family (this final season is already looking to show how Mackey’s questionable ways over the years have shaped his family’s dynamic), and continue doing what he was clearly born to do.
The Shield’s creator Shawn Ryan has since collaborated on some other projects, as have many of its cast members still the series will be a career highlight. While the upcoming finale will most likely not carry the same popular culture weight as The Sopranos final episode, it’ll still be the culmination of a quality television program. It’s difficult to convince someone to jump into a show currently about clear the stage but for those who are tired of the predictable and rudimentary cop shows that most are used to seeing, The Shield is sure to deliver as a one-of-a-kind television experience.