When I was a teenager I used to watch The Commish (1991-1995), a police procedural with a sense of humor. The show starred Michael Chiklis as an easy-going, affable, chunky and balding police commissioner in a small New York town who always did the right thing. Fast-forward a decade and Chiklis was back on TV in something that could be described as the antithesis to The Commish – on The Shield, Chiklis was a buff, tough leader of a group of corrupt cops in L.A. who rarely did the right thing. His head completely shaved, Chiklis was almost unrecognizable to fans of The Commish. Unlike his previous hit show, this new gig became one of the key television series of its decade.
The rise and fall of a corrupt police unit
The Shield creator Shawn Ryan based his show on the 1990s Rampart scandal where more than 70 LAPD officers active in a team called CRASH were implicated in widespread corruption involving unprovoked shootings and beatings, planting of evidence, dealing narcotics, bank robbery etc. Ryan set his story about the rise and fall of an equally corrupt police unit called the Strike Team in a part of Los Angeles called Farmington. Ironically enough, the Strike Team’s headquarters (called “The Barn”) were situated in a converted church. The leader of the Strike Team was Vic Mackey (Chiklis) who answered to Captain David Aceveda (Benito Martinez), a man with political ambitions.
The Strike Team also consisted of Shane Vendrell (Walton Goggins), Vic’s best friend and somewhat of a loose cannon, as well as the significantly more level-headed Curtis Lemansky (Kenny Johnson) and Ronnie Gardocki (David Rees Snell). The show did not focus on the Dark Side entirely, but also followed The Barn’s honest cops, including a pair of brilliant detectives (Jay Karnes, CCH Pounder) and two beat cops (Michael Jace, Catherine Dent), one of whom was struggling with his homosexuality.
The showrunners stayed true to their neighborhood, sometimes shooting scenes in actual Farmington locations where gangbangers dominated. The never-ending feuds between gangs and ethnicities was part of the job for not only the Strike Team but the entire LAPD. To some degree, The Shield was an ordinary cop show where doors were knocked down, drug dealers were caught and confessions forced out of suspects either by way of Mackey’s fists or Dutch’s (Karnes) studied, intelligent approach.
But there was much more to the show than that. The heinous crime committed by the Strike Team in the first season would come back to haunt Mackey and his men throughout the other six seasons. They also faced horrifying consequences over the years in the shape of a tough-as-nails new captain (Glenn Close), a dogged IAD lieutenant (Forest Whitaker) and Shane’s increasing lack of control. The fifth and seventh seasons were emotional, incredibly tense powerhouses that showed just what Ryan and his writers were capable of.
The Shield remained a relevant, realistic and gritty experience where happy endings came too seldom in a part of the city that needed them badly. Brilliant performances all around, particularly by Chiklis, Goggins, Karnes and Pounder; among the guest stars, Close and Whitaker showed potential doubting Thomases how good movie stars could look on TV.
A few words on one of the show’s most intriguing characters. Dutch is perhaps The Barn’s brightest detective, an in-house expert on serial killers. In one episode, he turns out to possess exactly the qualities most serial killers have by strangling a cat. The incident is never followed up on. The last shot of the show is equally open to interpretations. Shawn Ryan doesn’t believe in easy answers and we should thank him for making us think on our own.
The Shield 2002-2008:U.S. Made for TV. 88 episodes. Color. Created by Shawn Ryan. Cast: Michael Chiklis (Vic Mackey), Walton Goggins (Shane Vendrell), Catherine Dent (Danni Sofer), Jay Karnes, CCH Pounder, Michael Jace, Benito Martinez, Cathy Cahlin Ryan, David Rees Snell, Kenny Johnson (02-07), Glenn Close (05), Forest Whitaker (06-07), David Marciano (05-08), Paula Garcés (06-08), Michael Peña (05), Reed Diamond (02).
Emmy: Outstanding Actor (Chiklis) 02-03. Golden Globes: Best Drama Series 03; Actor (Chiklis) 03.
Quote: “Mackey’s not a cop. He’s Al Capone with a badge.” (Martinez)
Last word: “It wasn’t until I started getting into seasons three and four that I thought about how I wanted it all to end. I had a couple of big notions, but the show has always been a collaborative effort, so I took my ideas to the writers, with all of us sitting in a group. We had like three months’ time before we began filming season seven, so we all sat down and worked it out. By the time we started filming the first episode of the final season, we had a pretty good idea where we were gonna go. Then we figured some other things out along the way, as we were filming. So it was a process. It evolved. But I always think it’s better to take your time and go through a lot of ideas – and dismiss a lot of ideas – before figuring out where to land. It’s a good way to care for your audience, too. If you spend hours and hours and days and weeks coming up with the ending, then there’s a chance the fans won’t figure it out on their own.” (Ryan, AV Club)