I haven't watched many TV shows ever since The Shield ended, and never again with the same devotion and lack of critical attitude. After The Shield, I just couldn't go back to watching problem-of-the-week type of shows, whether it be super-duper, morally perfect policemen solving a crime every episode (CSI, Criminal Minds, The Mentalist, et cetera), or some young reluctant hero killing monsters (Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Supernatural, et cetera). I became used to long-term plotting, dynamic characters constantly changing, complex narratives developing organically, and incisive critiques of society, race, sexuality, power, politics, family relationships, and more, much more. Yes, I even became used to bleakness, a lot of pessimism and a refusal to offer viewers simple solutions to complex problems. In this sense, The Shield is less a conventional TV show and more a novel in visual form, a long story, carefully plotted, full of meditations and insights into human nature, and a mirror to our times.
The story revolves around Vic Mackey and the other members of the Strike Team, a special LAPD unit that deals with street crime by bending the law as much as possible without snapping it. But then David Aceveda, the new captain, arrives at their precinct, demanding better crime stats. Aceveda is a cop with political ambitions and his cleaning up crime is just the first step on the road to become the mayor. This pushes the Strike Team to start using illicit methods to control the crime in their area, which ironically prompts Aceveda to start investigating them, by planting a spy in their group. When they get wind of this, they execute their team-mate and cover it up. This action reverberates throughout the series for all its 89 episodes. The Strike Team starts planning their early retirement by stealing from Armenian criminals, deal with betrayals, frequently try to redeem themselves, skirmish with Internal Affairs, all the while uncovering corruption, forging allies with criminals and federal agencies and simply trying to sort out their messy personal lives.
Every character is missed dearly, for no matter how corrupt, evil or Machiavellian, they were clearly loved by the writers. Instead of stock characters, we have human beings with distinct personalities, dreams, motivations, fears, different worldviews, ways of operating and different levels of morality. It was always fascinating to see the outspoken, bullying Vic Mackey share scenes with the subtle, scheming Aceveda; or to compare Detective Claudette's by-the-book approach to morals with Vic's the ends-justify-the-means philosophy; or to compare Captain Monica Rawling's progressive but unpopular methods with Aceveda's media-friendly ones; or Vic's attempts at redemption with his good friend Shane's downward spiral into corruption. Or you can just be enthralled by the characters' personal struggles: Officer Julien's battle with his repressed homosexuality; Detective Dutch's social awkwardness and inability to become popular in spite of being a damn good cop, arguably better than Vic; or I.A. Lieutenant Jon Kavanaugh's own battle to remain a good policeman while allowing his obsession to nail Vic turn him into the criminal he despises. I could write an entire page just listing the fascinating characters in the show. And I haven't even mentioned the villains: Antwon Mitchell, whose attempt to grab power in LA dominated one of the best seasons of the series; or the final villain of the series, the businessman Pezuela and his blackmail network. Still the best villains in the show tend to be the cops: Vic, Kavanaugh, Aceveda, Shane, et cetera. Through them we get a sweeping vista of contemporary society as well as penetrating studies of morality. Season 3, which is undeservedly considered one of the series' weakest parts, is arguably the best study of greed ever written for TV, on par with The Treasure of Sierra Madre. And the fast-paced season 7, after dozens upon dozens of speeches on loyalty, ends with one of the most devastating betrayals ever. I wouldn't say The Shield is a difficult series to watch; in fact it's immensely watchable and entertaining; but unless you're prepared to accept that people are basically corrupt and selfish, you probably won't appreciate it a lot. Like many good novels, it provides an unglamorous, bleak portrayal of people that is a far cry from the soothing pabulum TV offers.
The Shield mixes delicate drama with fast-paced action: it's fascinating to watch not only because of the violence, the sex, the cool and badass moments, but also because of the deep inner lives of each character, so well delineated and laid bare that we almost think we know them better than ourselves or our friends and relatives. Every action and decision exists organically; no character does anything that seems out of character or just to service the plot. Frequently they do stupid things, like we all do in our lives, but always for motives resulting from their own psychologies. The characters make the story, which is a nice change from typical TV storytelling, where often it seems characters are made to fit, by hook or by crook, into predetermined plots and conclusions. In opposition, The Shield's seasons build on each previous one, just like in a novel. When the series ends on episode 89, we know it was the only possible conclusion for every character. So it demands an investment of time and patience. In the 21st century, television finally learned that Twin Peak's formula was the way to go, namely long-term storytelling. Many mediocre TV shows were quick to bank on it, like Lost, with its ridiculous twists that screamed lack of planning, and Prison Break that started rehashing the same plot every season. But there were also a few good TV shows that learned the lesson well: The Wire, for instance. The Shield, however, for me is the apex of this new way of making TV shows. Even if it's not perfect, for nothing is, anything less than a 10 would be farce.
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