The Saga of The Shield

If you have never seen The Shield, which ran from 2002 to 2008 on FX, and you have plans to see it at some future point, then I’d highly recommend skipping the rest of this post and not waiting another day.  Fire up your Amazon Prime or Netflix or just plain ol’ DVDs and plunk yourself into the world of the Strike Team, Byz Lats, and vending machine machinations.

Mackey has done worse
with or without the Strike Team:
Shane, Lem, and Ronnie.

“Good cop and bad cop left for the day; I’m a different kind of cop.” – Vic Mackey

And this is a different kind of a cop show.  There are 90 episodes to The Shield, and without commercials, they each run about 45 minutes long.  So that’s 67.5 hours of television.  Seems like binging TV shows has become the new in-thing to do, but binging my wife and I did not do.  I think we started in October last year and tried to see an episode or two a night.  With the holidays and Oscar-nominated movies to watch, our steady Shield viewership took a vacation in December and January, but there was no stopping us this month.  We blew through the final two seasons in February, and boy, were they ever worth it.

I think the most impressive thing about The Shield is how the shocking event in the very first episode reverberates throughout its entire run.  I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a show that did this.  Usually episodic television runs in cycles of seasons — the two shows that The Shield is most compared to, The Sopranos and The Wire, both ran this way, especially The Wire (Avon/Stringer, stevedores, Avon/Stringer, kids, newspaper).  In short, The Shield held its characters terribly accountable, and each paid for it.

The Shield is a highly entertaining series and I have no problems recommending it, but as a whole, I feel it is less than either of those aforementioned shows.  I have two theories why.  One: we know so little about the characters in The Shield outside of the present timeframe.  Even Vic, with whom we see his home life and his extracurricular activities, there’s no real room in the plot-heavy story structure for him to reflect on anything.  Vic is like a machine, bouncing from arrests to kills to betrayals.  This is in stark contrast to Tony Soprano, whom we feel like we know intimately through his sessions with Dr. Melfi and those funky dream sequences.  And two: The Shield only deals with the side of the law.  With The Wire, we spent as much time with Avon Barksdale and Stringer Bell as we did with Jimmy McNulty and Bunk (even if we actually didn’t, it certainly felt like it).  So the world that David Simon and Ed Burns created feels more complete and richer.

Again, this is not really a knock against The Shield, because it never purported to be anything more than what it was.  Just like what we recently witnessed in the Winter Olympics Women’s Figure Skating finale, there are skaters who attempt to gain more points by making more jumps (not a fan of this, but alas, that’s for another day and another post).  The Sopranos and The Wire went for more points and landed them, while The Shield was content at expertly executing its more limited maneuvers.

One thing I’ll never understand is how Walton Goggins, who plays Shane, was never nominated for a Golden Globe or an Emmy for his work on this show.  From season five and onward, he was the shining star of this tragic drama.

Incidentally, there’s a great essay that came out this past Sunday in the Times that talks about whether TV is the new novel.  Worth a read.