The year 2002 was a fantastic time to introduce a cable cop show that defied the formulaic standards of most network genre offerings. HBO was trotting out its first season of The Wire, and at the same time the FX cable network treated audiences to The Shield, another new show that threw light on the labyrinthine complexities and dark back-channels of modern police work. The Shield would sometimes feature the cop-show format’s procedural aspects, but it would also revolve its ensemble cast around a divisive and hard-headed detective named Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis), a cop who runs a gang-crime strike team in a crime-ridden section of Los Angeles. Mackey is an intense and effective officer with an impeccable arrest record and a penchant for stopping street crime—at least the crimes he’s not sponsoring and taking a cut of for himself. Just as The Wire did earlier this year, The Shield has ended its run without ever undergoing a noticeable downturn in quality. And like The Wire, it’s never gotten the widespread recognition that it deserves.
With fantastic ensemble acting and episodes packed tight with story and sordid human behavior, The Shield can’t be written off as simply a cop show or an action drama. Its metaphors about power and its corrupting influence may be obvious, but Mackey’s machinations echo the current failure of foreign policy and the decline of American empire. Mackey’s protégé, Shane Vendrell (Walton Goggins), is a soldier set loose without even the sliver of conscience that Mackey himself possesses. Former police captain and current rabid politico David Aceveda (Benito Martinez) cares deeply about appearances when the cameras are live, but concerns himself more with fostering absolute control over his environment, allowing Mackey to run roughshod. The good cops (CCH Pounder as Detective Claudette Wyms and Jay Karnes as Detective Dutch Wagenbach) suspect Mackey’s corruption but are marginalized for the sake of expediency. They’re only allowed to do their jobs when they don’t interfere with the bigger picture. Innocents suffer and the bad guys frequently win. Innocents and bad guys are often mutable and indecipherable identities. The Shield consistently creates imagery that can make a viewer squirm with discomfort and scenarios that twist conventional notions of ethics into Gordian knots.
New viewers would be advised to start at the beginning, because one thing The Shield has done well is building upon itself. The inciting incident of the show—Mackey’s murder of an undercover federal agent embedded in his strike team—continues to hold weight, but new viewers might be baffled by frequent references to vital plot points like “the money train” and “the blackmail box.” The final episodes have referred back to a variety of characters and situations from seasons past as a bleak endgame looms for a good portion of the characters. Learning from the maddening cut-to-black ending on the final episode of The Sopranos, series creator Shawn Ryan promised resolution for his show, and so many characters are at odds with so many others at this point that sheer mayhem was the only discernible option.
As despicable as Mackey can be, he’s been a compelling lead, so good at raising The Scheme to an art form that he functions as the show’s protagonist and antagonist all at once. That means viewers must constantly question their loyalties. Many fans of the show unapologetically wanted to see Mackey get away with it and pull off one final con. Others would undoubtedly prefer to see him gunned down like Bonnie and Clyde. No matter how Mackey falls, one thing is certain: Collateral damage will abound.
Even though The Shield has never had blockbuster ratings, its depth of plot and character, as well as its novelistic approach to its storylines, should allow it a long and distinguished shelf life. It’s earned every eyeball it can capture, and while many of us are disappointed to see it go, it’s even more gratifying that it never lost its momentum.