Top 10 TV Shows: #7 The Shield

Victor Samuel Mackey is a tough cop. He’s responsible for a vast array of drug busts and no one understands the world of California gang culture quite like him. Everyone on the street knows him and more importantly knows not to cross him. He’s done quite a bit of good in his career.

Victor Samuel Mackey is a father of three and later four. Two of his children are autistic. His oldest is going through the regular trials of adolescence and his wife does all she can to be a good mother while her husband is earning paychecks for the Farmington Police Department.

Victor Samuel Mackey is a loyal and dedicated friend who leads his Strike Team into some of the worst spots imaginable. The Strike Team bond is unthinkably secure and the four men are effectively family. They bust down doors, bust down gangs, and obliterate drug dealers.

Oh, then there’s this. Victor Samuel Mackey may well be the most despicable, deplorable, reprehensible lead character in the history of television. His world and his reality set the stage for one of the more prominent and impressionable series of all-time. This is number seven.

NUMBER SEVEN: THE SHIELD (2002-2008)

First, it’s without question the single hardest show I’ve ever had to watch. The Shield is disgusting. Its criminals are unquantifiable and horrific. The showcased crimes are often cringe-inducing at best. In its seven mind-blowing seasons, the level of salacious content is unparalleled. FX allowed things on its air that no premium channel has ever even attempted. Dexter is about a serial killer and it doesn’t even come close to matching The Shield. Nothing does. Nothing ever will.

The detectives questioned well over a hundred people through the show’s run, and in this brief quote from one of them, the description matches The Shield as a whole to utter perfection.

Six weeks at trial, two more in the jury room, I was the only one who graduated high school. It was a little slice of hell. (3-14)

Showrunner Shawn Ryan created a show about police work and about the lives of those who choose to take on that responsibility. He sets his story in Farmington, a district of Los Angeles. It’s an ugly place, both aesthetically and under the surface. He and Kurt Sutter, who went on to create Sons of Anarchy, put together a world television thought it had seen before but quickly realized it hadn’t. Plenty of times while watching The Shield, it’s impossible not to question the sanity of both men, because the minds responsible for these stories are both inspiring and utterly frightening.

The crux of the program is Vic Mackey and his Strike Team, but expands out to truly encapsulate every officer that works at “The Barn,” the affectionate name for the renovated and beaten down church that serves as the show’s main setting. The Strike Team is loosely based on the late-90s Los Angeles Rampart C.R.A.S.H division police scandal that left over 70 officers implicated, arrested, or convicted of widespread misconduct and criminal activity.

Race wars, riots, masturbation, child pornography, explicit cockfighting, drug rings, corrupt officials, gay bashing, dozens of gangs, egregious sexism, a serial rapist and murderer, horrific city politics, accusations of torture sex, a crackhead prostitute, teens executing police officers, and an officer viciously taking the life of his own partner…and that’s just Season 1.

On second thought, Shawn Ryan, Kurt Sutter, and their entire team may well be sick bastards. I only say that because I know they see it as a compliment and in many respects, that’s my intent.

We police a largely minority district. They are universally poor – most of them don’t speak the language. They look one direction and see financial skyscrapers. They look in the other direction – they see the Hollywood sign. In between is the LA they know. Gangs. Drugs. Fear. (Captain Monica Rawley, 4-3)

The Shield wouldn’t have made this list if it were solely concerned with criminals and police officers. That’s not what the show is about, though it paces itself with those conceits. It isn’t that the material wouldn’t be interesting. It’s simply that television has successfully trod that road so many times through the years. The Shield, in a final evaluation, comes down to one word.

Desperation.

It’s about the desperation of one man to have it all at any cost. It’s about the desperation of one detective to do her job and find a way to succeed despite corruption and circumstance. It’s about the desperation of her partner to close cases, improve his status, and later, to find purpose in humanity. It’s about the desperation of parents to see a child succeed and mature despite their own mistakes. It’s about the desperation of criminals, of gang members to belong and prosper, of drug addicts for their next score or their first taste of hope, and of the many machinations of murderers, thieves, and malcontents. It’s about the desperation of anyone to try to find a path of light through the darkness.

It’s about desperation to fix, to ruin, to save, to kill, to prosper, to destroy, and ultimately to survive.

Vic Mackey crossed a line, but it happened long before we ever meet him in the pilot. He finds himself in a position of authority combined with instinctual street smarts and he makes the decision to cheat his profession, his family, and his morality. At the end of the pilot, the viewer learns who Vic Mackey truly is and what they’re in for, and in the single best series finale we’ll ever see, the glorious payoff is almost…well…criminal.

There’s a moment in the final episode of the first season where Mackey is chasing a young suspect. The boy jumps a wooden fence and moments later Vic crashes through it and takes the young man down. In that brief scene, Shawn Ryan’s entire show makes sense. It’s a visually illuminating few seconds that illustrates in perfect clarity that there are no walls Vic Mackey won’t knock down, no lines he will not cross, and no rule he will ever feel obliged to follow. He makes every decision and in no way will he hesitate to do even the most heinous of things for personal or professional gain. One of his few true friends, Ronnie Gardocki (David Rees Snell), also a member of the Strike Team, has this exchange with Vic as the comfort zone crumbles in the final season:

Ronnie: We all had choices once and we made them and now we got to live with them.

Vic: Ronnie, we’re going to get out of this quicksand.

Ronnie: No we’re not. Jesus Vic everything we do to get out of this sh** just drags us down deeper. (7-3)

One common theme throughout this list is the casting choices on all these programs. The Shield is certainly no exception. Michael Chiklis won an Emmy and a Golden Globe for his portrayal of Vic Mackey in the first season and was nominated in other years. His performance can’t be embellished. He was flawless and devastating and fully-realized a character that will remain indelibly imprinted in the annals of television. He was great in The Commish. He was otherworldly on The Shield. The program wouldn’t have had any chance of existing without him.

The man most responsible and integral to the success of FX television may well be Walton Goggins. The Birmingham native with the southern drawl played Shane Vendrell on The Shield, a character almost as important as Mackey himself, and now plays one of the more fascinating characters of the past decade in Boyd Crowder on Justified. Vendrell is almost as corrupt and at times much more dislikable than Mackey, but the character is astonishing in its depth and in the nature of his self-preservation. Benito Martinez, Jay Karnes, CCH Pounder, Kenneth Johnson, David Rees Snell, Catherine Dent, Michael Jace, Paula Garces, and many more repeatedly distinguish themselves and if I had unlimited space, I would glorify them all day long.

Jay Karnes found his way to Sons of Anarchy after seven seasons as Detective Holland “Dutch” Wagenbach, a somewhat awkward, geeky and arrogant but talented and good-hearted sleuth. The vast majority of his role was in making the episodic, week-to-week criminal investigations interesting and entertaining. He succeeded every single time. Clark Gregg played a serial rapist who confessed to the crimes after arrest for the solitary reason that he wanted to know why he felt compelled to commit such terrible acts.

Dutch: You’re compelled to.

Faulks: By what?

Dutch: Organized sociopaths tend…

Faulks: Is that who you think you were chasing this whole time? A type? Some answer on an exam? Who would you be chasing right now if you hadn’t stumbled over my parking tickets?

Dutch: But I did find your parking tickets.

Faulks: What happens if the next guy reads the street signs? (3-11)

As it progressed, The Shield attracted some major names. This was before the era when heavy superstars would leave film to do long roles on television and The Shield helped lead the way to that occurrence becoming commonplace. Glenn Close was nominated for an Emmy for her role as Monica Rawley as she played a key role throughout the fourth season. She would stick with FX and win an Emmy as Patty Hewes on Damages. Forest Whitaker played John Kavanaugh, an Internal Affairs agent obsessed with taking down Vic Mackey, in the fifth season. I hate John Kavanaugh with a passion. Forest Whitaker played the so well that he became a bigger villain than any criminal or Vic himself. It’s one of the great single season performances you’ll find. Those are just the two most prominent examples. The show prides itself on nice cameos and executes them with precision and care.

Through the process of Vic’s career, he loses every friend he’s ever had, loses his wife, his children, his pension, his last shred of decency, and of course his reputation and achievement. He’s not alone in his corruption or his desire for power at the expense of ethics, but he’s the poster-child for it. Shane Vendrell at times feels even worse and even more manipulative, but in the end, the Strike Team as a whole is responsible for every dastardly deed they engage in and earn the consequences that come their way.

It’s dangerous to write too much more because the story itself fleshes out in such a grand fashion that it’s easy to spoil the best moments and I absolutely don’t want that. The show is at its best in its biggest and most dramatic moments. So let me just speak a bit on the widely acclaimed series 90 minute finale. You’ll find almost no critic with a negative word to say about the end of Vic Mackey’s story. There’s a reason for it. With all due respect to Six Feet Under, it’s the greatest finish to a serial drama of all-time. It doesn’t wrap things up neatly in a bow. It’s an imperfect world. The show is imperfect. It’s shot with unsettling zooms and rapid pans. It’s grainy and grimy and sometimes hard to decipher everything on screen in low light situations. The crimes and the criminals and the bodily fluids and the outright worst of humanity are all far from perfect. In the finale, fittingly, some characters see their end, some see a new beginning, but everyone has a purpose. Nothing is thrown away. Not one second of the episode feels wasted. Ryan also makes sure his final episode doesn’t feel like an alien being. Too many finales stray from what made those shows work and feel like separate entities. The finale of The Shield feels exactly like The Shield, but closes the book while leaving its audience to ponder the implications.

The Shield shows life and human beings at their lowest moment. Criminals caught in the act, prostitutes sobbing as they get robbed or run out of junk, officers uncovering dead children, protagonists and antagonists losing everything in their lives, and all in a setting without vivid colors or anything that could reasonably be described as “pretty” in any way. It’s a damn nasty world to watch, but it’s a trip worth taking.

It’s hard to understate the show’s importance to FX. Without it, it’s possible we never would have seen The Americans, Justified, and I’m almost positive we’d never have gotten the emotional rollercoaster that is Sons of Anarchy. Kurt Sutter’s career began as a staff writer for Shawn Ryan in 2002. He would end up an executive producer, one of the show’s lead contributors, and in no way could Sons exist without The Shield. From the outstanding musical montages to certain actors to camera choices, both shows are drastically similar on many occasions. Sons also continually takes incredible risks in storytelling and content and Sutter is a master of pushing the envelope, but he learned from the best. Because of the brilliance of the finale, I have faith that Sutter has something similar planned for the end of SAMCRO this fall. Again, the end of Mackey’s television tale is THAT good.

One other quick aside, it’s very possible Walter White never would have happened without Vic Mackey. The two share a lot in common…well, outside of White’s pre-meth life. In the final few years, there are moments where the pair are indistinguishable. Spoiler alert: More on W.W. in a few/several weeks.

The Shield was criticized early in its run for being over-the-top. I remember watching the first few episodes and bailing because I truly believed it was a show that wanted to earn the acclaim of the Jerry Springer audience. When I went back to the show and worked my way through it, I still had that feeling. But there’s a moment in Season 3 that was so sensationalistic and eye-popping that seemed to end those thoughts. It’s the single most absurd moment I’ve ever witnessed on the small screen and I can’t imagine anything ever topping it. It’s a scene involving David Aceveda (Benito Martinez), a gun, a sexual act, and an impossible choice. For better or worse, it’s unforgettable. After it happened, I suddenly “got” what Shawn Ryan wanted me to see in his project.

For the viewer to watch The Shield, the viewer has to live The Shield. That means going so far with content and doing it so often that The Shield becomes more than a television show. Vic Mackey is a bad guy. He outfoxes terrible people and is concerned at times with his family and his friends but never more than himself. He believes otherwise but his actions make the existence of that concept a myth. All the atrocious things that take place through the seven seasons of Shawn Ryan’s baby had to be there to let us in on just how bad Farmington, California’s underworld can be and to explain and depict the kinds of people that inhabit it. Sadly, we all feel we live there. It feels that nightmarishly real.

In one of the show’s final scenes, Vic Mackey walks through a nearly silent version of the Barn, with all eyes on him. When he first enters, he walks past a window with a stained glass cross inside it. It’s the first and only time I remember seeing it. Ryan and his guys subtly used everything at their disposal to put the viewer in the necessary mindset. Very few words, actually none, are spoken in the final few minutes. It’s almost as if Shawn is telling us, “enough said.”

It’s a little slice of hell. It’s also undeniably and eternally resonant and captivating television. Ryan has done great work since (RIP Terriers), but he’ll always be known as the guy behind that cop show on FX that changed the game. It’s been 12 years since The Shield premiered, but it feels like yesterday. It’s number seven…and may God have mercy on all our souls.

10. Chuck

9. Battlestar Gallactica

8. The West Wing

Written by Jason Martin