Tuesday, March 15, 2011

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

Episodes covered:  Slipknot, What Power Is…, Strays, Riceburner

Though The Shield is often thought of as a show that revolves around its main character, Vic Mackey, the truth is that it has such a strong group of regular characters (and such a fine ensemble cast) that it could afford to sideline its protagonist for several episodes at a time if it had any reason to.  Dutch and Claudette could practically have their own show (Wagenbach and Wyms even sounds like it could be the name of a buddy cop procedural), as could Julien and Danny.  A show focusing entirely on Aceveda as a politician trying to square his ethics and beliefs with the practical necessities of his city council job could be pretty good too, though it still isn’t clear when he’s actually going to assume that position.  Even the most problematic and least well-developed main characters, the other members of Vic’s Strike Team, have spent enough time together onscreen that I can more or less accept their loyalty to each other as part of the show’s premise; the writers still haven’t given a clear indication of where that loyalty comes from, but the interplay between Shane, Lem, and Vic is strong enough to make the characters seem like people who could plausibly be friends (Ronnie remains the Zeppo of the group).  While just about any of these characters could have their own quality TV show, many of the best moments on The Shield come from the tense interactions between the different factions that exist within the Barn.  The character relationships are so strong, and seemed to be headed in such interesting directions at the end of season two, that the show could’ve practically had an excellent third season without introducing any new recurring characters.

And yet season three has been loaded down with a larger supporting cast than The Shield has ever had.  This wouldn’t be a problem if the show were better at sustaining recurring characters than it is.  But outside of Chief Gilroy (who seems to be gone from the show completely after his season two escape to Mexico), The Shield hasn’t managed to create any recurring characters as compelling as its regulars.  The show’s casting director has consistently done a great job finding distinctive actors that bring even the most minor, one-off characters to vivid life, and many of the non-regular characters seem promising and interesting when they are introduced.  But too often Shawn Ryan and his writing staff fail to develop these characters to the point where they seem like much more than cannon fodder for The Shield’s various plotlines.  In many instances, the supporting characters’ role in the story ends so abruptly that the characters don’t have room to function independently from their plot function, which can at times make the show’s generally impressive storytelling seem overly mechanical. 

Tavon is perhaps the clearest example of this failing.  Toward the end of season two, it seemed like the show was going to use the Strike Team’s newest recruit to simultaneously flesh out the inner workings of the Team and up the tension in the Armenian Money Train storyline (as he inevitably would’ve found out about the heist, and probably would’ve aided Claudette’s investigation into Vic’s illegal activities).  Tavon was also charismatic and mysterious enough that it seemed like it would’ve been interesting to gradually learn more about him, independent of his role in the plot.  His interactions with the veteran Strike Team members were compelling, and the potential for entertaining conflicts or tenuous partnerships with the other detectives was high.  And then the show put him into a coma in the fourth episode of season three, which he still hasn’t recovered from.  Granted, the fallout from Tavon’s injury has played an important role in the season’s most engaging thread (the gradually corroding friendship of the Strike Team), but if Tavon never wakes up – which seems increasingly like a possibility, given that he doesn’t even appear in any of the four episodes on this disc – it will be the latest example of The Shield wasting a potentially great character.

The recurring characters introduced in season three haven’t fared much better, largely because the unnecessarily convoluted plotting of the season hasn’t left enough room for the many new characters to have time to reach their full potential.  The Decoy Squad could’ve been interesting foils for the Strike Team, but their storyline was unceremoniously concluded in “Slipknot,” as Vic once again found a way to play his enemies against each other for his personal gain.  The on-again, off-again storyline involving Vic’s affair with a crime scene analyst remains a non-starter, to the point that I don’t even know that character’s name (and was unable to find it anywhere online).  Shane’s emotionally unstable wife – they got married in the episode “Strays” – continues to seem more like a plot point than a human being.  And the criminal characters have largely been faceless thugs.  The gang warfare between the One-Niners and the Byz Latz has been stewing in the background of practically every episode so far this season, and is even the focal point of “Slipknot,” and yet all we really know about either gang is that one is African American, the other is Latino, and they hate each other.  The Shield has never given its criminals the layers and ambiguity of its cops, but in the past some of its criminals were at least charismatic (like Armadillo in season two) or had potentially fascinating relationships with Vic (like Tio in the first two seasons).  So far that hasn’t been the case in season three, where there have been so many new recurring characters that they’ve more or less cancelled each other out.

Quick Thoughts:

-  Two of the season’s more questionable running storylines came to strong conclusions on this disc.  In “What Power Is…,” Aceveda finally caught up with the man that raped him, but instead of serving straight-up vigilante justice (which it seemed like the show was setting him up to do, especially after he killed two of the man’s gang partners while they were attempting to rob a store), he arrests him and gives him a long, well-written speech about why he isn’t going to kill him even though he could.  Nice to see a character on this show getting somewhat non-violent retribution for a change.

-  The other storyline that concluded was Dutch and Claudette’s investigation of the “cuddler rapist,” who was caught during “What Power Is…” and then interrogated at length in “Strays.”  Dutch is stunned to learn that the rapist doesn’t match up with the profile that he’d created for him, causing the detective to question his methods, and leading to Jay Karnes’ best acting moments since season one.

-  That said, I probably could’ve done without the scene at the end of “Strays” that finds Dutch strangling a cat to death to try to get an understanding of why a man would be compelled to kill.  I get what the writers were going for, but the moment seemed too over-the-top in what was otherwise a relatively restrained and cerebral episode of the show.

-  Some interesting directing credits on this disc.  Michael Chiklis helmed “Slipknot,” which didn’t stray from the show’s usual cinema verite action movie aesthetic, but was a particularly high energy episode nonetheless.  David Mamet, who would go on to work with Shield creator Shawn Ryan on the CBS show The Unit, directs “Strays,” which has some effective use of off-center framing during Dutch’s interrogation of the rapist.

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