Test Pilot: File #44, The Shield

Test Pilot #44: The Shield

Debut date: March 12, 2002

Series legacy: One of the best cop dramas, and series, of all-time

Hello, everyone. Welcome back to your favorite discussion of television pilots on the internet, Test Pilot. Today we conclude our survey of the contemporary police drama. Hopefully we have done a fine job of exploring this dominant format and the somewhat-recent specific case studies that have attempted to step outside the boundaries of that format. As always, I would like to think my co-writers in this theme for their wonderful and informative insights. And thanks to you for reading.

We finish off this theme with one of the most beloved recent iterations in the genre, FX’s The Shield. The Shawn Ryan-created drama ran for seven seasons, picked up all sorts of critical adoration and went out with one of the more-respected series finales as well. This is the first “cop show” we have talked about that aired on cable, which is certainly worth noting.

Anyway, joining me today is Carrie Raisler. Carrie writes all sorts of great stuff for The A.V. Club’s TV Club, including weekly reviews of The Vampire Diaries and Revenge. You can and should follow her on Twitter. Carrie, take it away:

“Good cop and bad cop left for the day. I’m a different kind of cop.”

Rarely has a pilot entered a more definitive mission statement for the series as a whole than The Shield’s did. Although it rather deftly set up an intriguing and varied ensemble full of both good and bad cops, from the very beginning this was clearly Vic Mackey’s story. And Vic Mackey was different.

The concept of the antihero is old news these days, especially with a popular network series like House ending an eight-year run this season, but not too long ago the idea of a morally compromised main character on a television series was fairly groundbreaking territory. It exploded onto the screen at the end of last century with The Sopranos on HBO, but until The Shield such boundary-pushing content didn’t exist without a premium cable subscription. Not only did it put FX on the map as a destination for quality original programming, but it put basic cable on the map as a place willing to embrace the type of stories network television—with its mandate to reach the widest possible audience—simply couldn’t tell at the time.

Why was Mackey so different? For most of the pilot he was ambiguously shaded as a cop with both good and bad qualities: for every drug runner he roughed up and pocketed evidence from, there was a prostitute he gave money to and encouraged to see her son; for every dealer he casually shook down for cash, there was a little girl he helped save from a dangerous pedophile (by viciously beating said pedophile, yes, but still). Mackey was the brash and cocky head of the elite Strike Team at work and loving husband and father at home, all while casually soliciting what was obviously an off-and-on affair with a fellow female officer at the station. Everything about him was contradictory but yet not outside of the realm of normal television cop behavior, which is why the ending of the pilot—when he boldly kills a fellow officer who was secretly working with his Captain to bring him down—was so revolutionary.

Only one hour into its life as a series, The Shield put forth a cavalcade of evidence its main character was most likely a reprehensible human being, and let the audience decide what to do with that information. Would they accept it? Embrace it? Return for more? For a medium all too famous for spoon-feeding its audience, this was the most different thing of all.

I happen to think the pilot of The Shield is one of the greatest pilot scripts of all time, but I must admit I do have a special connection to the material (and therefore a staggering amount of bias). In 2000, I was a recent college graduate trying to make my way in Los Angeles and working for a literary management company. A staggering number of scripts crossed my desk that required reading, but one day my boss set down a script and told me to read it immediately; it was by one of his writers, Shawn Ryan, and had just been bought by FX to be their first foray into a new realm of scripted television. It was literally like none of the other dreck sitting on my desk, waiting for me to summarize all of the reasons I hated it. It was smart and edgy and jaw-dropping, and although I didn’t understand how the network that only programmed Buffy reruns and action movies was going to make it work, I had high hopes. Now, having seen the entire series, I can only say it was better than I ever dreamed.

What strikes me watching now for the first time in a few years is how great the pilot still is, and how you could put it on television right now and it wouldn’t feel dated one bit. (Well, except for perhaps the use of “Bawitdaba” during the final sequence. My name is Kiiiiiiiddddd!) Before The Shield my only real experience with cop shows was Law & Order, where although they used location shooting in New York to their advantage, to a girl who grew up in Florida it still basically felt like a soundstage because it looked just like what you saw on every other television series or movie shot in New York. What Shawn Ryan and pilot director Clark Johnson did with The Shield was take the action to the Los Angeles streets, using handheld cameras for action sequences and spotlighting the parts of L.A. they don’t advertise on the travel websites. Having just moved to Los Angeles, this felt like a living, breathing showcase of what I saw every day and was real in a way a series like Law & Order, with its rigid structure and predictable procedural feel, never could approximate. The technique is used so frequently now it doesn’t have the heft it once did, but to see a new technique for telling stories be created right in front of my eyes was pretty special.

In addition to the visuals and the Vic Mackey story, the pilot also did a great job of setting up the world and the characters who inhabited it with remarkable shorthand. Pilots often do this awful thing where they have characters speak in expository dialogue even the greatest actor couldn’t make sound natural. Here, every conversation was obviously building character traits and setting up interoffice dynamics, but it did it in a way that felt like an average day in the life of this particular precinct. Vic’s immediate foil is established in politically hungry Captain Aceveda, his bully/victim dynamic was explored with intelligent but insecure Dutch, and his calm truce was hinted at with pragmatist Claudette. But the relationships aren’t only established as reflections of Vic: partners Claudette and Dutch get their own case to solve and dynamic established. This, on top of introducing another set of partners and establishing a bit of their personal lives, is a remarkable thing to do in only one episode. It’s incredible it all worked so well.

Over time, it feels as if some of the fervor for the series has dissipated, with people inevitably moving on to things that are newer and shinier and are available on Blu-ray. This is a shame because almost all of the programming revered on basic cable today might not exist if The Shield wasn’t there to pave the way. Not all great pilots go on to become great series, but the ones that do—in particular, the ones that break new ground along the way—should always be celebrated. Especially ones with a protagonist as different as Vic Mackey.

(Oh, yeah, and Clark Johnson? Sorry you had to yell at me to get out of the shot that one time. I was young and in awe of the fact there were unlimited Krispy Kreme donuts on the craft service table.)


And now, my newbie take on the pilot episode of The Shield:

Because I did not start following television and the industry until around 2006/07, there are dozens of series I missed during their first runs that I wish I could catch up on. Of them all, The Shield haunts me the most. Unsurprisingly, after watching this pilot episode for the first time, my suspicions were correct: I should probably be grabbing that Complete Series set on Amazon.

I appreciate Carrie covering how innovative and quality The Shield and Vic Mackey seemed to television audiences a decade ago and what I found so refreshing about this pilot and its lead character is how current both still felt. The Shield came to us at the beginning of television’s anti-hero era and few more recent examples I have seen work as well as Vic does in this opening episode. Vic is full of contradictions, many of which could work on the page but fail to register in practice if it were not for Michael Chiklis’ multi-layered performance.

As Carrie noted, the series does not ask you to feel something specific for Vic. Instead, we are given a variety of actions and emotions and basically forced to make our own judgments. That approach to character construction is what makes the great anti-hero characters great (after this pilot I would Vic there with Tony Soprano and Walter White, above House and Dexter).

This pilot does what all great pilots do: Introduces, intrigues and leaves you wanting more. Shawn Ryan’s script succeeds at building a world, but is especially adept at developing characters without much exposition or specific positionality. The performances, from top to bottom, are impressive without being too showy. Chiklis gets many of the big moments (as he should), but Jay Karnes, Benito Martinez, CCH Pounder and Walton Goggins bring their characters to life quite quickly with strong performances as well. The visual pallet is gritty without being obnoxiously so (as is/was the case with productions that so clearly tried to ape The Shield). In short, there are really few faults with this opening episode.

Not to pat myself on the back or anything, but I think I made a great choice to have our discussion of The Shield come at the end of this theme. In doing so, it is really clear to me that The Shield, while certainly innovative in many ways, still deeply relates to those projects that came before it. Vic Mackey is not the first corrupt and damaged cop we have seen on television. NYPD Blue’s Sipowicz certainly had his personal problems, as did many of the characters on Hill Street Blues. Mackey is definitely a more extreme representation of those characters, but he still follows in a sequence nonetheless. The tension between “tougher” cops and their lesser counterparts is also not a new development. Even the visual style of The Shield reminded me just a bit of what NYPD Blue put forth in its initial episode.

This last paragraph does not exist to discredit The Shield’s pilot. We are smart enough to know that few things are wholly original, or even original at all. But what makes The Shield pilot so great is that it takes these familiar elements to another level and brings many of them together, creating an appealing formula if you will. This episode does things we have seen before (and after), it just happens to do them better.

Carrie mentioned that The Shield paved the way for so many basic cable series that came after and while I totally agree with that assertion, I have been thinking about how The Shield fits into the “cop show” drama. In many ways, The Shield feels like the culmination of decades of television’s portrayal of police officers and police work. Based on what I saw in this pilot and what I know happens later in the series’ run, it is clear that The Shield takes many of the genre’s conventions to the furthest degree possible – and as I said just a moment ago, makes them better. Once you do the stories that The Shield did and have the characters do the things they did, there is little else worth exploring on that end of the spectrum.

Therefore, The Shield plays more like an (fantastic) outlier to the whole genre rather than one that set the tone for cop shows for years to come. The series is a forefather of quality, complex cable dramas with morally corrupt anti-heroes, but not necessarily a forefather of the contemporary police drama. Vic Mackey shares more in common with Dexter Morgan than he does whoever Chris O’Donnell plays on NCIS: Los Angeles.

Of course, much of this is due to the fact that The Shield aired on FX, one of the best platforms for television programming around. Even if a broadcast network wanted to replicate the successful formula of The Shield and perhaps push the police drama into a new direction, it really could not. As we discussed last go-around, programs like Boomtown, which debuted six months after The Shield, tried and failed, quite miserably. Most of the recent attempts to do something different with the cop drama have met the same fate as Boomtown, while the descendants of CSI: have thrived handsomely.

I do not mean to put forth much of a value judgment with these statements. Yeah, I would prefer to live in a world where series like The Shield are all over the place and there are not three two CSI: series kicking around. But I understand why that is not the case. However, as we close this theme down I am wondering: Is the cop drama a better fit for “broader” networks? I use “broader” so that we can include the slew of police-centric series on networks like TNT, USA Network or A&E, but the point remains the same. Obviously, FX made a go of it with The Shield and HBO brought us The Wire, but both series were so much more than what we expect(ed) from the genre (and this, of course, is why they are so beloved). I cannot imagine either network trying to do another cop-related series without some other substantial hook, and even when AMC tried it with The Killing, well, yikes.

Perhaps we simply prefer our police-centric series to be broad, and even safe. We have expectations for what conventions we will see, and most of the CBS, FOX, ABC, NBC or TNT procedurals give us that. Cable, with its interests elsewhere, might not be the best place for cop dramas to unspool. This is not a question I can answer, but it is something that we should think about.


Conclusions on legacy: Tremendous, innovative at the time and worth all the praise, but not that influential within the genre itself


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