In which I explain why The Shield is awesome
(Part one of a seven-part series, to be updated as I finish each season)
Unlike a lot of TV shows, The Shield has the decency to grab you by the balls at the earliest opportunity. Rather than pussyfooting around and teasing its audience with hints of the rampant corruption in Vic Mackey’s Strike Team, the series embraces its amorality from the very beginning. A story element that any other series would drag out over a season — the introduction of a mole into the team — is resolved at the end of the first episode in the most direct, logical and ruthless manner possible. It’s not a tidy resolution, and the ramifications echo throughout the rest of the season (and, presumably, the rest of the series), but it’s nothing if not attention-grabbing.
But the beauty of The Shield isn’t just that the series is adept at catching you off guard. That’s certainly a part of it, and the show’s willingness to take its characters to interesting places is admirable, but what makes The Shield awesome is the way it plays with its audience. The hero of the series is a cop killer. He’s a bad dude who skims drugs off of busts, allows criminals to go free if he thinks he can control them, and isn’t above putting a bullet in the head of someone who hasn’t done much of anything to deserve it. Yes, he’s doing it all out of a skewed sense of morality — he doubtless believes that he’s serving the greater good when he helps a crack-addled prostitute get away with murder — but the audience is meant to know better. We have examples of good cops, both in other, more formulaic police procedurals (ie: pretty much all of them), and in characters like Dutch, who may be a little glory-seeking but at least has his head on his shoulders when it comes to knowing that putting a knife to the throat of a pawn shop owner to try to track down the stolen drugs your buddy lost is not how these things are done when you’re a detective.
The brilliant thing about the show is that the audience realizes this, and we just don’t care. Vic’s a cop killer and Aceveda wants to put him away, but Aceveda’s only chasing him because it’ll help his political career, and besides, Vic only killed that cop so that he could keep the streets clean without having to worry about things like rights and procedure and due process. That stuff just slows you down. What else could he do?
To reiterate — The Shield is not a show that plays around with questionable morality. Dexter does that, since its titular serial killer only kills bad people. The Shield is amoral. There are three ways the show gets us to identify with Vic. First, it understands the importance that Vic never doubts his own sense of right and wrong. The way he carries himself, the way the other cops identify with him, his indignation and revulsion when others violate his internal code — it distinguishes him from a sociopath, because, at least he believes in something. So he’s a little misguided; it’s not like he’s just winging it, right?
Second, he has the illusion of selflessness. Aceveda is bad because he has goals beyond putting bad guys in jail. Dutch is weak because he’s clearly a glory-hound. Even Terry Crowley wasn’t trying to take down the Strike Team just because Mackey was breaking the law — he wanted a cushy job if he was going to take that kind of risk. Vic isn’t trying to better his position; he’s trying to put away “murdering scum,” or he’s just trying to stay afloat, or he’s looking out for his kids.
Third, and most importantly, they cast Michael Chiklis. The man can turn from terrifying to teddy bear in half a second. He’s basically impossible to dislike. You’re either gaping at his bad-assery or hissing whenever anyone tries to stop him.
All this was a longwinded way of saying that what I loved about the first season of The Shield was how different my emotional and intellectual reactions were to the last episode. From a traditional moral narrative, the season has a happy ending. Bad stuff has happened to a bad person, while good stuff has happened to his (mostly) good rival. But it doesn’t feel anything like a happy ending. Vic has lost his family, while Aceveda has got his political career back on track. I know that in any kind of just world, that’s a win. But with The Shield, you’re not getting a just world. You’re getting Vic Mackey’s world.
And it’s a pretty badass world.