Tuesday, May 5, 2015

The Shield: Season 1

This marks my first writeup of a continuous, episodic television series. It's something I've been wanting to do for some time, and after soliciting some feedback, I decided the best review strategy would be to cover individual seasons, so I can cover overarching storylines without resorting to rehashing single episodes' plots.

The Shield premiered on FX in 2002, and like many TV shows, it's about police officers. Law enforcement provides great fodder for TV because it's relatively easy to construct a story around a crime and its resolution, and while The Shield has its share of criminal-of-the-week narratives, they exist mostly around the edges. The real meat of the series of is the personalities of the men and women who wear the badge, how they interact with each other, their personal problems, and how they affect each other and their work.

The series, created by Shawn Ryan, is appropriately titled. The image chosen for a police officer's badge is a shield because the police are there to protect and serve. But a shield also separates us from them. The shield is a dividing image, and non-officers can't always see what kind of person is holding it up. The Shield explores the duality of police officers who uphold and break the law, set in a closed-off world where the biggest crime is betraying your fellow officers.

Set in the fictional Farmington, a notorious inner-city district of Los Angeles, The Shield centers on tough cop Vic Mackey. Played by Michael Chiklis, Detective Mackey is the head of an experimental strike team charged with taking down gang activity in Farmington, and Mackey is not above bending the rules or being aggressive. Whether it means charging in guns blazing or beating up suspects for information, Mackey will do whatever it takes, however he wants, whenever he wants. He's also not above having arrangements with drug dealers, protecting some and eliminating others, or taking a little off the top for himself or his team. He's also protected by higher-ups downtown, represented by Assistant Chief Gilroy (John Diehl), who like that he gets results.

That's why the newly appointed Captain David Aceveda (Benito Martinez) wants Mackey off the streets; he considers him "Al Capone with a badge." Aceveda is a younger, by-the-book official without much field experience, and his presence is resented by the department, especially among those who think he got the job because of affirmative action. The captain has ambitions of becoming mayor, and in a district that has always elected blacks to city council but now has a growing Latino population, Aceveda believes he can make a play for a council seat. Getting rid of a crooked cop would endear him to potential backers and voters.

That conflict between Mackey and Aceveda is the main thread running through the first season of The Shield. In the first episode, Aceveda attempts to use a rookie member of Vic's strike team, Terry (Reed Diamond), as an inside source; that plan ends during a raid when Vic uses a drug dealer's gun to shoot Terry in the head, killing him. Since Reed Diamond is something of a recognizable actor and his character is set up to be important, his murder packs quite a jolt, a shocking end to the first episode.

Other characters get drawn into the tension between Mackey and Aceveda. Shane (Walton Goggins), Vic's right hand man, feels guilty over his role in Terry's death (as does Vic), and the captain tries to get him to crack. This guilt ends up affecting Shane's work; he was always a hot-dog sleaze bag, but his behavior only grows more reckless and sloppy, pissing on an innocent suspect and banging a stripper on an interrogation table, a development which she uses to blackmail him into exonerating her from a setup scheme.

There's also Julian Lowe (Michael Jace), a black rookie cop who sees Vic and Shane abscond with drugs from a bust, and he reports them to Aceveda and Internal Affairs. Julian is a devout Christian and believes in doing what is right, and his ratting out other officers causes tension with his partner, Danni Sofer (Catherine Dent), who has a thing going on with Vic and is studying to be a sergeant. However, Vic "convinces" Julian to do the right thing when he busts in on Julian in the all-together with his lover, Tomas (Brent Roam), whom Julian met while serving a warrant.

Image, how one wants to be perceived, is of the utmost to police officers in The Shield. After a cop killing, Danni tells Julian they have to show dominance, so that other criminals don't get the idea it's open season on officers. The tension emerges when the image and reality conflict

Julian, meanwhile, wants to be an honest cop and Christian and fit in with the guys (getting oral sex from a bar floozy as part of an initiation and beating up a prisoner who bit Danni), and he's terrified what will happen if his sexuality is exposed. Aceveda wants to be seen as a reformer and leader, but an-ex girlfriend from his past and an investigative reporter threaten to derail him. Plus, when a crime needs to be solved, he will turn to Vic, sicking him on an evasive suspect in the interrogation room, although he turns off the video feed so he doesn't have to watch Mackey torture the man.

Meanwhile, Detective Holland "Dutch" Wagenbach (Jay Karnes) fancies him a brilliant investigator and believes catching a serial killer targeting prostitutes will make his career; the others, including his partner Claudette (CCH Pounder), think of him as something of a goof. At one point, someone leaves dog shit in his desk, a warning to a cop getting too big for his britches, and later, a crowd of officers gather around a closed-circuit television to watch and laugh as his interrogation of a suspect collapses.

As you can tell by the previous paragraphs, The Shield is a complex, multi-layered show, dealing with a delicate issues including racism, police brutality, media manipulation, corruption, and blackmail. To it's credit, through thirteen episodes of season one, it never feels cluttered or confused. The long-form allows these storylines to play out and gives the characters room to explore other dimensions. If movies are like a short stories or novellas - laser-focused on advancing the story - television has the advantage of being like a novel, allowing room for characters to develop more fully. The Shield builds to an explosive finale where Vic is being set up as his home life falls apart, and the city explodes in a riot and the targeting of police officers after an unanswered 911 call resulted in the murder of two black women.

Vic is a family man as expected (his son's diagnosis with autism is one of the running subplots), but he is surprisingly nice to a hooker he bribes for information, Nancy (Jamie Brown), who is also a junky and has a little boy. Vic puts himself at great risk many times trying to help her and even cover up for her (he even, at her request, beats her up to make it look like a guy she just killed attacked her, and you can tell he doesn't want to do it). When she fails to sober up and abandons her son at the station, the heartbreak on Vic's face is genuine.

Dutch gets a strong moment near the end of the season when he finally catches the serial killer, after a long and emotionally wrenching investigation. Instead of gloating or being satisfied, he breaks down and cries in his car; everything the perp said about him during the interrogation - about wanting to prove himself and be taken seriously, not having many friends, etc. - was true.

The subject matter of The Shield is not for the faint of heart. Various creeps include a heroin addict who sells his daughter to a sex offender, an underground sex club containing underage girls who are raped in front of an audience, the previously mentioned serial killer, and the usual gang bangers, drug dealers, scummy businessmen, crazies, and jealous lovers. None of this is lingered on. We don't get a single scene set in a courtroom where a lawyer pontificates about the rights and wrongs of a society that created these criminals. The closest we get is when representatives of the Nation of Islam stage a stand-in in the police station lobby, rightly pointing out that the police do allow certain drug dealers free reign. Nor does the show linger on the sensationalist details. Sick stuff happens; the police move on to the next case or deal with their own problems.

Sometimes, the show is darkly funny. Vic and his crew resolve a war between rival hip hop moguls by locking them in a storage crate for the night. In one episode, the Strike Crew detain a visiting NBA star on a gun charge, and they keep him off the grid in an empty apartment, so they can bet against his team. One woman forces Danni and Julian to keep responding to calls because she continually chooses between one of two men; the jilted man responds with vandalism, and the officers grow increasingly exasperated. Of course, it's funny until one of the men snaps and kills the other two; then it's tragedy.

The Shield captures all this in a gritty, cinema-verite style, a lot of handheld cameras shaking as they follow the action and zooming in on faces. There's also the occasional lens flare, and many actors are lit harshly, revealing scraggly, shadowed faces. It has a very documentary-like feeling, not glamorous in the slightest, and the result is the violence feels more jolting when it does occur. It never feels like the show is trying to show off; it just reflects the day-to-day grind these officers and detectives go through. It's very raw.

The series also employs a lot of cross-cutting, further accentuating the divide between the noble, positive image of law enforcement with the grueling, sometimes ugly reality. The show begins with a press conference led by Aceveda, highlighting the progress the district has made in halting crime; meanwhile, Vic and his squad chase down a suspect,  beat him up and humiliate him in public, terrorizing the neighborhood in the process. In episode two, the show jumps back and forth between Terry's funeral and the services for the drug dealer framed for his murder, and similar to Fritz Lang's M, the parallel between cops and criminals is uncanny.

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