Wednesday, January 26, 2011

TV on DVD: The Shield (Season Two, Discs Three & Four)

Episodes covered:  Co-Pilot, Coyotes, Inferno, Breakpoint, Dominoes Falling

"Co-Pilot" kicks off this stretch of episodes by flashing back to the first day of the Barn's operation.  Unfortunately, the episode misses a prime opportunity to flesh out the characters of Shane, Lem, and Ronnie, or to at least give a compelling explanation of why their bond is so tight, beyond the obvious need to cover for each other's lies.  And while there are some nice moments of character shading here (such as the revelation that Dutch had an alcoholic wife who left him for her AA sponsor shortly before he transferred to the Barn) and it is sort of fun to see season one characters like Rondell and Gilroy again, "Co-Pilot" ultimately feels like an unnecessary diversion from the main concerns of season two.  It neither gives us any important information we weren't already aware of nor has any impact on the present-day storylines.  The flashback feels redundant on a show that already does such a great job of making its characters' pasts come back to haunt them.  In a way, it seems appropriate that an episode set shortly before the pilot would feel like one of the more problematic season one episodes, and the tonal déjà vu throws the rest of season two's structural improvements into sharp relief.  A few nagging flaws persist, and subpar (though not exactly bad) episodes like "Co-Pilot" show up every once in a great while, but the second season of The Shield finds the show a lot more complex, compelling, and structurally sound than it was in its very fine first season.

Season two doesn't exactly break the mold that Shawn Ryan and his writing staff laid out in season one, but it does fine tune it, making for a more satisfying slate of episodes overall.  The stretch of episodes from "Coyotes" through "Dominoes Falling" offers a prime example of the way that the writers organically – almost subliminally – keep the show's major story threads running even as interesting one-off cases and the repercussions of events long past dominate the narratives of the individual episodes.  Every major character (with the exception, as always, of Vic's Strike Team comrades) is fully fleshed-out at this point, which makes it all the more impressive that the creative team rarely forces them into situations that seem out of character, even as they keep the plotting as tight and propulsive as that of any action movie. 

The storytelling in season two is taut enough to make the show unbearably tense and exciting, yet messy enough to justify the show's verite aesthetic.  It's as if a long, pulpy action story is playing out in real life.  Developments such as Lanie's largely negative report on the Barn leaking to the press seem less like plot points than things that would actually happen under the circumstances that the show has set up, and the impact that such events have on the characters feel natural and realistic.  The leak of Lanie's report leads every member of the precinct to question their job security, causing past resentments to resurface and leading to sad yet inevitable endings for a few of our heroes.  In particular, the publicity problems cause Danny and Julien's predicaments to get even worse.  Danny's perceived involvement in Armadillo's stabbing makes her a logical target for firing when the new chief of police forces Aceveda to cut 25% of his work force, and she does indeed lose her job toward the end of "Dominoes Falling."  But she gets off easy compared to Julien, whose homosexuality is exposed to the entire Barn after his quasi-lover from season one returns and ramps up the tension in the already pressure cooker environment of the post-leak precinct.  Several of the officers who were fired assume that Julien is receiving special treatment from the higher-ups due to ratting them out for their homophobic slurs (though Julien is of course too ashamed and in denial of his own sexuality to have complained about the situation to Aceveda), and they administer a beating similar to the "towel party" that Julien participated in at the end of season one's "Pay in Pain."

Other characters receive promotions (Aceveda wins his city council seat, with Claudette poised to replace him as captain of the Barn) or achieve temporary victories (the Strike Team pulls off the Armenian money train heist), but for the most part these are plot points that won't pay off until next season.  The Shield is a better show in its second season than in its first season, but it doesn't feel like it's as major a season, if that makes sense.  While the Danny and Julien storylines came to a sort of endpoint (I'm sure that we'll at least see Julien again, but seeing him getting beaten by a gang of police officers with nightsticks certainly feels like a blunt cap to the things that he's gone through this year), most of the season was spent setting up developments for season three and beyond.  The fact that the Terry Crowley murder – the pivotal plot point of the entire series - was barely referenced in these thirteen episodes suggests that the creative team didn't know how long The Shield was going to last at this point, and therefore were timid about pushing the series' major storyline too far forward.  But even if the Armadillo story and the Armenian money train story might turn out to be nothing more than wheel-spinning in the end, they are at least extremely entertaining examples of wheel-spinning, and I can't imagine anyone who's watched to this point checking out before season three.

Quick Thoughts:

- I don't know whether this is really the last we'll see of Danny or not, but in case it is, I want to give some brief praise for Catherine Dent's performance.  She has great chemistry with Michael Jace, and can certainly hold her own with any of the other members of this great ensemble cast.

- I like the introduction of Tavon (Brian White) to the Strike Team.  While he hasn't yet shined a light on the inner workings of the Team as I had hoped he would, he already feels like a vital, three-dimensional character.  His tough yet intelligent police style makes him a natural fit for the Team, yet his methods and his demeanor are different enough for him to provide a contrast to someone like Shane.  (Check out the Russian roulette scene in "Dominoes Falling").  A lesser show would've introduced the new cop and then killed him off by the end of the season, essentially making him more of a plot point than a character, but, while I doubt that Tavon will survive to season seven, he seems to be a full-fledged part of the Team for now.  And he's clearly not a guy the Team will want to get on their bad side (as they inevitably will in the future, assuming that Tavon learns about some of their more corrupt actions).

- I noticed that season three is fifteen episodes instead of the usual thirteen.  This isn't necessarily a good or bad thing, but I do hope that the extra time doesn't decrease the show's breakneck pace too much.

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