Created by Shawn Ryan
Starring Michael Chiklis, Walton Goggins, Jay Karnes, CCH Pounder, Kenny Johnson, Glenn Close
Showtime FX Channel
"...there's just one way to handle the killers and the spoilers, and that's with a U.S. Marshal
and the smell of gunsmoke." - regular introduction to the "Gunsmoke" radio show 1952
It's not easy being blue. Trying to be good in a world of deceit and violence is hard enough as a layman. Sin (in oneself and others) becomes most evident when one swims against its current. And to dedicate ones life to law enforcement raises the stakes a lot higher.
Welcome to Farmington, California: a hardcore crime area teeming with thugs, pimps, drug dealers, and psychopaths. Is there anything standing against the destructive tide? Better believe it. Every "farm" needs a barn. A ragtag precinct of police operates out of the nicknamed "Barn," a former church building turned into a worn and malfunctioning but quaint police station. The Barn cops make do - managing to juggle endless homicide cases, gang clashes, and a motley parade of weirdos (with a little time left over for impulsive sex, marriage woes, and other personal struggles). Crime shows usually place their heroic casts into ideal epicenters of crime activity, complete with a stocked lake of scummy fish for the main characters to catch or lose each week. "The Shield" makes it so the cops hardly have to cast their lines: the fish are leaping out at them. Farmington is brimming with potential slimeball skulls to crack and lowlives to shove into "The Cage" until further due process.
Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis) has a problem with most authority. He's a shaved-bald, cool-shades-wearing, short but buff, tough-talking and obscenely quipping, ass-kicking cop who is a mixture of Dirty Harry, Wyatt Earp, Shaft, Sam Spade, and Mr. Clean. (See the image under the masthead.) Don't expect Columbo's finesse, Joe Friday's blandness, Marshal Matt Dillon's abidance to the law's letter, Sonny Crockett's suave fashion hipness, or Holmes' patient deduction. Vic has a mean streak, a taste for skimming crooks' money, and a tendency to find or devise excuses to knock the piss out of a resistant and/or particularly evil cretin. Captain Acevada describes Vic as "Al Capone with a badge." But Claudette replies, "Al Capone made money by giving the people what they wanted. What people want these days is to make it to their cars without getting mugged. Come home from work and see their stereo is still there. Hear about some murder in the barrio, find out the next day the police caught the guy." (She is less tolerant of Vic's methods in later seasons.) Despite his vigilante-style power trips, Vic has just enough Elliot Ness in him to keep his sights mainly on exacting justice. (If he gets a little lucre on the side, then all the better.) His marriage fails because of his scarcity and cheating - and, to top it off, his youngest child is autistic and needs expensive tutoring and treatment.
Vic is in charge of the Strike Team, a special division that takes care of the very intense and dangerous cases (often involving drug kingpins, gang warfare, and really seedy operations). The team consists of take-no-shit, extremely non-PC, best friend of Vic, Shane Vendrell (Walton Goggins), shotgun wielding hearthrob, Curtis "Lem/Lemonhead" Lemanski (Kenny Johnson), and introverted but effective Ronnie Gardocki (David Rees Snell). These slick cats like to keep things hush-hush in their little circle, especially since they bend so many rules and have their hands dipped in so many dirty cookie jars that Internal Affairs' heads would pop the hell off if they ever discovered the Team's secrets. The possibility of the Team getting busted for their unscrupulous side deals is a constant worry for regular fans. Vic and his boys are a modern-day Wild Bunch, complete with Peckinpah brutality. They kick in doors, plant "evidence," utilize off-the-record informants and favor certain cooperative criminals, and basically do their jobs the way they see fit - not according to some hands-tying standard that too often lets scum skate while victims suffer or die.
The main cast is dimensional and endearing. Detective "Dutch" Wagenbach (Jay Karnes) is an astute but nerdy investigator who would be a hopeless academician if not for his genuine concern for achieving justice (no matter how grisly the cases get), his soft heart, and an almost extrasensory hunch factor that usually coincides with his detailed, education-based procedure. Dutch's partner, Claudette Wyms (CCH Pounder), is a rather poised and wise and anything but whimsical mid-aged black woman who tempers Dutch's frequent anxiety and emotional blurriness, usually setting him back on track to do what he does best. Julian Lowe (Michael Jace) starts out in the first season as a rookie who has problems beyond usual cop risks: he has homosexual desires that he tries to repress and he's a devout, church-going Christian. (No, the typical depiction of religious person as mindless, hypocritical nut isn't done in this show. Julian's conflict is shown fairly and realistically.) David Acevada (Benito Martinez) is the Barn's relatively new police captain. He tries to keep the precinct sailing straight, avoiding bent rules and ends-justifying means at first. His life is soon complicated by involvement in the local political realm. (In later seasons we get to see just how conflicted this cat is.) By season four, Acevada transfers to city council, and Monica Rawling (Glenn Close) replaces him as captain. Rawling is more vehement about cracking down on crime, and she sees through the smog to the true worth of Vic and the Strike Team.
I'm not hip on most TV. Quality shows are my bag - like "America's Next Top Model". But sometimes a show especially grabs me. I was sorely disappointed when the short-lived "Big Apple" (starring Ed O'Neill and Titus Welliver) was prematurely cancelled back in 2001. And how can I not mention the mega-cute blonde Cagney (Sharon Gless) from "Cagney & Lacey"? Sigh. Oh well. "The Shield" bravely and frankly explores cop life on the fine line of justice, corruption, vigilantism, and heroism. And aside from some cliches, the show delivers a delightful (and horrifying) range of drama, tragedy, action, and resonant issues.
(An informative afterword follows this review.)
Raymond Chandler, the great author of hardboiled detective books like THE BIG SLEEP and TROUBLE IS MY BUSINESS and the creator of the wise-cracking gumshoe Philip Marlowe, wrote: "When in doubt, have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand." Well, grand Chandler's advice is religiously followed on "The Shield." Works every time. Just as respective fans counted on Kojak's lollipop, Columbo's "oh, there´s just one more thing," Bruce Lee's eventual victory, Marty McFly's "nobody calls me 'chicken'," and Ed McMahon's ass-kissing guffaw, "Shield" fans expect the Strike Team to bust into some dirtface's crib, guns drawn, forcing everyone to the floor or slamming ne'er-do-wells into walls or furniture. Sure, it's a police-state raid method, but one must understand the dynamics of the show in order to sleep soundly after cheering when Vic pummels or death-threatens a disarmed slug.
As far back as the Greeks, humanity has enjoyed the adventures and antics of flawed as well as pure, ideal heroes. Something about mistakes, vices, uncertainty, and darkness in otherwise shining heroes stirs great sympathy in our hearts. So do outright crooks. We are attracted to questionable characters aside from spotless, God-sworn chivalric knights. A therapeutic factor is partly involved. Sinful deeds and thoughts can be played out on screen or page, providing a cathartic sweeping of the musty attic, so to speak. Anthony Burgess put it perfectly when he wrote about his novel, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE: "It seems priggish or pollyannaish to deny that my intention in writing in the work was to titillate the nastier propensities of my readers. My own healthy inheritance of original sin comes out in the book and I enjoyed raping and ripping by proxy. It is the novelist's innate cowardice that makes him depute to imaginary personalities the sins that he is too cautious to commit for himself."* Hence characters like Michael Corleone and Doc Holliday are more likeable than squeaky clean Buck Rogers or Michael Landon's Jonathan Smith in "Highway To Heaven." James Bond is an arrogant womanizer; the Sundance Kid is a career criminal; Tony Montagna (from Brian De Palma's SCARFACE) is an impetuous jerk. Hell, can anyone honestly say that they didn't want Hannibal Lecter to escape in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS? Simmer down, folks. With "The Shield," you're not really cheering for the bad guys. You're cheering for the sometimes-bad good guys who would probably bitch-slap the Soprano gang if given the chance.
Raymond Chandler wrote that the hero "must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man." I think he should also (most times) be a tortured man. Look at Detective Sipowicz in "NYPD Blue" or the comic-heroes-brought-to-film Blade or Spawn or Batman or Spider-Man or The Crow. And, quite often, the hero may be both attractive and repugnant. A quite curious, extreme example of such dual attractiveness and repugnance is Tony Soprano, a powerful but tortured man. Tony is an amalgam of the recognizable mob guy, from James Cagney or Edward G. Robinson villain-heroes to real-life John Gotti. (Most characters of this type are quotes of each other, figments of a permanent fiction tradition.) He has charm, a pleasant smile, and coolness - but he murders, frequently explodes, abuses his marriage, and has even executed and beheaded old friends. What redeems Tony in fans' eyes Tony is his oddly consistent morality. An honor code exists beneath the cruelty and lack of self-control. That moral spark is a clue to humanity's potential glory and the nagging tug of a higher nature. Chandler wrote: "In everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption." Like Burgess' intentional lesson in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, redemption of the protagonist is key.
Like Tony, Vic Mackey routinely indulges in impulsive flings with stupid bimbos, gets twisted in lies, and screws himself up left and right. And we can see that he bottles regret and fear. Again like Tony, Vic is an emotional time bomb waiting to blow. At least Tony bothers to see a psychiatrist. Vic is still in a phase of futile self-reliance that is gradually faltering. His compassion, however, is his saving grace. He affectionately cares for a junkie prostitute; he favors the weak and defenseless; he withholds his punch when he senses a genuinely down-and-out lowlife; he fundamentally believes in fighting for what's right on the street. But he's frustrated by the law's narrow protocol. Allow me to quote grand Chandler again: "The law isn't justice. It's a very imperfect mechanism. If you press exactly the right buttons and are also lucky, justice may show up in the answer. A mechanism is all the law was ever intended to be." That mechanism frequently fails the innocent because of technicality or error or the less careful side of "blind justice" that can let unseen vermin slip away untouched. Such frustration is splendidly shown in De Palma's THE UNTOUCHABLES - until Ness takes his Vic Mackey-type partner Jim Malone's rule-bending advice to take on Al Capone. Vic is the show's central protagonist whose ups and downs generate the entire drama. Like Tony Soprano, his less noble side has pushed him further into the mire and ultimately destroyed his marriage. Vic's downfall is his unchecked frustration amidst the overwhelming social degradation that necessitates his very career. In a 1950s "Gunsmoke" radio show episode about a lynching of a murderer, Marshal Dillon says, "Only the law can hang a man without it being murder." One of the lynchers retorts, "The law's too slow sometimes."
The issue of ends-justifying means is delicate and important. It can slide down a slippery slope into full-blown, unrestrained abuse of information and force. Vic instinctively chooses when to bend or snap the rules to get the job done (or sometimes to cover up a scheme). Once he decides that it's bend or snap time, crooks beware! Right before a typical Strike Team raid in one episode, Vic advises the crew: "Hey, option one is we take him alive. But feel free to consider option two." Sometimes Vic disables the interrogation room camera in order to...more freely waltz with a stubborn creep. Should we cheer for the Strike Team or hope that they get caught and punished? Don't their regular acts of selfless heroism and kindness outweigh their filching of gangs' heroin stashes for personal profit or collateral? Didn't that ugly, murdering crapbag deserve to get a nice fist or boot to the mug? The fan who "gets into" the show and understands the Strike Team's weaknesses and strengths, its honor codes, and its rationalized divergence from regulation, can cheer for Vic and the boys almost every step of their way. Suspension of real-life limits as well as disbelief comes into play. When you're in "The Shield" world, the Strike Team is Robin Hood's Merry Men, Leone's gunfighters, Kurosawa's the Seven Samurai, the Wild Bunch, the Dukes of Hazzard, the Fantastic Four, Batman, Spidey, and The Untouchables all rolled into one - and it's okay to play the game for a while, purging your own frustrations with often sterile law and, as Burgess mentioned, your "nastier propensities." Vic and the boys may do some bad things or do good things in a bad way, but they are certainly better than the dungheaps they bust. (Extreme moral relativism is permitted by Master Herrle during TV shows.)
The show continues television's limit-pushing trend without resorting to gratuitous shock gimmicks. It doesn't flinch during "politically incorrect" situations (thank freedom) and overtly racial conflicts. Viewers shouldn't be surprised to hear open swearing, "wardrobe-malfunction"-surpassing nudity, and frank drug use, cruelty, perversion, executions, and crimes in progress. "The Shield" leaves just enough leg work for the imagination to keep from toppling into "too much." The limit-pushing in the realm of the weird, the perverse, and the ugly can be largely attributed to David Lynch. Ever since Lynch, dark idiosyncrasies, camera-invaded privacy, fetish and obsession and sadism, have been (to varying degrees) fair game for film/TV subject matter. But Lynch also liberated depictions of non-violent, humorous, quirky behavior and fantastic situations. Shows like "Northern Exposure" and "Ally McBeal" owe much to Lynch films and his "Twin Peaks" television series. Shows like "The Sopranos" and "The Shield" have inherited a well-balance mixture of the dark, bizarre, and humorous, though they are far less extreme when set against the average Lynch shocker scene. Fans of these two similar shows can't help but wonder what off-the-wall scheme or scene will come next. Is desensitization involved? You bet your hand cannon, yes! But, in the shows' defense, the weird, perverse, and ugly are more plot-driving than gratuitous.
What I find worthy on "The Shield," above all, are the underlying warmth, the implicit morality, and the possibility for redemption of the main characters. The old pulp/radio hero, The Shadow, said it best: "The weed of crime bears bitter fruit. Crime does not pay." For all of the rule-bending and snapping, crime's bitter fruit is starkly shown. It not only affects career criminals, but it poisons the Strike Team itself, and - as sin is so good at doing - it sneaks into personal relationships, families, and fellow cops. The Team's sins rebound on them in subsequent seasons. Vengeance, lies, cover-ups, and deliberate wrongdoing multiplies rapidly and exponentially. The Barn's characters contend in a ruthless, topsy-turvy, often nightmarish environment. They make the seemingly futile attempt to carry a torch into murky depths; they swim despite the sinful current. Sure, they falter, the torchlight weakens and sometimes goes out, they let go and sin and repent and sin again. But we can appreciate their struggle to keep afloat at least, for we are all surviving in a Barn on a violent farm - and we dream of not just survival, but salvation.
I'll avoid ending with so much sap by sharing a grimly funny scene. A goon who won't sing needs an extra scare to get loosen his tongue. Vic prepares to set up a fake suicide scene so he can kill the goon without blame. "Write what I tell you," says Vic, handing him pen and paper. "L. I. F. E. New word, new word! S. U. X....Looks like you're going to die a bad speller." The goon wisely sings.
Afterword: Pulp/comic roots
For those who decry the explicit violence and perversity in modern cop/detective films and TV shows need to consider the influential roots. And they need to go back many years. Such works would not exist and evolve if not for the famous and infamous pulp magazines of the first half of the last century. In the 1930s, The Shadow (DON'T bother with the Alec Baldwin flick) garnered vast popularity (hence kicking off a Shadow magazine by 1940 and later comic books). The Shadow usually tried to follow Teddy Roosevelt's advice to avoid hitting unless hits become necessary. He always tried to bring criminals to justice through due process, but some stupid villains would force him to injure or kill - that is, if they didn't commit suicide or blunder off a precipice or into the clutches of their own mad creations. This respect for due process continued through other radio series, and it was a basic notion in most early comic books until a more grim crimefighting ethic arose. Teddy's other advice about carrying a big stick became hip.
As urban gangsterism grew, thanks in part to Prohibition, crime awareness also grew. John Dillinger, "Pretty Boy" Floyd, Bonnie and Clyde, and Al Capone were household names, simultaneously feared and exciting. Labor unrest continued, complicated by mob manipulation of unions. Striking workers beat several "scabs" to death in Cleveland in 1937, for instance. Chaos seemed inevitable. Imagined heroes became synonymous with law enforcement, pioneered by Chester Gould's unique cop, Dick Tracy. Gould asked, "Why not have a guy who doesn't take the gangsters to court but shoots 'em?" Dick Tracy marked the first gun death in comics. Dick didn't beat around the bush -- he beat thugs or shot them dead.
As for general violence and sexuality, pulps and comics pushed the limits. Consider the 1930's Weird Tales or Spicy Detective Stories. WARNING: SOME GRAPHIC IMAGES! Weird Tales covers showed their share of nude, submissive women often assailed by ghouls. Spicy showed wardrobe-malfunctioning women in situations involving rape, slaughter, and crime. One cover portrays a milk-white woman helplessly tied to a stake while a savage black man prepares to thrash her with a whip. Another cover shows an almost naked, pale blonde cringing from a knife-brandishing, ring-nosed black savage who holds the decapitated head of a white man. These sadistic, violent, racial themes were popular for cover teasers. Comics and pulps reflected conscious and unconscious fears, from rampant crime to miscegenation. And one cannot deny that some fetishistic fantasies were subtly condoned in such publications. Bondage, in particular, often involved sexy white women. Threatening black savages certainly provided shocking contrast, enhancing the vulnerable beauty of the victim, punctuating her helplessness. A later publication, Crime SuspenStories, specialized in graphic violence. Issue #22 shows a faceless white man holding a bloody axe in one hand and a bulging-eyed, drooling, decapitated head of a blonde woman in the other. (The U.S. wasn't the only dealer in such entertainment, by the way, all you Americans-suck dorks.)
By 1948, Dr. Fredric Wertham began his crusade against "the psychopathology of comic books". The "crime does not pay" stance of detectives, cops, and heroes in comics didn't impress Wertham. He pointed to the vigilante trend among heroes: "They [children] have little faith in any ordinary public processes of having an offense evaluated and justly and humanely dealt with. The law enforcers are criminals in reverse. They use the same methods...In many subtle and not so subtle forms the lynch spirit is taught as a moral lesson." Wertham also decried the latent and obvious racism in many publications. In Chapter 4 of Seduction of the Innocent he notes: "What we call 'minorities' constitute the majority of mankind. The United States is spending at present millions of dollars to persuade the world on the air and by other propaganda means that race hatred is not an integral part of American life. At the same time, millions of American comic books are exported all over the world which give the impression that the United States is instilling race hatred in young children..."
doctor gets an undue bad rap these days because his well-intended crusade
spiraled into an all-out war that ended up in hysterical backlashes.
The infamous Comics Code Authority (not condoned by Wertham) took the
censorship helm. The
Comics Code prohibited
depiction of idealized/romanticized crime, corrupt policemen and
government officials, "unique or unusual methods of concealing
weapons", kidnapping, prominent size of the word "crime", no titles
including the words "horror" or "terror", no "walking dead,
torture, vampires and vampirism, ghouls, cannibalism and werewolfism",
no nudity, no provocative clothing, no "exaggeration of any physical
qualities" of females, no favorable treatment of divorce, no material
liable "to stimulate the lower and baser emotions", etc.
Relatively shallow, boring Westerns dominated afterward, until the
superhero genre returned and Stan Lee's Marvel line saved comics from
extinction, and the Code eventually relaxed.
*from "A CLOCKWORK ORANGE RESUCKED"
review by David Herrle 6/2005
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