Every once in a while you will find a show that will become your obsession. You know what I’m talking about, it’s the show that you can’t stop thinking about. The water cooler shows as they say. Game of Thrones, The Wire, and of course, Breaking Bad are the prime examples. Some are mostly perfect, and some we just try not to talk about. But some shows that are equally as good, sometimes just fly under the radar. TV shows that are just as good if not better than the Breaking Bad’s of the world. One of those shows is called The Shield.
This show is something special. To say that The Shield pushes the envelope is an understatement. The series showed the ugly side of crime and law enforcement. Corruption, murder, racism, political machinations, serial killers, and other dark stuff that you would probably would not like to hear about. This is one of those TV shows that I had to take a break from because it just got too intense. But, the complex and fascinating characters just brought me back for more.
So is the Shield a forgotten brilliant piece of TV or am I just exaggerating? Let’s find out in this episode of Gone But, Not Forgotten.
If you don’t know what The Shield is about let me give you a quick rundown. The Shield follows the daily life of an experimental division of the Los Angeles Police Department. Which takes place in the fictional Farmington district nicknamed “the Farm” of the city of Los Angeles. The district is full of murder, sexual predators, gang violence, drug trafficking, and prostitution. The division works out of a converted church also known as”the Barn”.
The Shield was created by Shawn Ryan who had been working in Hollywood since 1997. Believe it or not, his first job was in this now-forgotten animated show called Life with Louie. Yes, the man responsible for one of the grittiest cop shows that ever aired on TV, started out writing scripts for a kids cartoon. Soon after he got a job writing for Nash Bridges and this is where the Shield was born. After a few years of working on Nash Bridges, Ryan was a bit frustrated. Writing the show had become a bit too formulaic. In every episode, Nash would capture a bad guy and save the day. This became bothersome after doing police ride-alongs and seeing how he couldn’t write stories reflecting on what he was witnessing.
So after he left the show he decided he wanted to write a script that went completely against that. He said he was determined to write his frustration out of his system.
It was during this time that the Rampart Police Scandal was exposed. The scandal centered around massive police corruption in Los Angeles which had a deep impact on the public perception of law enforcement. Shawn had just become a father and he thought about the dangers his little girl would face in the world. He said quote:
“I was spending a lot of time thinking about how I was going to keep this little girl safe in the world, including theoretical thoughts about if something dangerous threatened her, would I be the civil libertarian I considered myself or would I want someone like Vic Mackey, who took shortcuts.” – Entertainment Weekly
This is reflected in the pilot because it revolves around the detectives trying to locate a missing child who was sold to a sexual predator. Once the script was written, Ryan submitted it to a small network called FX. Nowadays everyone knows that FX is a powerhouse of original programming. But in 2001 the network was seen as a bit of a joke. FX had been on the airways since 1994 but most of the programming was reruns and little-known comedy shows. In 2001 the head of FX at the time, Peter Liguori decided to take the network in a new direction. He wanted to shift programming to more adult dramas that could compete with the gritty shows being featured on HBO. So it was the perfect time for Shawn Ryan to submit the pilot for review. When Ligouri read the script he was floored. He said that each page was electrifying and he knew this show would be a game changer. So he called up Ryan and told him that he wanted to make the series. Shawn thought that Ligouri was joking because what he wrote was too edgy for any nonpremium network. But the green light was given and soon casting began.
The most important character that Ryan needed to cast was the main role of the show, Detective Vic Mackey. Mackey was a complex and fascinating character. He was the head of an experimental crime unit called the Strike Team, which used brutal tactics to keep crime down. They used intimidation and physical violence to get their point across. The officers were corrupt would steal and make a side income by having drug dealers pay them a cut of their profits. This was to keep the dealers on a short leash to be used for information against gangs and other bigger criminals. Mackey was psychopathic as he could do truly heinous things and keep it compartmentalized to function as a family man. He justified his actions as serving the greater good. He was a complex character who lived in a grey area in life.
So who could play such a character? Well, Shawn was looking for a Harrison Ford type of actor. Yet the actor who would wind up playing Vic was the complete opposite. Enter Michael Chiklis. Chiklis is an amazing actor who has been working in television and film since 1989. At the time his biggest role was the lead character in the police comedy The Commish. After the Commish ended Michael decided he wanted to reinvent his image. He was frustrated with the roles he was being offered and realized he was in danger of being typecast. So he shaved his head and began to work out to build up his physique. It was almost like fate had a hand on him being cast. It turns out Chiklis and Ryan’s wives were childhood friends. So during a jamboree for his kid, he was introduced to Shawn and the conversation soon turned to Ryan’s script. Funny story, Michael initially thought that Shawn had written a script about a farmer since the original name of The Shield was called The Barn.
But Michael soon got his hands on the script and instantly knew he had to have this part. When he told his agents, they said that they would make the network and offer. But, he insisted he read for it. At the time his agents tried to persuade him to not audition since he had been the lead on a show. But Chiklis insisted, he said that if he didn’t read for the role, they would just see him as the commish. So he soon found himself in a room with another actor waiting to go in to audition for Vic. Michael Chiklis said that as he was sitting there, he thought about how he wouldn’t get the part, about how he would be disregarded, and he pictured them thanking him and saying better luck next time. So he got angry and he decided he would take that anger and scare them. Ryan said that he was pacing and intimidated everyone in the room and they knew he was perfect for the role.
Another factor in the show moving forward, was the success of the now classic crime thriller Training Day which was a huge blockbuster success. So FX moved went ahead with the show.
The Shield was an ensemble cast and Vic Mackey could not survive without his crew, the strike team. A group of detectives that make up an anti-crime unit that was created to fight crime in the area. The group consisted of Detective Shane Vendrell, Detective Curtis “Lem” Lemansky, Detective Ronald Gardock, and Detective Terry Crowley.
As I stated before, the team was constantly crossing the line and committing flat-out crimes when they were dealing with criminals. They were practically a mafia as they were loyal to each other to a disturbing level. In the first episode, Vic kills Crowley when he learns that he is an informant. This was shocked viewers. I remember being dumbfounded when I saw Vic shoot Crowley at the end of the pilot. I did not see that coming. Shawn Ryan said that he only ended the episode with the murder because he thought he wouldn’t get the show picked up. He said if he knew the show would have gone so long, he would have made it a storyline throughout the first season.
Still, that moment was when a casual viewer became a fan. All bets were off, no one was safe and as the show went on this was proven over and over again. This moment was when cracks of the loyalty between the members of the strike tram began. The storylines involving the strike force were full of nail biting tension. As the Strike Force became more bold in their actions, the bigger the stress would grow. We all wondered how long will it be before that blind loyalty cracks. The complex characters and their relationships just kept me coming back for more. But, let’s break down the members of the strike team.
Shane Vendrel was played by Walton Goggins. Shane was a racist scumbag who was a hypocrite. He would say that he was loyal to his team but as the show went on, his true colors showed. He would wind up turning against everyone. The turning point for Shane in the series when he murdered his friend. The conscious and only good soul on the team, Detective Curtis “Lem” Lemansky. Walton Goggins was amazing on this show and I became a huge fan. It was his role on The Shield and later Sons of Anarchy, that I knew I would love everything he was in. He went on to have roles in two Quentin Tarantino films, Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight. Two amazing films. I also loved his starring role in his now-canceled show called The Unicorn. It’s so funny because the network wanted to fire him at the start of season 1. They did not like his look and thought that his character was dead weight. Shawn Ryan knew how amazing of an actor Goggins was, so he and writer Glenn Mazzara rewrote the second and third episode to showcase Waltons acting. It worked and FX made him a series regular.
Lem was probably the only compassionate cop on the strike force. He was played by Kenneth Johnson who had originally auditioned for the murdered Terry Crowley but the producers liked his performance so much they cast him as Lem instead. It was so tragic when his character was murdered by Shane. The scene was so intense that you kept wondering when Shane was going to do it and how. In no world did I ever think that the murder weapon would be a freaking grenade!
Detective Ronald Gardock was played by David Rees Snell. I felt like Gardock kind of got the shaft on the show. He didn’t get as many lines as the other members of the strike team and I felt he needed more plotlines to let Snell shine. Although, his character did evolve on the show. Originally Gardock’s was played as geeky and socially awkward around women. But as the show went on he became more socially confident and had this quiet intensity mystique. He was the smartest character on the team and was careful to cover his tracks of his crimes. He almost seemed to be immune to investigations by internal affairs. Vic and him had a fierce loyalty toward each other. So it was ironic that the person he was most loyal too, would be the one who would throw him to the wolves.
Other characters on the show were Captain David Aceveda played by Benito Martinez. Aceveda was the captain of the barn and a natural politician. He was constantly trying to further his career and was at odds with Vic for much of the series. At first, his mission is to take down Vic and the strike force. But, in a perfect example of the show’s ability to turn things upside down, they wind up teaming up in an uneasy alliance. Aceveda was very ambitious which would lead him to make some questionable choices. He would wind up having one of the most disturbing moments on the show. When he is sexually assaulted by two random criminals. When this happened, I had to take a break from the show because it was too intense for me. But, that moment created one of the most controversial character arcs of the series. It’s funny because when shooting that scene the crew was very angry at the producers because they loved Martinez and were protective of him.
Detective Julian Lowe was played by Michael Jace. Julian was probably the most complex character on the show. He was a devout Christian, whose strong morals put him at odds with many other officers. He wound up being labeled a rat when he reported Vic and the strike team to internal affairs. When he saw them stealing cocaine from a drug bust. One of the most tragic aspects of the character was his struggles dealing with his homosexuality. Because of his religious beliefs, he felt great shame and even tried to get himself killed by not wearing a bullet proof vest to a drug bust. Eventually, he married a woman to “convert himself”. This was Michael Jace’s greatest role and after the show ended he bounced around with small television appearances. Sadly Michael Jace did not have his character’s same morality because in 2014 he was convicted of the murder of his wife.
My favorite character of the series was Detective Holland “Dutch” Wagenbach played by Jay Karnes. I loved Dutch, he was incredibly smart and loyal to his partner Detective Claudette Wyms, played by the amazing CCH Pounder. Wyms and Dutch were the best detectives on the show. They were perfect for each other, since Wyms could pull back Dutch from letting his ego get the best of him. This aspect of the character was the biggest flaw he faced. His egotistical nature made him make sloppy mistakes that caused serious damage to innocent people. For example, he blamed himself when his arrogance may have caused the death of a woman being held by serial killers. Sometimes he even caused people to relapse into crime like when he interrogated an offender, which set him off to commit an assault. He was constantly being pranked by the other officers. This led him to secretly bottle up his rage and it would explode at times making him attack people. Dutch and Vic hated each other, he thought that Vic was low life bully and Vic thought Dutch was an egomaniac who should be taken down a peg. Still, Vic secretly respected Dutch’s skill as a detective. He even thought Dutch was a threat to the strike team since he knew he was smart enough to find out about their crimes.
Another favorite of mine was Claudette Wyms played by CCH Pounder. Like I said her character’s relationship with Dutch was one of my favorite aspects of the show. Unlike Dutch, Wyms never bragged about her ability to get criminals convicted. She was quiet and determined. She was the master at manipulating criminals into incriminating themselves. Pounder was incredible and since the show ended, every performance I see her in just elevates the project she’s involved in.
Every character on The Shield was a multifaceted and fleshed-out role. It seemed like they all had arcs and would evolve throughout the series. Even small parts with little screen time would make a deep impact on the main cast.
There are so many characters on this show that I wish I could talk about. But, we would be here for 3 hours if I tried to go over them. As I stated the storylines on The Shield were amazing. You just couldn’t trust anything. Characters who hated each other would work together, others who were friends would betray one other, and some who were seen as a joke would become serious threats.
Like I said The Shield did not shy away from showing how ugly and horrible crime could be. It wasn’t just the serial killers and sexual predators that were examples of how horrible crime was in the district. One of the perfect examples was an episode that was about a street vendor who was shot by a tween named Olaman. Olman wanted to join a gang and as an initiation was sent to kill the vendor. During the interrogation, he confessed to Wym that he shot the vendor and that when he goes to jail, he is going to be with his real family. Another aspect of the show was police corruption and brutality. Some police officers were practically criminals always looking out for themselves. Sometimes they crossed the line to serve justice or what they thought was justice. One of the perfect examples was internal affairs detective Jon Kavanaugh played by award-winning actor Forest Whitaker. Kavanaugh was put on the case of exposing Vic and the strike team’s corruption but as the season went on he became obsessed with taking down Vic and his teammates. He became almost like Inspector Javert chasing Jean Valjean. Eventually, he crossed the line and began to use illegal tactics like planting evidence and intimidating witnesses to commit perjury.
This is exactly the dilemma that Ryan said he found himself in. Shawn Ryan said that he intended to portray Vic as a social experiment. How far could Vic go until the audience turned on him? So every season he showed Vic crossing the line to get his way. He stole and schemed for his own ends. Shawn Ryan said that he was shocked to learn that the audience never did
He said: “No matter what we had Vic do, viewers loved him and saw him as a white knight, it was crazy”.
The Shield was also having a real-life effect on the show as the crew were told that if they were to ever get pulled over by a cop in LA to not have any DVDs or other proof that could reveal that they worked on the show. The LAPD was very angry at what was being exposed on TV and they made their feelings known.
It makes sense since the show was ahead of its time. It dared to display how easy corruption can take hold of anyone even with the best of intensions. How some police officers can be just as bad as the criminals they put away. It was showing people that the world is not as black and white as they thought it was.
But, by the seventh season, the ratings were down and everyone wanted to move on. So everything came to ahead and Vic is finally exposed as a criminal. Yet he still got away with it as he struck a deal with the D.A. The finale is considered one of the best endings in TV history. I won’t spoil it for you but I will say that Shawn said he studied the finales of other TV shows and wrote what worked and ignored what didn’t.
So should the show come back?. At one point there was talk about doing a spin-off with Dutch but the network passed. I think the best explanation on the Shield ever coming back was stated In an article for Entertainment Weekly on February 22, 2022. FX chairman John Landgraf said
“I don’t think you could portray the level of violence perpetrated against people of color primarily by a white set of police officers. It’d just be too triggering and traumatizing. Because it was made when it was made, if somebody chooses to watch it now, I think it holds up really, really well. But do I think you could be making episodes of The Shield and putting them out original on television today? No, I don’t think you can. In fact, the whole cop genre is in a bit of a crisis right now, because we just have a deeper knowledge of the complexities and racial inequities of the criminal justice system.”
I agree, let’s just leave it as it is, an amazing show that pushed the envelope and was ahead of its time.
If you have never seen the show and you’re curious or if you just want to revisit it, you can see The Shield on Hulu. Well at least at the time of me writing this episode anyway. I highly suggest you watch The Shield. It still holds. So I hope you enjoy it, just remember that if you ever cross paths with a Vic Mackey…RUN.