Wednesday, October 20, 2010

TV on DVD: The Shield (Season One, Disc One)

Episodes covered:  Pilot, Our Gang, The Spread, Dawg Days

What restrictions do we want to place on the people who are assigned to protect us?  How far do we want them to be able to go to stop the "bad guys?"  These questions are at the forefront of many cop dramas, and they gained more resonance for many Americans after 9/11.  The Shawn Ryan-created series The Shield, which premiered on FX in March of 2002, attempts to tackle these moral issues head on, by portraying the adventures of an experimental Strike Team unit who will stop at nothing to capture criminals in the most dangerous areas of Los Angeles.

The leader of the Strike Team is Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis), a veteran detective who has used some dubious tactics to ramp up his impressive arrest rate.  Like many cops in popular culture, Vic is not above circumventing the rules to get results.  But where most movies or TV shows go out of their way to make their protagonists unquestionably in the right - thereby supporting the conservative fantasy that the world would be just if there only weren't so many regulations protecting the rights of criminals - The Shield presents Vic as someone who is constantly operating in the greyest areas of justice.  Vic seems to genuinely care about the well-being of several of his informants, and is shown selflessly saving an infant in "The Spread," but he also spends a lot of screen time torturing suspects and ends the pilot episode by shooting a fellow officer who threatens to expose his corruption.  When Vic tells a suspect he's interrogating that he's not playing good cop or bad cop, and that he's a "different kind of cop," the line may be a bit on the nose, but it is virtually the thesis statement of the character and of the show.

We actually see many different kinds of cop throughout these first four episodes.  Captain David Aceveda (Benito Martinez) is a "desk cop" who made it to his position through test-taking rather than street work, and who seems to be motivated equally by an emotional desire for justice and by his more pragmatic political ambitions.  He is proving to be Vic's greatest foil at this point in the series, and the show is already doing a great job of ramping up the tension between these two very different men.  Halfway through "Our Gang," Acevada has already figured out how and why Vic killed detective Terry Crowley (Reed Diamond), and by the end of "Dawg Days" he's seen that exposing Vic's corruption could give him a political edge as a voice of justice should he ever run for office.

Claudette Wyms (CCH Pounder) and Dutch Wagenbach (Jay Karnes) are detective partners whose by-the-books mixture of basic detective skills and in-the-criminals-heads psychology seems to be nearly as effective as Vic's more violent approach.  They balance each other out nicely as partners, with the practical, seen-it-all Claudette often bringing the self-righteous Dutch back down to earth, even as the younger man's more intense need to solve a case gives the duo the energy that they need to solve their most challenging cases.  Pounder and Karnes are my two favorite supporting players on the show thus far.  They both give very lived-in, three-dimensional performances and they have great chemistry whenever they're on screen together.  Pounder gives Claudette a sense of humor that this type of character (think Morgan Freeman in Seven) usually lacks, as well as a general feeling that Claudette is able to separate her work life and her personal life in a way that the other officers can't.  And where a character like Dutch would be a mere punchline or obstacle for the main character on another show, Karnes depicts him as a very talented detective whose knowledge of his own skills can occasionally make him act like an ass.

Another team on the show consists of Danielle Sofer (Catherine Dent), a talented patrol officer who seems to have had some sort of romantic past with Vic, and a rookie named Julien Lowe (Michael Jace), whose gentle demeanor makes him an outcast in the macho atmosphere of the police department.  I like both characters and actors, but so far Julien's storyline - he is struggling to reconcile his deeply closeted homosexuality with his devout Christianity - is so disconnected from the series' main concerns that it registers mostly as a distraction.  TV storylines are marathons, not sprints, so it is entirely possible that Julien will head in some interesting directions that haven't occurred to me, but at this point it isn't clear why we occasionally leave the main characters to focus on him.

Oddly, the least-developed regular characters after this first batch of episodes are the other members of Vic's Strike Team.  I love that The Shield has already depicted its police department as a complicated environment with many different factions using different methods to pursue similar goals, but it seems dramatically counter-intuitive for the show to develop its ancillary characters before the people closest to the main character have been properly introduced.  Curtis "Lem" Lemansky (Kenneth Johnson) has made little impression so far, other than as a loyal member of Vic's team.  I actually had to check Wikipedia to see whether Ronnie Gardocki (David Rees Snell) had appeared on the show so far (he had); I couldn't tell you anything about him, and the only reason I had any recollection of his character was that I vaguely remembered there being four members of Strike Team.  I'm familiar enough with the show's reputation to know that Shane Vendrell (Walton Goggins) is going to be one of the show's most interesting characters (and one of its standout performances) but all we really know about him so far is that he has a hard time keeping his emotions in check, and that the Strike Team's corruption ways more heavily on his conscious than it does on Vic.  Interestingly, Shane's loss of patience with the arrogant, drug-dealing basketball star in "The Spread" brings his character into sharper focus than the scene in "Our Gang" when he is being interrogated by Aceveda, even though the latter scene is the one of the two that's directly connected to the show's master plot.

So far the drama surrounding Vic's attempts to cover up the murder of Terry Crowley is far more compelling than any of the individual cases presented in these episodes, though the show does do a good job of balancing out its serialized and procedural elements.  Some of the one-off storylines - like the one in "The Spread" about a sperm-collecting rapist - are sensationalistic to the point of being stupid, as if the show needs to shove its network's relative lack of content restrictions in your face without bothering to have anything to say about its controversial subject matter.  The tale of feuding rappers in "Dawg Days" feels like one of those ripped-from-the-headlines (of 1997) storylines that Law & Order lazily specializes in.  In general, the show's look at the criminal underworld of Los Angeles lacks nuance, especially when compared to The Wire, which premiered at around the same time as The Shield.  The lack of depth given to the one-off cases may be the downside of the show's otherwise satisfyingly breathless pace.  But the show has me hooked, and I'm hoping that its few flaws will be smoothed out by the time we reach the end of season one.

Quick Thoughts

-  Now that we've introduced the characters, I'm hoping that these articles will be a little shorter from here on out.  If they become too dense, I may have to cut back and do two episodes or so at a time rather than an entire disc's worth.

- I generally like the work that Clark Johnson and others have done directing these episodes so far, but I found the staging of Terry Crowley's shooting (which I assume is the most important scene in the entire series) a little awkward, both because I don't like Kid Rock (whose music is playing in the background) and because the camerawork in that scene is a little cheesy.

- I haven't mentioned Vic's family life yet, mostly because I'm waiting to see where the storyline about his son's apparent learning disability is going.  But I think the slow development of the family characters is more dramatically sound than the slow development of the Strike Team.

- Part of the reason that I'm interested in watching The Shield is that I'm a big fan of Sons of Anarchy, a show created by Shield writer Kurt Sutter.  So I was excited to see on Wikipedia that he has his first Shield credit on one of disc two's episodes.

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