If You Haven't Already, Go Watch "The Shield"
By Jamahl Epsicokhan
April 20, 2006
I haven't posted a review in so long that it seems like I've gone on hiatus (or AWOL) prematurely, even though I still have three crucial Battlestar Galactica reviews from the end of the second season (not to mention six more seasons of TNG reviews) to write. Not to worry; I'll be back soon.
What can I say? My usual excuses — overly busy at work, busy in my personal life, the fact that BSG's six-month hiatus means I'm not falling any further behind — have kept my writing lodged firmly in the "off" state.
That, and my obsession with The Shield.
Simply put, I love The Shield. It might be the most entertaining television show ever made. (No, I did not use the term "best.") It's so damned addictive on DVD, and I've already seen all the episodes from when they originally aired.
Season five recently ended (or perhaps I should say season 5.0; like with BSG — or for that matter The Sopranos — the season is apparently split in half, and also possibly its last), with an event in the last episode that was simultaneously shocking, inevitable, and a promise that things will never be the same. (I wouldn't dream of spoiling it, because this is for those of you who aren't already Shield viewers and might become new ones.)
After that last episode I felt the need to go back to the beginning and start over. In the past three weeks, I've watched nearly the entire series on DVD again (much to the chagrin of my reviewing duties), and the show is as good as (or even better than) watching it the first time.
What's impressive about The Shield is its ability to do so many things and do them well. At the heart of the show is Vic Mackey and the Strike Team, always getting themselves into trouble and always trying to get out of it, and somehow, between the madness, still doing their jobs well enough not to get fired. I don't know how the writers do it, but they're able to pile on one damn thing after another, and yet the plots — as labyrinthine, insane, breathless, and over-the-top as they can be — work with a precision that is always satisfying and frequently amazing.
Rarely is a show such a fast-paced adrenaline rush and also such an effective, thoughtful moral quagmire. Make no mistake — some of the characters do some really bad things. What's important is that they do them entertainingly, and yet the show still doesn't back away from the consequences. One could say the show is all about consequences — twisted, unexpected examples of cause and effect and poetic justice — how one problem (or its solution) simply spawns another, and how sins committed in the past cannot be escaped or forgotten, no matter how much ones tries.
At the same time, The Shield is able to do the police procedural as well or better as any police show I've seen — even long-standing critical favorite (mine included) Homicide: Life on the Street. As much as I've always believed that Claudette and Dutch were reincarnations of Pembleton and Bayliss, the writers have made these characters their own, giving them an endless supply of bizarre (and depraved) crimes to solve, employing detective work and psychology in new and intriguing and dark ways.
And the show's tone works on every level, from suspense to humor to horror to outrage to respect to tragic outcome. The show approaches every situation specifically, with perceptive insights based on its characters and their often-dire needs (and equally often, their selfishness) — or other times with an inflexible code of integrity, as with Claudette or Monica Rawling.
Is the show realistic? Well, no, and I don't think that's its mission. It's about an extreme universe, with extreme behavior and events. If you're looking for layered realism in your police show, watch The Wire (which I equally recommend). The Shield is not "realistic" except in how it relates to itself. It's realistic in a visceral, self-contained way, where the world is askew and reality elevated.
The show's commitment to fully developed characters is second to none. You look, for example, at the complexity of Julien's situation (the secrets, the conflicts, the self-loathing) as played out in the first two seasons, and you see a character that transcends all possible stereotypes and becomes a true and unique individual, whether you agree with how he deals with his issues or not.
Ultimately, what I think makes this show so successful (and entertaining) is its endless inventiveness. Freed of the constraints of network TV (and with its run-and-gun documentary-style cinematography), it's not simply the show's raw, unfiltered content that makes it stand out. It's the writers' ability to come up with new and fascinating material, always kept believable at the character level, respectful of the viewers' attention and memory, and never, ever predictable. When something shocking (or appalling) happens, you believe that it happened for a reason, even when you didn't see it coming. It always stems from the motivations of the characters ... or from trying to fix a mess they created two or three or 30 months earlier.
So let me say this now. You've got until early 2007. Go watch the first four seasons of The Shield on DVD, and catch season 5.0 in reruns on FX (or on DVD, if it's released in time). That way, when season 5.5 airs (or whatever it's called), you'll be able to see how the latest, most unforgivable and heartbreaking mess of them all plays out.