Saturday, May 14, 2011

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

Episodes covered:  The Cure, Grave, Bang, Doghouse

I’m not very familiar with Glenn Close.  I’ve seen fewer than ten of the sixty-four projects she’s credited with appearing in on IMDB, and out of those, the only one of her roles that I remember fairly clearly is her crazed stalker in the terrible thriller Fatal Attraction.  And I haven’t seen a single episode of Damages, the FX (and now DirecTV) series that was so heavily built around its star that its working title was Glenn Close TV Project.

But I no longer feel like I need to have seen The Big Chill or Reversal of Fortune to understand why Close is such a highly respected actress.  Close’s work on the fourth season of The Shield is strong enough to justify any praise that she’s received in her career – a claim I feel comfortable making even after only seeing the first third of the season.  The veteran actress plays Monica Rawling, the new Captain of the Barn (Aceveda has finally moved on to the City Council position that it seemed like he would’ve already been in at the start of season three).  Though Monica is a character who’s never been mentioned in previous seasons of the show, and who (apparently) won’t be around after this season is over, she feels like a fully realized and fleshed out character the second she steps on screen in “The Cure.”  Rawling radiates the decisiveness and toughness that a person in her position needs to have in order to be in charge of institutional bullies like Vic.  Her years as a Farmington beat cop would be evident even if they weren’t spelled out by the dialogue, and her desire to make her district a safer place seems both sincere and well-informed, even if her zero-tolerance methods for reducing crime are highly dubious.  Basically, Monica feels like a real person instead of a character that this season needs to drive its storyline, and Close’s grounded portrayal is largely responsible.

Of course, the writing staff deserves some of the credit for making Rawling such a fascinating presence, and for integrating her into all of the other characters’ lives in a way that the many new characters introduced in the previous season weren’t.  Her relationship with Aceveda is unsurprisingly somewhat hostile, as she quickly establishes herself as a very different type of leader that isn’t afraid to do things that make the department look bad as long as the ends justify the means.  Rawling’s no nonsense attitude and her policy of putting as many bodies as she can spare on major cases endears her to Danni, who has been trying to get off of basic foot patrol since season one.  The new Captain’s policy of giving everyone something useful to do doesn’t extend to Dutch and Claudette, as the latter’s righteous quest to expose wrongful arrests has continued to alienate her and her partner from the rest of the police department – and the District Attorney’s office, who refuse to cooperate with any case where Claudette is the primary investigator.  Rawling seems to recognize that Dutch and Claudette are skilled detectives, but is refusing to take them off the sidelines until the latter apologizes to the D.A. – something that is obviously a major source of frustration for the ever-ambitious Dutch, who has gotten off on the wrong foot with the new Captain on a personal and professional level. 

Of course, Rawling’s most prominent tentative relationship on the show is with Vic.  After the events of last season, Vic’s Strike Team has been disbanded, with Shane heading off to a different precinct’s vice squad, Lem working for a juvenile detention center, and Vic and Ronnie doing menial surveillance work at the Barn.  Encouraged by Vic’s impressive arrest rate, Rawling puts the corrupt cop in charge of a new anti-gang task force.  Though she cautions Vic against using methods that will draw the suspicion of Internal Affairs, Rawling seems disturbingly undaunted by Vic’s “anything to get the job done” approach, and it will be interesting to see which lines she’s willing to cross as the season goes on.  Some of her methods may actually be more damaging than Vic’s, as suggested by her controversial “asset forfeiture” policy, in which she and the officers in her command take away any property purchased by drug money – even if it means throwing innocent children out in the street, as happens when she and Vic seize a home bought for a crack dealer’s mother and young siblings in the episode “Bang.”

That sense of the toll that rough and/or corrupt law enforcement takes on the underprivileged people that the law is supposed to protect is something that was largely missing from the first three seasons of The Shield, but it seems like it will be a major concern of the show’s fourth year.  Since the events of the show have always been depicted from the point of view of the police, even the most prominent criminal characters from the show’s past have tended to seem like thematic abstractions at best, and unambiguous villains at worst.  The Shield has featured frequent scenes of police brutality at its worst, but because the criminals have been so poorly defined in comparison to the law enforcement characters, the show has sometimes undercut its own points by making the guys on the wrong side of the law seem like nameless, faceless thugs.  The writers seem to have recognized that this was a problem, as they’ve structured most of this season’s early plotlines around the various ways that the Barn has failed Farmington, whether they are literally beating the puke out of a gang member in “Grave” or giving serious jail time to a man with a few pot plants in “Doghouse.”

These failures of justice open the door for truly savvy criminals like Antwan Mitchell (Anthony Anderson, in a riveting performance that far outpaces any of his other work I’ve seen), the ex-con leader of the One-Niners, who is able to gain the support of his community in a way that the police won’t ever be able to.  Since returning from a decade-plus prison stint, Antwan has rebranded himself as a compassionate community leader, more interested in providing support for his fellow citizens than in making a profit off of their misery.  Antwan is hands down the most intriguing criminal character seen on The Shield to this point, because it’s genuinely difficult to parse how seriously he takes his black pride rhetoric and how much he’s simply using it as a smokescreen for his drug dealing operation.

Antwan can’t be too noble a person, because he’s got an under the table deal going on with Shane.  It isn’t exactly clear what the terms of Antwan and Shane’s deal are, but we’ve already seen Shane cover up a murder committed by Antwan’s crew (in “The Cure”) and we’ve seen both men give each other compromising information about their respective organizations.  Shane collaborating with Farmington’s most prominent gang leader while Vic is running an anti-gang task force is clearly going to be a great source of drama going forward, especially since neither Vic nor Shane can really afford to turn the other in, given all of the dirt they have on one another, from the Terry Crowley murder to the Armenian Money Heist.  The Shield seemed to be losing some steam in season three, but season four is shaping up to be its most intense and dynamic collection of episodes to date.

Quick Thoughts:

-  Nice cameo by Katey Sagal as Gilroy’s widow in “Grave.”  Few actresses are better at instantly projecting the scars of their characters’ hard lives, and Sagal does it here in just two scenes.  Sagal is the wife of that episode’s writer, Kurt Sutter, and she currently stars in her husband’s terrific (if uneven) series Sons of Anarchy.

- Shane’s new partner Armando “Army” Renta (Michael Pena) hasn’t played a big role so far, but it will be interesting to see how far he’s willing to follow Shane down his flamboyantly corrupt path.

-  Julien is the only one of the major characters without a clear, compelling storyline so far this year.  I hope that the writers find something for him to do, as Michael Jace still provides one of the show’s most intriguing screen presences.

- I didn’t really get around to addressing the continuing fallout from Aceveda’s third season rape, but his newfound passion for extremely rough sex has provided some reminders that The Shield’s extreme content can still provide some genuinely shocking moments even after forty-odd episodes.  How long before his predilections put his political career at risk?

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