The Shield is the best cop show on television and one of the most engrossing and provocative dramas period. In season three, it has lost none of its brand of in your face brutality and moral ambiguity as it examines the life of street level police investigation. Imagine Training Day and A Simple Plan combined as a television series and you get The Shield.
There is a war on the streets with citizens on one side and drug dealers on the other with the police somewhere in the middle. The things that the police have to see and deal with on a daily basis leads one character to proclaim that “You see something like that, makes you wonder if we all wouldn’t be better off at home reading the Bible.” The moral guide lines that the police draw for themselves get blurred as they are faced with the harsh reality of investigating and fighting street crime. They have to re-calibrate the lines they have drawn for themselves as they face certain intense daily temptations.
Sex: from vulnerable crime victims, confidential informants or other players, or prostitutes.
Money: think of how many millions of dollars pass through the hands of mostly clean cops during the course of their duties. How easy would it be to just skim from the top of it? Just a little. It wouldn’t hurt anyone. And, after all, cops are dreadfully underpaid for what they are asked to do.
Violence: thug life only respects the strong, the necessarily brutal. Violence is the universal language of the criminal minded. Hardened gang members vs. hardened street cops. The temptation to abuse their authority. The rationalization to do bad things to bad people for good reasons.
What price are we willing to pay for safe streets and what does it cost those we ask to deal with society’s garbage? As they deal daily with the worst humanity has to offer, what does it do to their psyche, their conscience, their marriages and family? And let’s not forget, their soul, as right and wrong no longer seem so cut and dried, and they become lost in the quagmire of their reality.
This is the world of Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis, yeah, The Commish, except now bald and buff), fiercely charismatic leader of his own private “cult”: the Strike Team, task force charged with gang investigation. He earns loyalty through a combination of doling out reward, his (seeming) to do anything for his men, and generally being a cop’s cop. To those who cross him, they face cruel taunting (Dutch), political outmaneuvering (Det. Wyms), or outright death (a fellow detective in the series pilot). It is interesting to note that the word “vic” is also police shorthand for victim. And in a lot of ways, Vic is a victim, of life and his own decisions.
As season 3 begins, they have to deal with the consequences of their simple plan: they have robbed the Armenian mob for millions. They just wanted enough to retire on comfortably. They saw how the bad guys lived, why couldn’t they earn, especially if they only stole from the bad guys? The sum of their antics have caused them to now lay low, to reform after a fashion, but a far cry from seeking redemption. Jealousy and mistrust create fissures in the Strike Team as the plan slowly unravels, straining and testing loyalties. Even between Vic and Shane, as Shane marries his personal Yoko Ono, dividing his loyalties between Vic and his new bride. Fear and greed drive them as they keep the cash but can’t spend any of it until it’s safe, even as they wait out their enemies: their fellow detectives investigate a string of related murders; the FBI had marked some of the money; and the Armenian mob wants their money back.
Despite the occasional bombast, this is truly a character driven show. Julian (Michael Jace) a self-loathing black Christian who simply wants to find his place while he struggles with his homosexuality. Dutch Wagenbach (Jay Karnes) appears weak, but it’s his streak of Sherlock Holmes (seeing patterns where no one else does), goodness, and honesty that keep him “safe”. Though he struggles to figure out the “why” of evil, spending his days staring into the abyss of man’s depravity, not realizing its slow pull on him. Shane Vendrell (Waton Goggins) Vic’s racist right hand man. Captain David Aceveda (Benito Martinez), the politically ambitious boss who decides to clean up his legacy before moving on to the city council. Claudette Wyms (CCH Pounder), the politically naive, though often smug, moral compass of the station.
But it all comes back to Vic.
He’s desperately trying to keep all of his plates spinning, always teetering on the verge of self-destruction. He manages to cover his butt on the job … while bending rules for his own selfish reasons (trying to not get caught by Aceveda, Wyms, or Dutch). He keeps his eye on the greater good … while bending rules for his own selfish reasons (protecting his partners, family, and crime victims). We can’t easily paint Vic as a dirty cop, because we see the good of which he’s capable, his tortured conscience as he tries to do what he believes is right. He has become cold and calculating, a slave to his ambition and greed, as he tries to turn the corner to not have to live the way he’s been living. The way he sees it, salvation lies outside of himself, with his family (or what’s left of it).
Terror, cruelty, and savagery are par for course in a fallen world. If the worst of that world is all that you traffic in, it’s easy to see how your moral compass can get broken. In a lot of ways, his struggle is our struggle. The battle of good vs. evil within one’s soul, where the good is not always so good and the evil often appearing good. A deeply flawed person trying to do the best he can in a fallen world, hoping that it’s not too late for him.
That’s what makes The Shield great viewing.