Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Shield

On May 23, The Beloved Spouse and I celebrated the tenth anniversary of our first date. Went to Famous Dave’s and sat as close to our original booth as we could; ordered the same meals. (We eat pretty much the same thing every time we go there, so it’s not as nauseatingly romantic as it sounds.) We then went home and kept each other up until quarter to three Saturday morning.

Binge watching the last ten episodes of The Shield.

People have been after me to watch The Shield well before it went off the air in 2008. You know me: I had other things to do, and the other commercial TV shows that had been recommended around that time hadn’t panned out. Still, The Shield persistently worked its way to the top the Netflix queue, visible every time I went in there. When All is Lost included our interest a couple of months ago and we were experimenting with a trial subscription to Amazon Prime, our Saturday evening became free and we figured what the hell.

We were hooked after the first episode.

I had for years considered The Wire to be the zenith of television, even better than The Sopranos. (Deadwood is such an outlier in so many ways it’s impossible to make apples-to-apples comparisons.) Now I’m not so sure. The Shield takes advantage of a somewhat smaller cast contained in a smaller container to show character relationships evolve and fold back over each other. The plotting is tighter and the timing is perfect. Every season Vic Mackey and the Strike Team evade ever more serious problems. Then, just about the time one wonders how many times creator Shawn Ryan can make this believable, he wrapped it up with what I believe is the finest closing episode I’ve seen, true to the tone established over seven years, and containing the quality all good endings have: initial surprise, followed by a sense of inevitability. David Chase should have seen the end of The Shield before he copped out with his ending of The Sopranos.

The writing is spot on. Each episode has a minor plot or two that unfolds under the overarching story of the season. Some resolve in a week, some take longer, and some seem to be resolved, only to appear several weeks (or even seasons) later. The Shield is a perfect example of the kind of fiction I love, storytelling in a “keep up or catch up” style that rewards the engaged viewer. What seemed to me at first to be a plot hole late in Season Five was exploited as a key clue early in Season Six. Pay attention folks; we’re going to ask questions later.

The acting is uniformly excellent. The only actor I’d heard of before this was star Michael Chiklis, whom I’d seen in a couple of network series I hadn’t cared for. I can’t say what his range is, but he was perfectly cast as Vic Mackey. Walton Goggins—better known today as Boyd Crowder on Justified—plays Shane Vendrell, Vic’s primary sidekick who’s not as smart or brave as Vic, but is willing to be just as ruthless, and has a tendency to project what he would do onto others, a dangerous combination in a character and a tricky performance to pull off, which Goggins does to perfection. I could go on like this for a while, but suffice to say all the actors are well cast and excellent, from series regulars to one-week, two-minute appearances.

What makes The Shield work best is its guerilla style of filming. Few sets were built, and quite a few scenes are filmed without getting clearances. When it appears Vic is taking his life in his hands chasing someone across a busy street, that may well not be controlled traffic Chikilis—and the cameraman—are running through. Shot exclusively with hands-helds and Stedicams—Ryan in one special feature seems proud of the fact the show never owned a camera dolly—the documentary feel is accentuated by the actors often having no precise marks to hit; the cameras keep up as well as they can, sometimes shifting to a speaker after he or she has begun the line. It keeps things edgy and forces the audience to remain in the moment. How can we know what to expect next when our eye into that world isn’t even sure?

This may have affected TBS and I more than some because we were able to watch the entire series without commercial or season interruptions; I bought the complete boxed set in the middle of Season Two, when I knew Netflix wouldn’t be able to keep up with us. We’re still wound up, so much so we re-watched the final episodes of Seasons Five and Seven Monday night. I’m sure I’ll have more to say about The Shield as time goes on. Suffice to say if you share my perspective on this kind of story and its telling—if you’re reading this, you probably do—The Shield is not to be missed.

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