There are some television series that become a yardstick for others in the genre. And for me, any U.S police series has to live up to the legacy of The Shield. Beginning in 2002, and running for 7 series until 2008 on the FX channel, it not only won a number of awards, but ties together several of the showrunners, writers and directors who continue to shape modern television.
The Shield is based in the fictional Farmington district of Los Angeles, and follows an experimental four-man anti-gang task force called the Strike Team. The real-life inspiration for the series was the LAPD Rampart Division Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums (CRASH) unit, and the name Rampart was even used in early promotional material. And as with the real LA cops, the fictional team merge law enforcement and law breaking.
From the very first episode, you’re not sure whether you should like or loathe the Strike Team for their actions. Often it’s a mixture of both emotions, but as an ensemble series, you don’t have to decide. By focusing on the department, rather than just the four core characters, you can find yourself rooting for Detective Wyms and Wagenbach investigating their own cases alongside the Strike Team, embroiled in the stories of Sergeant Danielle ‘Danny’ Sofer and partner Julien Lowe, or the political machinations of Captain David Aceveda as he attempts to craft a political career from his police posting.
Each of those characters has their own full-formed personality, with their own selection of differing virtues and vices. But none more than the leader of the Strike Team, Vic Mackey, played by Michael Chiklis in a role which was made for him. He has no problem with using questionable tactics to apprehend criminals and deliver the justice he feels is deserved, but he’s both clever and lucky enough to elude attempts made to investigate Mackey and his team.
He’s not handsome by Hollywood standards, but is confident and good looking enough that his numerous affairs are believable. And yet his devotion to his children, including two with autism, is beyond question. And that same loyalty is both delivered and expected of his team, Detectives Shane Vendrell (Walton Goggins), Curtis Lemansky (Kenneth Johnson) and Robbie Gardocki (David Rees Snell).
While Lemansky is often the conscience of the team, as the series progress it’s Vendrell who struggles most to live with the repercussions of his attempts to emulate Vic. Meanwhile Captain Aceveda constantly switches between attempts to uncover wrongdoing by the Strike Team and being forced into uneasy alliances. Detective Wagenbach builds a reputation as not only a clean cop, but one who can deliver results based on his intelligence and insight, despite being seen as a pompous, socially inept nerd, and Julien Lowe is constantly torn between his religious beliefs and carnal desire.
When notable film actors including Glenn Close and Forrest Whitaker appear in recurring roles, their star status doesn’t raise them above the regular series actors due to the depth of characterisation.
And that comes from the production crew behind the series. Showrunner Shawn Ryan served as writer/producer on the Joss Whedon series Angel before The Shield, and hasn’t quite managed to match it since, but did marry Cathy Cahlin Ryan who played Corrine Mackey. In fact, his later Fox series Lie To Me partly failed in my mind because most of the cast were under-utilised.
Meanwhile a certain Kurt Sutter was a producer, writer and director on The Shield, and appeared as notable hitman Margos Dezerian before going on to create Sons of Anarchy. Meanwhile Glen Mazzara spent two years on The Walking Dead following his four year stint on The Shield. Directors included Frank Darabont (Shawshank Redemption, The Walking Dead), David Mamet, Clark Johnson and more.
Even many of the criminals in the series were given greater motivation and balance than is usually the case. But at the same time, those guilty of the worst crimes were often given punishments which could make viewers uneasily question their own morals at best, and hide behind the sofa cushions at their worst. Season 2 saw brutal drug lord Armadillo provide the overarching criminal target, followed by vicious hitman Margos Dezerian in season 3 and Antwon Mitchel in season 4.
And that’s before the regular crimes, issues with Byz-Lats, One-Niners and other street gangs, and ongoing problems with a variety of Armenians.
Only soap operas last forever, and The Shield finished in 2008 at the conclusion of Series 7. Not only did it end as strongly as it began, but it provided a mixture of success and failure across the cast. Some story arcs could be seen as ending more happily than others, but ultimately all of them contain a mixture of joy, tragedy, betrayal and intrigue.
That’s probably why the series continues to live on with fans, and picked up a range of plaudits and awards (including Emmys, Golden Globes and more). It takes realistic human characters with whom we can identify if not agree, and puts them into situations which we’re fortunate not to face. And the consequences for some of the members of the Farmington unit may stay with you long after the final episode.
The Shield is available at: