The Shield

The debut of the original series, The Shield, on the so-far pretty low-rent, basic cable channel FX is a worthy addition to primetime for at least two reasons. First, and thankfully, it brings actual original programming, and something of an identity, to the FX channel, which has (like many basic cable channels) until now offered, almost exclusively, repeats of network fare. (Maybe FX’s tapes of X-Files and M*A*S*H* are starting to wear out.)

Second, the show brings back to series television actor Michael Chiklis, in a vehicle worthy of his talents. (I’m choosing to forget his NBC sitcom Daddio from last year; I’m sure he’d like to too.) Chiklis’s performance as the title character on ABC’s The Commish remains one of the most undervalued characterizations in one of recent TV’s most underrated shows. Though The Commish ran for four seasons (1991-95), it didn’t come with a stamp from Steven Bochco or David E. Kelley, and unfortunately was consigned to the long line of generic cop/detective-action/adventure dramas that starts somewhere around Vega$ and ends, for now, with Walker, Texas Ranger. In actuality, The Commish was a well-crafted, well-acted mix of humor, family drama, and old-fashioned police action.

On The Shield, Chiklis gets to stretch beyond expectations, as Vic Mackey. Vic is a rogue cop, but he’s hardly the standard TV rogue cop. He’s larger than that, Dirty Harry-esque, breaking a few heads and even more laws as he attempts to clean up the seedy, downtown streets of L.A. In many ways, Vic is the flipside of Chiklis’ Commissioner Tony Scali, who solved crimes in inventive, common-sensical, nonviolent, and occasionally humorous ways. His methods often caused city officials to pull their hair out, but they ultimately led to happy endings.

By contrast, Mackey generally enforces the law, and works outside it, with his fists. While he’s creative, he’s not always conventionally admirable, striking deals with drug dealers or harassing gang members (in one case, to death). He’s corrupt and selfish, too. In an early episode, he and other members of his special Strike Team kidnap a basketball star so that the team Mackey is betting on that night will have a better chance of winning. Or, in The Shield‘s already infamous pilot, Mackey shoots a fellow cop who is threatening to blow the whistle on him and his misdeeds — point-blank in the face.

Mackey is easily the meanest anti-hero ever to head his own TV show. While J.R. Ewing, Alexis Carrington-Colby, and the like were far from nice, their badness always had an over-the-top, campy slant to it. Chiklis plays Mackey straight. And it is a tribute to the actor’s talent (and charisma) that, despite Mackey’s evil, we don’t completely despise him. The inevitable question, however, is: how long can this go on? Will Mackey’s out-and-out depravity, week after week, become too disturbing even for the most tolerant of viewers?

In part, this question is answered by the series’ adherence to generic conventions. For one thing, The Shield employs an already trite cinema verité camera style. What Homicide: Life on the Street started with its constantly shaking visuals has now become de rigueur for all “gritty” police shows. Equally predictable are many of the character relationships. Mackey, of course, regularly butts heads with his uptight boss, Captain Aceveda (Benito Martinez). (When was the last time a TV cop ever saw eye-to-eye with his superior? Not since Dragnet.) But in a series where the protagonist is so volatile, the chief — a supporting character, for heaven’s sake — can’t be any more likable than the lead, lest we begin to sympathize with him over Mackey. Hence, Aceveda is slowly being revealed as being bitter and opportunistic, with an eye on a future political career.

Also predictably, the series picks up on the tried and true formula of NYPD Blue and ER, which asserts that those with ugly working lives must also have ugly personal lives. The Shield gives us occasional glimpses of Mackey’s ostensibly “fine” but actually troubled marriage (he’s having an affair with a coworker, uniformed Officer Danny Sofer [Catherine Dent]). As if to add insult to injury, his toddler has just been diagnosed with autism; last week the boy bit his elder sister on the face so hard that she ended up in the ER. Though cop show-makers may consider such domestic subplots “true-to-life,” the overloading of one horrible scenario on top of another actually smacks of soap opera. It’s a good thing Vic doesn’t have a dog, or it would be doomed to blindness, broken limbs, or worse.

So far, the use of such clichés, combined with edge-pushing violence and compromised protagonists, has proved successful. The Shield is a hit and little criticism (so far) has been hurled at the channel or at the show’s producers due to the show’s “adult content.” And the network has made the most of whatever “controversy” this content might stir up. In fact, before the show debuted, its ads waved its “Due to mature themes…” disclaimer like a banner. This strategy appears to have worked. So far, the ratings for The Shield have been high, especially for a little known cable channel most people probably didn’t even know came in their basic package.

But even this appeal is familiar by now: the possibility of fist fights and overheated arguments brings viewers to reality shows like Survivor and The Real World. And if viewers do tune in to The Shield to see its “mature” elements, they haven’t been disappointed. So far, each episode has featured a teasing bit of nudity; ample foul language (we’ve heard the “S” word and the “A” word uncensored; though no “F” word… yet); and loads of violence.

This is not to say that The Shield is only depending on sex, violence, and naughty words. There’s no denying that The Shield features strong, if brutal, storytelling; good direction (by Gary Fleder, who made Kiss the Girls; Scott Brazil, who directed the Commish tv movie; and Clark Johnson, who acted on Homicide, among others); and solid acting, all making for a compelling hour each week (actually, three, if you count the repurposed reruns on Sunday and Monday nights).

But I return to my original question, somewhat rephrased. Are the program’s “adult themes” (carried out in the noble name of “realism”) really necessary for an effective and highly-rated drama? Furthermore, one must ask what is going to be the overall effect, on the TV industry at least, of such on-air envelope-pushing? The success of The Shield has doubtless upped the ante in regard to what networks will allow — and resort to — in order to gain ratings. Whether these networks be broadcast, basic cable (like FX), or premium cable (like HBO, home of The Sopranos and Sex and the City), their executives are likely already thinking they must go to even greater extremes in order to pull in an audience, perhaps following the same route as daytime talk shows, which still appear to be waging an ongoing contest of “How low can you go?”

Granted, The Shield is probably nowhere close to portraying the dangers and intensity of the lives led by real cops, and television has every right to show us accurate portrayals of life on the steets. But, at the same time, like the rough justice that Mackey and his team dishes out, just because a program is realistic and effective doesn’t mean it’s right. And making a show graphic doesn’t make it good. Primetime, like daytime, can still choose to take the high road, instead of taking the quick and easy path to popularity, substituting shock for innovation, excess for insight, or cheap thrills at the expense of more thoroughly thought-out drama.