Like the series protagonist Vic Mackey, The Shield is a show that relishes in the complications of the gray area between the good/bad dichotomy. Much has happened since the series ended its run in 2008 in terms of police culture and gang violence. The Shield is probably a show that couldn’t be made today, but for better or worse, it probably remains relevant and thought-provoking.
The Shield first aired in Malaysia when I was in my late teens. As a clueless young kid, I thought that show was awesome. Mostly because of it’s unrestrained grit and edge which is the polar opposite from the glossy polish of the CSI/NCIS procedurals that were popular during those days. At the time, I basically enjoyed The Shield the same way a wannabe-edgy/hipster teenager enjoys non-mainstream music.
This series is about the cops of a fictional Los Angeles district called Farmington, where Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis) heads an anti-gang unit known as the Strike Team. Mackey’s unit does not always operate within the bounds of legality. They threaten and beat up gang-members for information in various imaginative ways. Many of their actions are clearly illegal and violate the civil rights of the suspects. Even though they are violent gang members, they are civilians, nonetheless. The justification is that this method is `effective’, and it needed to be done for the `greater good’. Nevertheless, the show takes on the opposing viewpoint as well, with other characters in the show constantly questioning the Strike team’s effectiveness.
Moral gray areas are the central focus of the series. While this theme has probably been done to death by the recent saturation of superhero movies, it remains a compelling question when we bring it down to the real-life setting of crime and law enforcement. Right from the outset Vic Mackey is not supposed be the good guy. But this is different from, say Game of Thrones where `everyone is complicated’ sort of characterisation. It is also different from Breaking Bad‘s Walter-White’s-slow-descent-into-darkness sort of character.
Instead, one might say that Mackey is a kind of a `reverse Walter White’. He is clearly established with many characteristics of a villain that we aren’t suppose to empathize with. He bullies his co-workers, doesn’t respect his captain, and violates the civil rights of the people he arrests. By the end of the pilot episode, he murders another police officer who was about to expose his corruption. Only as the season progress, we start to see the human side of him. We see how much he loves his family, and how worried he gets when he learns that his son is suffering from autism. Still these qualities does not necessarily redeem Mackey – the murder he committed in the pilot episode is clearly too serious a crime to merit redemption.
Given the actions of Mackey and his Strike team, it’s hard to ignore the parallels to what’s been happening in real life. The Shield ended its run in 2008, though news about police shooting unarmed civilians (usually among minority races) keep appearing. Since I have never lived in the US, I have nothing of value to add aside from what we already know from the news.
What I can observe from here is that even the cops in The Shield aren’t as lethal and violent as the real-life police officers covered in the news. Take, for instance, the incident in North Charleston, Cleveland, or Ferguson. Each time I came across these news reports, I kept thinking that real life has somehow become worse than Vic Mackey. Even a show that doesn’t hold back on depicting pre-meditated murder officer wouldn’t have its cops body-slamming a 12-year-old girl.
The Shield isn’t entirely about brutally aggressive cops. Almost half its screen time is balanced by characters who uses intelligence and actual detective work to solve crime. Dutch Wagenbach and Claudette Wyms (Jay Karnes and CCH Pounder) are probably my favourite on-screen detective duos.I don’t think I have ever seen this partner dynamic anywhere else in TV and film. One is an older, more experienced black woman (she’s been around long enough to call the police captain `son’), while the other is a smart, ambitions detective who’s somewhat dorky and is constantly bullied by Mackey and other `tough’ cops.
Claudette and Dutch are more calm, collected and analytical in their approach to cases. They have excellent chemistry as two partners with mutual respect to one another. Having them on screen provides much needed levity to balance the intensity and grit of the Strike team.
Even though their scenes are usually funny, it’s unfair to label them as the comic relief of the show. I think it’s more accurate to say that they’re the `humanity relief’. After brutal scenes of Mackey and gang members doing horrible things to one another, seeing Dutch giving Claudette a birthday gift temporarily restores our faith in humanity. Their relationship is endearing and fun to watch.
The show also doesn’t forget the police officers in uniform. Here we get another two fascinating duos, Danny Sofer and Julien Lowe (Catherine Dent and Michael Jace). They represent the cops who are involved in day-to-day community policing. They are the ones who spend the most time among the citizens in the community, responding to house calls, domestic emergencies and more mundane cases. But that doesn’t mean their stories are boring. Through Danny and Julien’s eyes, we get to see the lives of ordinary people living in Farmington. We see how their lives are affected by the gangs and crimes around them, and also how ordinary people, many of which are of different races and cultures, interact with one another.
Their dynamic is vastly different from Dutch and Claudette. Here, Danny is the training officer of Julien, who is a religious man struggling to repress his homosexuality. In essence, Julien is a good man trying to do what he believes to be the right thing. This is especially hard in the precinct where the Strike team exists, where their concept of `right’ is thrown out the window. This puts him at odds with Danny, an experienced officer who’s trying to get Julien to assimilate into the highly fraternal police culture of the precinct.
Now, I’m no longer an angsty teenager watching an edgy new show. Re-watching the first season of The Shield in my 30s, especially being aware of so many news reports about the police shootings, almost feels like I’m seeing a brand new show.