“Pilot” (season one, episode one; originally aired 3/12/2002)
Of all the great cop dramas, The Shield is the one that sticks in your gut. This is a show you feel. Your foot taps, your back shudders, your face winces. First it blinds you with the credits before you can get your bearings. Our guy Vic Mackey introduces himself by ripping duct tape off a drug dealer’s balls. After the title sequence we’ve got some naked corpse’s foot in our face, her blood smeared on the grimy linoleum, her rack ironically alert. The stink of sweat and gunk and grease wafts out from under a dealer’s car. Pliers leave a mark. There’s sleaze and piss and dog shit, and that’s just at the police station. You only get more nauseous as the episode goes on. Cops play-act pedophilia, and they sell it. You’ve never been more relieved than when they rescue a little girl from a cold concrete dungeon, but you can’t forget what she’s been through already. The southern California sky is one big interrogation lamp. It’s a show about sweat and stains and the grain of super 16. The camera fidgets so much you’re on edge, and the thriller has barely begun. The Shield is relentless.
There were earthy police dramas before The Shield, but nothing quite this visceral. Where The Job gets too slick for anything to stick, The Shield rolls around in the muck. Where NYPD Blue gets depressed, The Shield gets pumped. Where Hill Street Blues gets dangerous, The Shield cocks its head to the side like Michael Myers and smirks. M Squad has some of The Shield’s muscle, and Dragnet some of its spine. Both sides are essential. The pulp powerhouse isn’t just about pushing buttons.
The brotherhood of cop shows is a tight bunch. The Shield’s creator Shawn Ryan learned the ins and outs of teleplays on Nash Bridges. Ryan’s co-executive producer Scott Brazil directed several episodes of Nash Bridges and cut his teeth on Hill Street Blues, which he also produced. Before The Shield, Michael Chiklis was best known for anchoring The Commish, a good-natured cop drama created by Stephen J. Cannell, whose first full-time job was on Adam-12, a high-and-tight police show created by Jack Webb of Dragnet fame. The Shield’s première is directed by Clark Johnson, who starred in and directed multiple episodes of Homicide: Life On The Street. The Shield comes from good stock, and it honors convention. There’s Hill Street Blues’ tiered ensemble and lack of easy answers, Homicide’s location-heavy world-building, NYPD Blue’s antihero spotlight. Vic Mackey is Sipowicz taken to one logical conclusion.
It’s a rush the first time that title card pushes its way on-screen. In between the blinds of the credits, Captain David Aceveda positively oozes in a press conference promoting his reduction of violent crime in the so-called war zone of Farmington District over the past six months. Patrol officer Danny Sofer and Julien Lowe roam the streets, but they don’t hold our attention. That’s not a throwaway. Vic Mackey and the Strike Team, on the other hand, rush out of a car and chase a dealer down the streets. Johnson shoots from down the block, in profile, up in the dealer’s face, whatever works to piece together a thrill. When they finally corner the guy, Vic pulls his shorts and boxers down, yanks the baggie taped to his scrotum, pockets the drugs, and marches him past his neighbors with his drawers still around his ankles. Back at the barn, Aceveda smiles at the press and asks, “Any questions?” Such swagger. That’s the show. Everyone’s profiting off Vic Mackey’s brutality, including the bystanders, including the viewer. Are you not entertained?
In the other corner are detectives Dutch Wagenbach and Claudette Wyms. Sure, they’ll admire your tits when you’re dead, but they’re not monsters. Dutch is a textbook guy, tossing out “unsubs” like he’s federal and playing off of criminal profiles. Claudette comes off as more experienced. She speaks plainly and believes in police fraternity. Their murder victim turns out to have had an 8-year-old who’s missing, so they pick up the father, get him to break, and follow the leads like detectives.
The exposition is clunkier than you’d expect from such a seasoned crew. As soon as everyone gets to the barn in the beginning, the lightest of pretenses reveals Dutch is divorced, Claudette’s doubly so, Julien’s Christian, Vic’s married but sometimes sleeps with Danny. We get all the background information except for who stole Dutch’s Ding Dongs. When Aceveda makes a deal with Strike Team rookie Terry Crowley to investigate Vic’s crimes, he tells Terry he’s just in this to get a bad cop off the streets. Terry says, “You wanna be mayor someday, you better learn to lie a hell of a lot better than that.” It reads like pulp, but it plays like the posturing it is. The signposts are so bold they distract you from the real target.
If you’re reading this to see if you might be interested in The Shield, now’s a good time to hit Hulu, because I can’t go further without spoiling the end of the première. By the end of the hour, The Shield feels set up. This is a show about Terry and Aceveda trying to take down the Strike Team. Wrong. In the final montage, as Kid Rock’s “Bawitdaba” thumps inside your skull, Vic and Shane kill a drug dealer rival to their boy Rondell Robinson in self-defense, and then Vic shoots Terry with the dealer’s gun. Terry has flashbacks to his, what, three scenes, the color slowly draining. And then we look up at Vic as he shakes his head “no” and “Executive Producer Shawn Ryan” comes up and suddenly it’s a whole new ballgame.
Earlier Aceveda tries to suss out what Claudette thinks of Vic, but she says she doesn’t judge other cops. He shoots back, “Mackey’s not a cop. He’s Al Capone with a badge.” Which leads Claudette to drop some enlightenment on him:
“Al Capone made money by giving people what they wanted. What people want these days is to make it to their cars without getting mugged. Come home from work, see their stereo’s still there. Hear about some murder in the barrio, finding out the next day the police caught the guy. If having all those things means some cop roughs up some nigger or some spic in the ghetto, well, as far as most people are concerned, it’s don’t ask, don’t tell. How you figure on changing that?”
Sacrificing democratic ideals for security isn’t just the central concern of The Shield—it’s one of the most potent themes of the decade during which it was produced. No wonder stars and stripes flank Vic when he defends his interrogation methods to Dutch. Shawn Ryan doesn’t let anyone off easy. By the end Vic has shot a good po-lice in the face, with Shane in cahoots. Aceveda sicks Vic on a pedophile suspect when he has two other options at his disposal that are legal but not airtight. The creep keeps looking in the monitor and demanding an attorney, but nobody complies. The most damning part is when Aceveda cuts the feed right as Vic swings a phonebook across the guy’s mug. It’s not even plausible deniability. Aceveda knows what’s going on. He just doesn’t want to face his own actions. And Dutch and Claudette could stop him, but they settle for scolding looks. Because this whole plot is about pedophilia, and because the interrogation scenes really run their fingers through that slime, and because an 8-year-old’s life might be in danger, which is what the memo-writers might call a “ticking time bomb,” it’s hard not to root for Vic. It’s hard not to want Vic to beat the girl’s whereabouts out of him. It’s hard not to accept tossing out his rights. It’s hard not to be complicit. And there’s another angle to that, too: Vic Mackey is damn exciting television.
- Starting next week, I’ll review two episodes at a time unless that would bridge seasons. I won’t spoil anything in the main reviews, and from now on, I won’t warn about those spoilers, either. I may get into elements of spoilers in the stray observations, but those sections will be clearly marked. Ahem.
- Spoilers: Aceveda’s justice department buddy Moses Hernandez makes an extravagant deal with Terry, and Terry says, “No offense, I’d like it in writing today.” Remind anyone of another outlandish deal with feds that needs a fast turnaround, perhaps at the opposite end of The Shield?
- I’m with Dutch. Ding Dongs > Twinkies. But Ho Hos > both.
- Page Kennedy is hilarious as Danny and Julien’s arrest. He complains about not being able to afford $200 bail, so Julien calmly asks him about his jewelry. The flash of fear across his face is priceless.
- Nice to see Vic offering free child-rearing tips to everyone, but they're not nearly the complicating factor that his efficacy is. Vic would be charismatic enough to tempt identification even without being a family man.
- Say it with me: “Good cop and bad cop left for the day. I’m a different kind of cop.”
- “So you’ll nail some other guy’s little girl, but not my Cassidy?” At least that part’s funny. Dutch’s role-play just makes me queasy.
- Dutch accidentally reveals how closely he pays attention to Danny: “What are you doing here? Your shift was over this morning… as I… right?”