The Shield, or how greatness is rarely recognized in its own time

The Shield, or how greatness is rarely recognized in its own time

After thinking more generally about underappreciated cultural artifacts, I was reminded of this piece I wrote for the now-defunct Rebeller on one of my all-time favorite shows. As that site no longer exists, I'm reposting it here.

Underappreciation is a curious cultural phenomenon. 1970s power-pop music, for example, surely remains underappreciated. Underappreciated, because this was a sound that by its very nature should have appealed to the widest possible audience—loud guitars, earworm melodies, tight harmonies, lyrics about girls, etc. This was not difficult music.  Songs like “September Gurls,” “Shake Some Action,” “Go All the Way,” et alia should have been blaring from half the open car windows in America.

Indeed, this is what distinguishes an underappreciated artistic entity from a cult one. The latter is—however popular it may eventually become—a niche taste by design (think Rocky Horror Picture Show). But underappreciation, by contrast, refers to creations that failed to achieve popular and/or critical acclaim commensurate with their intrinsic appeal. They were, in other words, underappreciated for no particularly good reason.

Which brings me to The Shield—a show that was the viewing-equivalent version of blasting a song from the speakers of a convertible blazing down a busy highway. While on cocaine.

As esteemed scholar of cinema Zodiac Motherfucker has repeatedly proclaimed: The Shield owns. But why does it own, and why does it remain underappreciated?

Taking its cue from the same infamous LAPD Rampart scandal that also inspired the ridiculous Training Day, The Shield centers on the fictional Farmington Barn—an experimental police division based out of a converted church in a high-crime district of Los Angeles—and in particular on its controversial Strike Team, led by Detective Vic Mackey.

As we learn quite early on, Mackey (played to perfection by a never-better Michael Chiklis) is corrupt, venal, and literally a murderer. He is also resourceful, courageous, at times brilliant, and—like many brutal men—capable of great sentimentality. The show’s narrative revolves around the rest of the Barn’s conflicted relationship with Mackey—needing his police skills (and willingness to do what others won’t to get results), while despising his actions. This dynamic cleverly mirrors the viewer’s own relationship to the show. The dramatic nerve of The Shield is its enormous tension between genre logic—which impels our empathy for this antihero—and moral logic—which demands justice for the crimes we witness onscreen.[1]

While men behaving badly have flourished during this so-called Golden Age of Television, The Shield has never quite earned the profile of some of its peers, not to say imitators. Granted, underappreciated is not unappreciated. Its greatness did not go wholly unnoticed in its time. Glenn Close signed on for a season’s worth of episodes, and she kills every scene she’s in. So did Academy award-winner Forest Whittaker. David Mamet guest-directed an episode. Moreover, it got to run for seven full seasons on a major cable network, thanks to a steady but not world-beating viewership.

But even by that standard, it remains unappreciated. The series finale got about 1.84 million viewers; by way of comparison, this was about a quarter of that for FX’s other flagship show, Sons of Anarchy, and one tenth of the viewership for Game of Thrones’ finale. And if we’re going by the best-of lists that now comprise approximately 70% of online journalism, or if we’re just going by quantity of words expended, The Shield surely remains underrated (a fact that is anecdotally confirmed by how few of my normally television-binging peers have seen it all the way through).

Indeed, its very virtues have contributed to its underappreciation. Alfred Hitchcock held that plot was the soul of cinema. Yet of all the elements of film, it tends to receive the least attention (possibly because it least lends itself to the kinds of masturbatory think pieces to which critics incline).[2]

And plotting was surely The Shield’s greatest virtue. The Shield seems to have patented a plot device that Breaking Bad would later employ to great profit and acclaim: write your protagonist into impossible situations and then see if you can find a way to write him out again. This provides the action for many individual episodes, but it also serves as a nested configuration for the series as a whole. Each one of Mackey’s miraculous escapes only further constricts the cruel machinery of the larger narrative structure. The claustrophobic effect on the viewer is simultaneously exhilarating and excruciating.

Its first two seasons admittedly tend toward the episodic. But from the moment the Strike Team robs the Armenian mob at the close of the second season, it sets in motion an interconnected series of events across another five seasons, culminating in the series finale. Just an extraordinary and unrivaled achievement in sustained narrative momentum.

And the kicker is this: no dramatic series from the supposed golden era of prestige television sticks the landing like The Shield did. Most of them flubbed it (Deadwood never even had a chance). It is the only non-comedic series of which I am aware to bring its narrative to a conclusion that is both dramatically and morally satisfying. Fans and critics have rightly lauded Breaking Bad’s “Ozymandias,” but for Aristotelian pity and terror, I know of few cinematic examples this century that can rival the climax of The Shield.

But The Shield was always more than a perpetual motion machine. The very real pleasures of its tight plotting concealed thematic depths. Just as The Wire was (as David Simon never tired of pointing out) really a Dickensian treatment of urban blight rather than a police procedural, so was The Shield a kind of Western. Its core theme is not so much the tired cop-criminal duality but how civilization relies upon barbarism for its own protection against barbarism. Thus, its widescreen focus takes in not just the Strike Team, but the other officers and higher-ups in the Barn, as well as citizens, shop owners, politicians, drug lords, and other members of the wider community, to examine the ways they either resist or accept Mackey’s corrupting influence.

And even beyond this, The Shield offers a surfeit of riches. You want compelling treatments of modern masculinity that acknowledges its potential for both honor and dishonor? A showcase of feminine toughness and grace under fire for its major female characters? Intersections of race, religion, and local politics? A marvelous depiction of America’s and especially Los Angeles’ polyglot character, giving screen space to ethnic Latinos, Armenians, Koreans, Russians, Thais, etc., while generally avoiding condescension or didacticism?[3] It’s all there.

Yet The Shield never quite seems to get its due. Seemingly half the world treated Game of Thrones like Shakespeare, despite it being, in Ian McShane’s immortal words, “only tits and dragons.” Reams of navel-gazing prose were produced on the supposed cultural and historical significance of Mad Men, and that was a show with entire episodes featuring nothing but people sitting in office chairs looking sad.

A typically riveting episode of Mad Men

Those who have seen The Shield are nodding their heads right now. As for everyone else, you’re still in luck. Say what you will about the times we live in—their bottomless stupidity and banality. But they have one unimpeachable advantage: you can find almost anything that’s been digitized. No need to trawl for used version through dusty second-hand stores or find that one friend who can make hard copies for you. You can stream it all instantly.

Unlike seemingly every one of my acquaintances, you really have no excuse.

[1] One could argue that The Sopranos got there first, but in fact its plotting is strangely inert. Relatively little happens from season to season, and when it does, it’s usually a slow burn. Tucked inside its pitiless drama is a low-key comedy about mafia families that don’t particularly want to go to war, and a federal investigative agency that isn’t in any hurry to build a case against them.

[2] It must also be admitted that, unlike, e.g., The Sopranos or The Wire, which had near-perfect inaugural seasons, The Shield’s first season is good but not great (before you start whining, don’t forget that Seinfeld and The Simpsons didn’t come into their own until around Season 3).

[3] Incidentally, The Shield is one of remarkably few works of popular entertainment to focus heavily upon American Hispanics as a cultural and political demographic group, particularly since their official ascent to largest minority group status