'The Shield,' offering no buffer from brutality

Washington Post
January 14, 2003
By Tom Shales

"The Shield" is one of television's most troubling successes. Its premiere on the little-known Fox-owned FX network last March drew enough viewers to make it, according to TV Guide, "the most-watched series debut in basic cable history." Its star, Michael Chiklis, won an Emmy in September for playing the show's nominal hero, Vic Mackey.

But Mackey is perhaps the most antiheroic hero ever at the center of a weekly drama -- a crooked, bullying and bigoted cop who is running his own drug operation within the Los Angeles Police Department. Mackey has a team of three flunkies at his belligerent beck and call.

Virtually every episode -- certainly including the second of the new season, tonight at 10 on FX -- includes raw, coarse language, rougher even than that heard on ABC's "NYPD Blue," and scenes of extremely gory, graphic violence. During the opening credits of last week's season premiere, gang members murdered a police informant by putting a gasoline-soaked tire around his neck and lighting it. The screams of agony were chilling, as were shots of the body being consumed by flames.

On tonight's show, a cocaine addict vomits blood copiously and, later in the show, the reckless Mackey mercilessly brutalizes a suspected gang leader -- first by beating him so furiously that Mackey himself gets splattered in blood, then by forcing the man's face down, repeatedly, on a scalding hot plate.

Sickening violence isn't just implied or suggested; it's wallowed in.

Some major sponsors have declined to advertise on the series because of its incendiary and offensive content. But the TV Academy conferred a certain respectability on "The Shield" when it gave Chiklis the Emmy, and the show has received bouquets and bonbons from some TV critics. Certainly tonight's episode is gripping and gritty, well shot and well acted, and qualifies as high-impact television.

Subplots -- one about a woman who thinks her Syrian-born neighbor is a terrorist cooking up bombs, and another about a meter maid murdered while writing a parking ticket -- add rich detail. Catherine Dent and Michael Jace make a great cop team dealing with day-to-day civil trauma.

But the focus of the series is Mackey and his corruption, and there are very worrisome aspects to the approach taken by the writers, producers and directors.

Among them:

Viewers are likely to find themselves rooting for the "bad guy," Mackey, who for all his contemptible traits often seems sympathetic. His wife has left him and taken their children with her, and he is in anguish without them, attempting to search for them while conducting his various nefarious operations. Chiklis is skillful enough to show a trace of pathos behind the vindictiveness.

The good and honest cops, meanwhile, often come off as prudes, stuffed shirts or spoilsports. CCH Pounder plays a cop who is diligent and tough, but Mackey's slick effectiveness, which includes beating confessions out of suspects, makes humane tactics seem naive or even quaint. Another "good" cop in the precinct, played by Jay Karnes, comes across as a WASPy dork.

A "civilian auditor" has been assigned to the precinct this season. Mackey sees her as a fusty nuisance, and the filmmakers seem to see her that way, too. The police captain, who opposed Mackey's tactics last season, has come to a kind of practical reconciliation this season because the captain hopes to be mayor within six years and doesn't want any scandals disrupting the department.

The producers use violent set pieces as if they were production numbers in a musical; the audience now expects them to be there and is bound to be disappointed if they're not, no matter how grisly they are. "Shield" could be said to bring out the worst impulses in viewers.

Mackey isn't the only "bad guy" who comes off looking good. The object of his wrath tonight is a strikingly handsome gang leader and drug dealer played by Emilio Rivera. This is a man who's cool and commanding -- a figure likely to seem attractive to the young male audience targeted by the series.

At the same time, the show seems certain to elicit protests from various ethnic groups. The majority of Mexican characters seen on the series this season are involved in the drug trade and/or gang warfare. They all have beaucoup tattoos and carry weapons and otherwise fulfill a negative stereotype.

The show's dirty words and explicit gore can be partially defended on the grounds that it airs at 10 p.m., when children should not be watching. But if "Shield" runs long enough, the episodes will go into syndication, and then there's no telling at what hours they will air.

"NYPD Blue" airs weekday afternoons on a basic cable channel. And "Seinfeld," with its adult jokes about masturbation, ménages à trois, birth control devices and homosexuality, airs in Washington and many other markets daily during the 7 p.m. hour preceding prime time, when many children have access to, or control, the TV set.

Precedent also suggests that the next producer who wants to introduce an attention-getting urban drama series will probably have to make it more violent and more profane than "The Shield." This is a bar that keeps getting raised.

"The Shield" represents a new link between X-rated pay-cable fare like "The Sopranos," "Oz" and "Queer as Folk" and the programs on broadcast TV that push the envelope in terms of language and violence yet stop short of crossing the line that HBO crosses all the time. It isn't being alarmist to foresee the day when there will no longer be much discernible difference between these two forms of television -- even though HBO and Showtime have to be invited into the home and paid for through subscriptions and regular TV comes into practically every house in America, as a virtual public utility.

Although parental-guidance ratings of programs, instituted in the 1990s, have been somewhat effective, the "V-chip" parental controls on newer TV sets that allow the blocking of certain shows have been a thorough and ridiculous failure. No one is using them.

In TV Guide, Chiklis jokes about his series and its nasty ways: "Our show has a new catchphrase -- ' "The Shield": It's just wrong.' " Maybe that isn't such a joke. There is much to commend about the program in terms of the artistry expended by those in front of and behind the cameras. But this is a case where the better the show is, the worse its impact may be.