Tuesday, November 29, 2011

TV on DVD: The Shield (Season Six)

Episodes coveredOn the Jones, Baptism by Fire, Back to One, The New Guy, Haunts, Chasing Ghosts, Exiled, The Math of the Wrath, Recoil, Spanish Practices

As The Shield has progressed, its storytelling has become tighter and more intensely focused, with each episode illuminating the themes of its respective season while advancing the series’ overall study of the nature of corruption.  But because Vic and his Strike Team have been hurtling toward doom since literally the end of the pilot episode, with the crimes continuously piling up from there – and drawing increasing suspicion from both honest law officials and violent gang members – it has become more and more difficult to accept that the Strike Team could’ve stayed (relatively) intact for as long as they have.  The plotting and the pacing of The Shield both suggest a show with a logical timespan of four or five seasons.  Yet here we are in season six.

By this point in the series, the convolutions required to keep the three surviving Strike Team members out of jail (or even alive) are so knotted that it would be almost impossible to give a brief synopsis of the season’s plot.  Of course it is essential that the show focus on the fallout of Shane’s murder of Lem and the continuing IAD investigation of the Strike Team, and Claudette’s attempt to replace Vic with a new Strike Team leader named Hiatt (Alex O’Laughlin) is a logical development that adds extra pressure to an already-compelling storyline.  But in order to keep the show’s master plots from reaching their logical conclusions, the writers have also reintroduced story elements involving Salvadoran gangs, former Chief Gilroy’s widow, the rape of Aceveda, and Dutch’s frustrated longings for various female co-workers, while introducing a shady businessman with probable gang ties, an undercover FBI agent deeply embedded in one of the show’s many criminal organizations, yet another serial rapist, and the ruthless heiress to the Armenian gang that the Strike Team robbed several seasons ago (played by Franka Potente, of all people). 

Presumably this dense plotting is supposed to make the show seem less predictable and more exciting, and none of these storylines are exactly a waste of time (though I am tired of watching Dutch hunt down rapists at this point).  But with only ten episodes this season, none of the stories have the proper room to breathe, let alone come to any sort of conclusion.  And so “Spanish Practices” ends with all of the aforementioned plot points dangling, and with seemingly too much going on for the show to be able to do justice to the Dutch and Claudette vs. the Strike Team finale that has always seemed like the series’ natural endgame.  I know that The Shield has a reputation for “sticking the landing,” and that its seventh season is generally considered to be its best, but the journey there has been frustratingly uneven and unnecessarily convoluted.  

The sixth season is the show’s most frustrating since season three, largely because the writers don’t seem to have been confident enough in the ongoing master plots’ ability to hold the audience’s interest.  But those scenes that actually pushed the character arcs forward rather than simply adding incident were by far the most compelling moments of the season.  Shane’s desperation following his actions from the end of season five has allowed Walton Goggins to do his most intense work on the show to date, with his confessions of guilt to his wife (in “Haunts”) and to Vic (at the end of “Chasing Ghosts”) being particularly wrenching moments.  Vic’s feud with Kavanaugh ends somewhat anticlimactically in “Baptism by Fire” – and I suspect that the storyline was rushed to accommodate Forest Whitaker’s schedule or the show’s budget rather than the demands of the plot – but seeing the IAD investigator put himself behind bars before he bent the rules too far in pursuit of Vic offered a nice contrast in that character’s honesty to that of the Strike Team leader.  The thorny relationship between Vic and Hiatt also plays out interestingly, though it’s a little disappointing that the show makes it clear by the end of the season that the latter is an easily corruptible pretty boy who is no real threat to replace Vic. 

I hope that somebody – whether it’s Claudette or Dutch or Shane or Ronnie or new Strike Team member Julien – steps up to present a credible and stable threat to Vic’s well-being in season seven.  At this point, the show is really missing the righteous moral force of Kavanaugh, and it’s disappointing that the writers haven’t replaced him with someone who seems similarly capable of (or on the right path to) take Vic down.  Here’s hoping that the writers have a clear plan for cutting through the many seemingly unnecessary plot threads to bring the main arc of the show to a satisfying end point.

Quick Thoughts:

 -   Steve Billings (David Marciano) has become the show’s first reliable source of comic relief.  His rapport with new partner Dutch is excellent, as he seems in some sense like the sleazy dark side of his partner (as Shane is to Vic), yet he is also fully realized enough to occasionally register as a devoted family man.  His slow evolution from bumbling background character in season four to inept Captain in season five to Dutch foil in season six has been very well handled.

-  Though it’s obviously an important plot point, I’m not sure that the death of Lem has affected the show’s dynamic all that much.  Shane has certainly become more unstable, but was always obviously capable of coming unhinged, and Lem’s relationships with the show’s other characters weren’t clearly defined enough for us to really feel the weight of his loss.

-  It doesn’t put a big enough exclamation point (or question mark) on any of the season’s storylines to really feel like an appropriate ending for a finale, but the scene where Vic leaps into the moving car of a lawyer who has piles of paperwork evidence against him is one of the show’s best action scenes to date.

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