Critics know the drill. You watch the preview screener of a new show, and it’s usually good or mediocre. Sometimes, it’s horrible. (Fun to write about.) Or more occasionally, superb. (Even more fun to write about.)
Only once in two decades has a series pilot climaxed with a twist so game-changing it actually rocked me to blurt a what-a-shock expletive.
That was “The Shield.” And that’s why the seven-season drama’s inexorable conclusion - two terrific episodes on FX at 10 p.m. EST Tuesday and Nov. 25 - is such an occasion for celebration.
It’s not just for the 88 rousing hours in this saga of rogue cop Vic Mackey’s L.A. police “strike team,” obliterating the line between being good cops and/or self-interested crooks in blue.
It’s not just because “The Shield” sustained the ambition of its 2002 pilot, incarnating flesh-and-bloody characters (including extended guest stints by Glenn Close and Forest Whitaker), while also probing the intersection of law enforcement, politics and citizens who just want both to work by whatever methods necessary.
It isn’t even the way the series expanded the boundaries for ad-supported TV with adult story lines, language and authentic urban violence.
The show’s ultimate achievement may be that “The Shield,” in an odd dovetail with the presidential election, has broken barriers in a way that inspires a fresh sense of hope amid uncertain times.
The hope here is for the future of TV drama - in an era when shrinking broadcast networks strain to create new hits, and as onetime premium cable titan HBO founders after game-changers like “The Sopranos.”
Bursting out of nowhere back in 2002, “The Shield” proved basic cable could deliver frank content without scaring off advertisers. That one socko show could elevate an entire channel. That viewers would find quality scripted shows wherever they aired, even in an era of rampant low-rent “reality.”
OK, so maybe “The Shield” didn’t come out of completely nowhere. “If anyone writes a big thing about ‘The Shield,’ I don’t think you can write it without referencing ‘The Sopranos,’” series creator Shawn Ryan told TV critics after a recent Manhattan press screening of the hush-hush finale. “This show would not be on TV if not for ‘The Sopranos’ and if not for the success it had creatively and economically. It’s the show that I believe gave the courage to FX to try this show.”
At the time, FX was an obscure cable channel running “M(ASTERISK)A(ASTERISK)S(ASTERISK)H” reruns and the Howard Stern-produced skin spoof “Son of the Beach.” Nobody looked to FX for quality - until “The Shield” exploded. If “The Sopranos” and HBO were, as promos proclaimed, “not TV,” then “The Shield” proudly was regular TV - just juiced and jumpin’. Coming off writing for Don Johnson’s CBS star vehicle “Nash Bridges,” the unassuming young Ryan, 35 at the time, would revitalize both himself and one of network TV’s franchise genres.
If commercials aren’t going anywhere - and they’ve been funding broadcasting for 80 years now - that’s a key achievement. “The Shield” demonstrated that adult drama could thrive beyond the rarefied air of premium cable. Ryan took the cop formula and twisted it - figuratively, with pacing adrenaline, and literally, with gonzo R-rated attitude. He delivered kick-butt melodrama, brimming with crazy cases on the meanest streets, political and workplace wranglings, and personal crises from sexual orientation to having autistic kids - all crammed into every episode.
Viewers loved Ryan’s pedal-to-the-metal approach. So did the industry, which awarded ensemble star Michael Chiklis - who’d played the cuddly “Commish” before shaving his head, buffing up and going bad-dude - the first lead Emmy for basic cable (2002). The show itself grabbed the Golden Globe as TV’s best drama (2003).
Maybe the foreign press’ outside eye appreciated something else in “The Shield” - the underlying commentary on American law enforcement being a devil’s deal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” as one upright detective groused in the pilot. Vic Mackey really does want to clean up the streets, but he wants to do it through rule-breaking, head-bashing and personal enrichment. Onlookers may be appalled, but, geez, the guy’s effective. Who cares about his means to an end?
But what’s the cost of that, to him and to us as that society? “The Shield” addressed that right from the mind-blowing pilot, which climaxed with Mackey’s gunshot to the face of a cop close to uncovering his sins. The series thus became: How will Mackey pay? Or: Will he? Ryan and his corps of young writers also charted the broader implications: for business, for politics and for everyday citizens. Deals with the devil get made everywhere.
Payment now comes due in the final two hours, amid a high-octane cocktail of gunplay, betrayals, murders, suicides, desperation deals and multiple lives generally spiraling down the drain. As the episodes unreeled at Ryan’s Manhattan screening, gasps were frequently heard from jaded critics who thought they (we) had seen it all. The plots mix horrific violence with tart black comedy and sharp cultural insights.
That makes this finale more overtly satisfying than, say, that of the “The Sopranos.” Which just stopped. “The Shield” culminates. “You have all these dominoes start to fall,” says FX programming chief John Landgraf, “and you have these characters finally become existentially aware of their condition and what it is that they’ve wrought upon the world.”
Where Shakespeare might reveal through soliloquy, “The Shield” stays true to its take-action characters. “These are not characters that talk about their perceptions and how they feel,” Landgraf says. So Ryan pauses the whirlwind for silent zoom-ins on players marooned soul-deep with their thoughts, creating what Landgraf calls “moments when the characters are peeled back to their absolute essence.”
“It’s a very nonstylistic show,” Ryan says. “I never wanted the writing on the show to be noticed. I never wanted the directing to be noticed. And I don’t want the acting to be noticed. The moment you can sort of erase the footprints of all three of those, the audience just lives in that world, and the experience is more enjoyable.”
And now “The Shield” wraps it all up. With a bang.
WHAT WE’LL REMEMBER
Some of the “The Shield’s” more memorable moments:
Last shot of the pilot episode (premiered March 1, 2002) - Onetime “Commish” star Michael Chiklis exploded his cuddly image in his debut as pumped-up, shaved-head, good/bad cop Vic Mackey. Gone rogue to clean up the streets while cleaning up for himself, our presumptive hero climaxes the pilot by putting a bullet in the head of a fellow cop who was on to his dirty dealings. Chiklis won an Emmy for it.
Julien’s torment: boys vs. Bible (ongoing) - The upright street cop (Michael Jace) was torn between his repressed gay orientation and his religious certainty of its sinfulness - a dichotomy respectfully portrayed in an evenhanded manner.
Face meets stove (Season 2) - Gang warfare gets disfiguring for fourth-string Strike Team member Ronnie (David Rees Snell). His face meets an electric burner thanks to baddie Armadillo, who’d earlier gotten similar treatment from Mackey.
Aceveda’s sexual assault (Season 3) The precinct’s politically ambitious captain (Benito Martinez) is rocked by being orally raped in a graphic hostage situation.
Glenn Close joins the cast (Season 4) - Taking over the precinct, Close’s new captain quickly locks horns with Mackey. The actress was Emmy-nominated for her season-long stint (leading to her unrelated FX series “Damages”).
Forest Whitaker’s obsession (Season 5-6) - The Oscar-winning actor was intimidating as an internal affairs detective so determined to nail Mackey that he sinks to Mackey’s level, playing grotesque mind games, before imploding.
Shane kills best friend Lem (Season 5 finale) - Mackey’s loose-cannon partner Shane (Walton Goggins) drops a grenade on sweet Strike Team pal Lem (Kenneth Johnson), convinced he’d be forced to confess the team’s misdeeds.
‘Family Meeting’ (Nov. 25 at 10 p.m., FX) - The final episode features a horrific death for one core character. And many other shockers.