When did it become mainstream to root for the bad guys? Certainly our pop culture has been propagated with colorful villains since Shakespeare, goons we love to hate or even just love. Still, the rule always seemed to be that the white hats always win and the black hats get what’s coming. Television once demanded that shows follow that simple code. When Alfred Hitchcock did his television show, the stories often ended with the bad guys appearing to win. To comply with the code, he developed a habit of offering us a usually humorous sidebar about the unfortunate fate of the stories’ bad guys. It became a trademark that was created to keep to a moral code. But when did all of that change? Was it with The Sopranos? We all became enamored by this lovable teddy bear of a guy in Tony. We don’t have to spoil it by pointing out he’s a killer, adulterer, and all-star criminal sociopath. The Shield places us squarely in that same situation. Vic Mackey has a lot in common with Tony Soprano. He’s guilty of the entire litany just made. But he wasn’t the first dirty cop we rooted for. Dennis Franz created two of the best between Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue. He was as brutal as they come. But even Buntz couldn’t kill a fellow cop in his unit or even worse. So why do we love him so much?
The answer most certainly lies in the compelling writing both of these shows share. Perhaps we’re not so much in love with Tony or Vic, but the stories that are told around them. It just might be that superior drama rivets us to our sets. We root for the bad guy because, to be frank, when they go down, the ride’s over. As with The Sopranos, we don’t want our moments with The Shield to end. Therefore Vic simply has to stay just one step ahead of his just desserts, or the story’s over. It finally did end, but Mill Creek has brought Vic back, and he’s as good as he’s ever been. But now he’s in HD and on Blu-ray. This is the kind of show binge-watching was invented for. I dare you to watch just one.
The history of The Shield is just as interesting. Creator Shawn Ryan shot the pilot under the name Rampart, which happened to coincide with the big police brutality corruption that was unfolding in real life. It was changed to The Barn, which is the nickname of the new precinct in Farmington. The network changed it to The Shield literally days before it aired. But a show about Vic and his boys by any other name would be as sweet.
The series starred Michael Chiklis as Vic Mackey. He heads a precinct strike team that is charged with using some extraordinary measures to hammer the drug trade and gang activity. Vic’s right-hand man is partner Shane Vendrell, played by Walton Goggins. Shane is learning from Vic, and throughout the run you get the sense that Vic finally realized he created a monster. David Rees Snell plays the quiet Ronnie Gardocki, who goes along for the ride but ends up paying a huge price. Finally, Kenny Johnson plays Curtis Lemansky, affectionately known as Lem. He’s the heart of the team. Lem got caught up in this crap, and he’s the only one who feels the pangs of conscience. He appears to be such a gentle guy to be mixed up with this team. But he loves Vic and the others with an intensity that keeps him able to do things that are abhorrent to him.
This world is populated by one of the best ensemble casts you’ll ever find. CCH Pounder plays Claudette Wyms. Here’s a bit of irony. She’s probably the most honest cop on the show, and we end up hating her because she always hits you as if she’s the one person who could bring Vic down. The character goes from detective to captain of The Barn as the series unfolds. Jay Karnes is the show’s secret weapon. He plays Detective Holland Wagenbach and is known as Dutch. He has a profiler mind and sees serial killers everywhere. Sometimes he’s right. If it occurs to you he might think like a psychopath, it’s because he was written to cross that line originally. His last scene was written to show him at his home where dozens of bodies were buried. The idea changed, and Dutch was never revealed to be a killer. He had a sibling kind of affection for Wyms and tried to be protective of her. He also was teased constantly. Vic had no respect for him, so neither did the squad. But let me tell you that Karnes found a way to steal scenes even from Chiklis.
If the show feels like an amped-up version of Hill Street Blues, it is in many ways its proper successor. We likely couldn’t have had Vic if not for Buntz. The show was also greatly guided by the wonderful late Scott Brazil, who worked under Bochco and eventually served at producer level. Here he was the point man in the trenches. He was a mentor to Ryan, and he shaped the show as much as anyone involved. He died around the fifth season of Lou Gehrig’s disease. He was only in his 50’s. The creator tree would continue to grow from The Shield. One of Ryan’s better writers was Kurt Sutter, who went on to create his own milestone series with Sons Of Anarchy, where he also cast his own wife Kate Segal in a prominent role. Hill Street Blues was the gift that keeps on giving.
Vic’s wife was played by Shawn Ryan’s real wife, Cathy Cahlin Ryan. Benito Martinez played David Aceveda, who starts the show as captain of The Barn and ends up getting into politics. He had a seesaw relationship with Vic. He hated Vic and desperately wanted to bring him down for shooting his friend, the cop informant. But there are many times in the series they find themselves having to work together.
Michael Jace plays a rookie cop in the first season and continues throughout as a man conflicted about his morals and sexuality. Unfortunately for Jace, his real life turned bad, and he’s doing time for murder in the real world. Catherine Dent was Jace’s training officer and often his street partner. Her Danni character was always getting caught up in everyone else’s troubles.
There were a couple of excellent recurring roles. Glenn Close spends a season as captain of The Barn, and it ends up destroying her. Like Aceveda, she found herself making deals with the devil in the form of Vic Mackey. The best recurring part of the entire season goes to Forest Whitaker. He plays Internal Affairs officer Jon Kavanaugh. Whitaker goes toe to toe with Vic, and he delivers an exceptional character with wonderfully layered inner conflicts. He’s as compelling as Vic and the only real match for Chiklis the show ever had. His storyline appears to be cut short artificially, and I never felt like that character had any kind of satisfying closure.
All of the acting is above-average here, from the main characters all the way down to the one-episode bit player. It is the work of star Michael Chiklis, however, that puts him head and shoulders above the rest. It is almost unheard of for an actor to portray a tough guy with emotions and a sense of sadness without resorting to clichés, but Chiklis pulls it off flawlessly. He earns his Emmy the hard way, through becoming the gritty character that he is portraying. Not enough can be said about his fine turn in this dramatic series. I was sold from the first episode. When Vic kills an informant on his team, there was a maniacal look that I have never forgotten. That’s the moment I fell in love with this series. It was nice to use an actor like Reed Diamond, who has starred in a few cop shows so that we expected him to be around. At that moment writing, directing (by Homicide and The Wire veteran Clark Johnson), and acting came together to ignite the perfect broadcast storm that was The Shield.
The show was the recipient of a lot of harsh criticism and protests and had a lot of advertisers dropping their support from the show during the early goings due to its mature content. However, the network stuck to its guns and ended up with one of the few – actually one of the very few – bright spots of the 2002 television season. The Shield is one of the best shows to hit and deserves all of the hype and special attention paid to it. It lasted six seasons until 2008, and each episode appeared to break new boundaries. This was truly one of the most unpredictable shows I’ve encountered. Even watching it again on these Blu-rays I was amazed at what I had missed or failed to retain from the broadcast years. Prominent roles for actors like Michael Pena and Hawaii Five-O’s star Alex O’loughlin, who got his first ever recurring role on The Shield as Vic’s intended replacement. It was one hell of a ride that I’d gladly take again, and I can assure you I will with these Blu-rays on my shelf.
Each episode is presented in a new aspect ratio of 1.78:1. It should be mentioned first that this series was shot on 16mm to make the show look gritty and also for smaller cameras to have mobility in shooting scenes. This version is now widescreen. It appears as if there is use of both zooming and alternate cropping to get this version out there. It’s the same kind of treatment HBO recently gave another groundbreaking show The Wire. The image is flawless, but I wish they hadn’t almost totally washed away the grain of the source material. Still, it looks quite good, and there weren’t any obvious tweaks that distracted from my enjoying the show. This is one of those shows where it’s hard to concentrate on the technical aspects, because the show is so consistently captivating.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 is everything you can expect it to be. Surround hit television at just about the time this was made, so don’t look for an aggressive mix. The dialog, source music, and street sounds pretty much all assault you from the front, and that’s OK with me, because this isn’t a hard show to get immersed into.
There are a ton of extras here. Almost every episode has deleted scenes, and there are lots of those. There are season features that come directly from the DVD. Many episodes also come with audio commentary, which gives you an excuse to watch twice.
There are new extras produced for this complete series release, and you’ll find them on two bonus discs.
Cast Auditions: You get to see all of the regulars auditioning for their parts.
Scott Brazil Tribute: (25:46) This is a well-deserved tribute and given more than the usual few minutes. You get to hear from the cast and crew just how loved Brazil was and the impact he had on it all.
2018 Cast Reunion With Shawn Ryan: (55:44) The complete cast of regulars (minus Jace who is incarcerated) sit on comfy chairs and just talk about the show. Some wonderful moments here.
ATX Festival Panel – The Shield’s Writing Room: (1:00:27) Several of the show’s writers gather, led by Kurt Sutter, to recall their work on the show. It looks much like the format you see at Comic-Con.
Beyond The Badge Retrospective: (19:13) Cast and crew talk about the lasting effects of the show, both in our culture and in their own lives.
There are a few who would say that if you took away the cursing, the violence, the brief interludes of nudity, the blood, and acts of amoral and unscrupulous police activity, that you’d just have a “regular” cop show – well, don’t listen to those people. Mackey and his band of merry men, the Strike Team, are relentless bulldogs who willingly use unnecessary force as a means to an end to get the job done and rid the streets of human debris. However, the show masterfully manages to show another side of Mackey as well. We know that while his methods are questionable, his motives are ultimately good. He cares for his family – he cares for the people he’s sworn to protect – but yet, he just seems so damn dirty … and cool as hell. His humanity is at times overshadowed by his brutality, and other than Tony Soprano, Vic Mackey was one of the most interesting and complex characters on television. The Shield contains an intensity that has been a long time coming from the “cop genre”, and the network, as well as the producers, directors, and writers deserve huge kudos for bringing it to the public – unfiltered and unedited as it is. Often imitated since its premiere, it has never been matched. “Ain’t nothing like the real thing, Baby.”