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Serve and protect

Man, I was in a frustrated mood yesterday. Sorry about that. Lemme see if I can wean myself off politics for a bit with a contemplative bit on a TV show that strikes some interesting political chords.

Last year, Salon told us in no uncertain terms that The Shield was a right-wing love fest. Yeah, sure, Murdoch media empire, conservative arm of the media — sounded plausible. Still, a little while ago, the first season was released on DVD. The price was low, so I took a chance on it.

You know what? It’s easy to read The Shield as cheerful approval of order-at-any-price tactics, with a blithe wink at police corruption. There are undoubtedly going to be people on the right wing who say “Yeah! Finally Hollywood understands why you need to break the rules!” in an inadvertenant echo of Salon’s article. That’s a pity, but sometimes if you’re creating a smart piece of entertainment you’re going to leave the slackjawed (on either side of the political spectrum, no less) in the dust.

The show reminds me a lot of early Oz, in that the protagonists have very clear political and moral views but neither show is a vehicle for those views. In Oz, Tim McManus’ liberal approach to prison management is just as often a recipe for disaster as it is a wholehearted success. Same goes for Vic Mackey, crooked cop.

And that’s fair. Look, if you throw the weight of an elite strike team behind one faction of drug dealers, you’re going to cut down on other crime. You’ve got a containment strategy there. Denying it would be foolhardy, and The Shield doesn’t even try. What the writers and actors do is show the costs of that strategy. Mackey takes it in the teeth as often as he succeeds, and by the end of the first season he’s paid a pretty heavy price for the things he does. So has the community he’s policing.

Meanwhile, the conflicted Detective Wagenbach succeeds a lot more than Salon gives him credit for. Detective Wyms is a straight-shooter who is clearly the most competent and the most together person in the station. Captain Acevedo is tempted by political success, and compromises his beliefs to get there. And yeah. Sometimes Mackey’s tactics work.

Listening to the commentary (each episode on the DVD has a commentary; how did they get this out for $55 again?), it becomes even clearer that Shawn Ryan and the rest of the creative team isn’t coming at this with an agenda. They wanted to tell some stories about both clean and crooked cops. It’s easy to tell a story about how corruption inevitably leads to dramatic, quick, and complete failure. But what does that prove, other than that we can congratulate ourselves for living in a morally clear world?

I shouldn’t neglect the acting, either. This is some of the best stuff I’ve seen on television — well, since the early seasons of Oz. Michael Chiklis took the role of Mackey partially because he wanted to break the lovable teddy bear image and man, he got his teeth deep into it. Jay Karnes is the other standout, but CCH Pounder and Benito Martinez aren’t far behind.

Solid stuff. Not reassuring in any way, shape, or form. If you want phatic validation, go elsewhere.


  1. From time to time, I’ve tried my hand as a TV critic on these pages, with what I think of

  2. Angie Angie

    Not sure what site I am looking at but oh boy was I pleased to read what you say.I just got the season 1 D.V.Ds of THE SHIELD ..really enjoyed the amazing job of commentaries.Yesterday I did a bit of surfing and was just gob-smacked at what SALON had to say about a favourite show.I have to admit I am a leftie ( in Brit.terms that can even mean a wishy-washy liberal)..but Jeez have the people at SALON been watching the same show?

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