In this weekly series I am going to look at some of the greatest television shows that I have had the pleasure of watching, with an in depth examination, assessment and general examination of these shows. I will start with one of the seminal cop dramas from the last decade, Shawn Ryan's story about a group of corrupt cops in a fictional district of Los Angeles.
This is, of course, The Shield.
The Shield is an indirect descendent of the previous decade's seminal cop show, Homicide: Life on the Street, and a perversion of many more generic procedurals that existed around and before Homicide. Homicide's influences are clearly stamped across The Shield for all to see: Clark Johnson, who played Detective Melrick Lewis in the first season of Homicide, assisted with directing The Shield's early episodes and his stylistic integrity was preserved throughout the show's run.
At this stage in the lifespan of television, it's hard to assess the impact that The Shield had on the world of television, caused in part because its children are either struggling to survive or have been killed off (Shawn Ryan's projects Terriers and The Chicago Code have both failed despite the obvious quality) and there is little out there that is flying the flag of "gritty." I guess The Shield's direct descendent, Sons of Anarchy, is doing its best, but after starting strongly, it is flagging at this stage; likewise there is Southland, which is a spiritual successor in style and taste that seems to only exist at the moment on life support -- shame on us, the viewing public for this. There are some successful shows like Dexter and the superb Breaking Bad that have followed the concept that the main character has to be a good person as long as we are provided enough that is justifiable through understanding of their actions. But nothing at this time compares with The Shield's execution and brilliance. It, along with the David Simon's The Wire stands head and shoulders above most of the rest as a masterwork television show.
The Shield was one of the first shows to employ what I like to call "The Super Shocking Pilot Episode" (also used in Six Feet Under and later employed in shows like Lost, Dexter, and Prison Break) -- which is a high concept pilot that seeks to "wow" the viewer with unusual elements like a sudden or shocking event, a twist in the plot, or a revelation in the final moments of the episode that turns everything on its head. There is no doubt that The Shield certainly was the first show I saw which had such a surprising twist sting in the first episode's tale and as such it remains the show which had the strongest impact on my viewing tastes. "Pilot" is an exercise in setting up of one show style which is followed by a left turn in the final moments of the episode, derailing everything that came before it, changing the concept of the show and leaving you wanting to know what happens next. Events like this challenge your preconceptions about what makes great television and broaden your horizons.
The concept was quite brilliant, as the episode took Homicide alumni Reed Diamond, billed him in the credits and then set up a story about how his character was to investigate suspicions of corruption surrounding fellow detective Vic Mackey and his colleagues. Reed's character, Terry Crowley, is shown to be confident, self-assured, and willing to go through with this. He's pushed into the investigation by the captain of the squad, an ambitious man by the name of David Aceveda. David wants Vic not so much to remove the corruption, but because he sees the exposure of a dirty cop as fuel for his political career.
The great part of this is how the episode gradually turns its focus onto Terry, it gives him a larger and larger role and as you get towards the twilight moments of the pilot he has has been placed front and center, setting hin up in the audience's mind as the star, a police officer with a righteous mission. It's a well defined and classic situation, as we have our bad guy and our good guy with the table set for much story to come.
Then the final raid on Two Time's house occurs. Two Time is shot and in an opportunistic moment (I'll write more about this in a moment) Vic shoots Terry in the face with Two Time's gun as Shane watches. This is the pivot of the show, and all of a sudden the hero of the piece has been eliminated. There is no crusading cop infiltrating a bunch of corrupt colleagues. There's just Vic and his team left standing there.
It's easy on the re-watch to forget just how shocking this moment was designed to be as everything in the episode plays up the importance of Terry Crowley and there is no indication that Vic has any idea what Terry has agreed to do on behalf of Aceveda. Now in the past I have looked at this and wondered what the show would have been like if Vic had killed Terry later in the first season (say halfway through) and I know firmly that the first season storyline would have been stronger as a consequence. But for the time; and for the purpose of the show Terry's shooting in the pilot episode is the correct decision. The uproar that would have occurred if Terry had been given a stronger role for six or even twelve episodes before he was killed would have hurt the show's ratings because many viewers dislike being challenged in such a way and having the status quo they have come to understand being destroyed. This way The Shield said loudly 'This is a show about the bad guys, you don't like that? This is not for you."
Terry dies in the second episode and apart from flashbacks, and aside from the one "prequel" episode ("Co-Pilot") he doesn't make an appearance again, but his presence remains dominant throughout the entire show's run. It's been called the "original sin" in the The Shield, because the characters are not formed (apart from the broadest strokes) until after it happens. It's important as well to understand that this was not a planned killing, Vic's character as the series progresses just isn't built that way; he saw an opportunity and took it. You can tell that through Shane's reaction (Shane starts his slide of the rails after this event) and the fact that both Lem and Ronnie are completely clueless about what happened. Lem in particular reacts very badly; he often takes things like that personally. Ronnie is less affected, because in part he's mostly a sideline support character at this stage in The Shield, but also because of his character, which is revealed as time passes.
The middle part of the season distances itself from Terry's murder, and the show falls into a pattern of running multiple stories at once. Each episode follows The Strike Team, the two head detectives Claudette and Dutch, Officer Danny Sofer and her new charge Julien Lowe, and of course Aceveda's aspirations and his feelings about Vic. Aceveda has a hunch that Vic is responsible for Terry's death -- he suspects Vic sent Terry without backup to get shot by Two Time, but Aceveda is a political animal first and second because his superior Gilroy protects Vic.
From here the format is established well, with each character getting an arc of his or her own and with a strong mix of ongoing stories, season long arcs and single episode "crimes of the week." Dutch and Claudette shoulder most of the burden for the single episode stories and there are some exceptional ones in there. The Strike Team tends to be involved in their own thing, but also called in to assist in some cases And Danny/Julien exist mostly at the bottom of the pile. Julien's religious nature and his homosexuality provide great depth to his character beyond just being 'the cop who wants to do the right thing'.
The one difficulty the season faced was hanging everything together at the end with a sufficient escalation of risk and personal danger for the characters involved. It also had a major issue in the relationship between Aceveda and Vic: it couldn't carry on in the antagonistic manner that it had without things being brought to a head. Rather than bursting the situation at this point the show instead simmers it down and presents Gilroy's machinations as the true villain behind the season (apart from Vic of course). Gilroy's a credible threat to both Vic and Aveceda due to his rank and his knowledge of Vic's less than squeaky clean activities. The season end erupts with social breakdown and rioting orchestrated by none other than Gilroy over nothing more than good old fashioned greed.
While the first season of The Shield garnered the most Emmy nominations along with a win for Michael Chiklis it is by the vary nature of the show the weakest of the seasons. There are considerable strengths, memorable moments (like 'Get your hands off my babies' and the cumulating of Dutch's serial killer case) but it is still clearly a show in its infancy. It was strong enough to be given the chance to grow up and this is exposed in a series of stronger and stronger seasons following one after another (The seventh season is one of the greatest seasons in any show, period)
The Shield's first season is not an easy pill to swallow, not everyone wants to watch a show about bad people doing bad things to even worse people. A world of darkness and shades of grey is not what every viewer wants from a TV show and it doesn't help that the early part of The Shield is dominated by male characters involved in stereotypically masculine storylines. These elements tend to alienate a large portion of the mainstream viewers very quickly and leave more a niche group of fans who are inclined towards enjoyment of dark, hard-hitting drama that pulls no punches and isn't afraid to give us a world which will challenge our sense of right and wrong.
There is little out there airing right now that compares with the level of quality The Shield delivered in its first season. The previously mentioned Breaking Bad, the evergreen Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire and a few others spring to mind, but only Breaking Bad has me as gripped to the screen as The Shield managed in its prime. The Shield was a show that my weeks revolved around; I spent much of the days between each first season episode just waiting with baited breath and anticipation. Quite frankly, inducing that kind of emotion is one of the hallmarks of something really special.
If you haven't seen The Shield's first season, you should, and if you have seen it before then take this as an excuse to re-watch it before I get onto writing about the second season. You won't regret it.