THE SHIELD created by Shawn Ryan, with Michael Chiklis, Walton Goggins and CCH Pounder. Airs Tuesdays at 10 pm on CH. Rating: NNNN
Is there a more textured and layered piece of shit on television than Detective Shane Vendrell?
Sure, there's plenty of competition. Al Swearengen and the cocksucking cowboys on Deadwood. The remorseless serial killer Dexter. Even House, with his bedside manner of a scurrilous embalmer, earns a vote or two.
But Vendrell (Walton Goggins), all frontal lobes and front teeth and the vicious demeanor of a dog that's been kicked in the mouth, goes to the head of the pack as the biggest dick on a show full of alpha male assholes.
Used to be that TV cops, especially old-school rogue TV cops like Hunter and TJ Hooker, were admirable anti-heroes drawn from the same ammo box as Dirty Harry. They may have broken a few rules along with a few skulls, but it was always in the name of justice. And it was all pretty clean. Bullet wounds were always in the shoulder and the bad guys never got away.
NYPD Blue's Andy Sipowicz changed all that. He was an ugly man doing an ugly job who went home to an ugly life. An alcoholic, racist homophobe with anger issues, he was hardly likeable, but he was at least somewhat honourable. The job came first, so we forgave him his failings.
The Shield, set in the middle of ongoing L.A. gang wars, pushes things even further. And Vendrell, a crooked cop who blew up his partner with a hand grenade to keep him from ratting him out, represents a new high-water mark in semi-heroic lowlifes.
But while Goggins's Vendrell is a serious scumbag, albeit one racked with ulcer-inducing guilt, his heart is hardly the show's blackest.
That dishonour would go to Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis), Vendrell's superior, the most cindered soul in a show full of damaged good guys.
When The Shield debuted five years ago, with Chiklis's gleaming bullet of a head front and centre, it seemed like just another cop drama. Gritty, yes, but nothing special.
Hadn't we seen shaky cinema vérité camera angles on Homicide: Life On The Street? Police brutality was nothing new to anyone who watched the Rodney King video. And wasn't Mackey just a pitbull the LAPD lets off the chain when there's dirty work to be done, as in countless other cop shows and movies? Hell, Mackey wasn't even the first bald cop on prime time. (At least he wasn't sucking a lollipop and wondering who loved him.)
But nothing about The Shield has gone by the book. Not only do these bad boys beat up the bad guys, they rob them, cut deals with them and kill them. Hell, they even kill each other when necessary.
And like a Mr. Hyde to Chiklis's own amiable top cop on the 90s police drama The Commish, Mackey could easily vie for TV's top POS. He's got a name like a truck, and he barrels through crack houses and gang hideouts with singular, machine-like purpose. There's a near nobility in his crusade to eliminate the dope dealers and gang-bangers.
As viewers, we accept his ends-justify-the-means approach, just as we do Jack Bauer's torturing of terrorist suspects for info on 24. Who cares if Mackey sends a hood to the hospital as long as he's off the streets? Of course, it's a queasy attitude to cheer for when real-life civil liberties are being stripped away in the name of "homeland security."
While Mackey is no Eliot Ness, neither is he some Rumsfeldian zealot dedicated to enforcing the law as he sees fit. He's just a cop, and he's as corrupt as Vendrell, if a bit less of a loose cannon. He's got an ex-wife and a couple of kids, including one with autism, so if he pockets a little drug money to make ends meet, so be it. He's earned it by taking out society's trash.
As the leader of the police strike team, he's like Tony Soprano with a badge, the bruising overlord of his particular circle of hell. He holds his high-minded superiors at bay while keeping the local pushers on a leash, making deals to protect some in exchange for inside dope on others. It's a Faustian balancing act that costs Mackey a little piece of his humanity every day. Like the late, lamented HBO mob boss, Mackey is paying a heavy price.
And all the while the wolves are circling: police-captain-turned-politician Aceveda (Benito Martinez), as well as subsequent captains (played by Glenn Close and CCH Pounder respectively); off-kilter homicide detective Dutch Wagenbach (Jay Karnes), who's only a step from the dark side himself; Internal Affairs bloodhound Kavanaugh (Forest Whitaker), who tried to frame Mackey in order to bring him down.
Now Mackey has another worry. He suspects Vendrell of murdering his partner (never mind that Mackey killed a suspicious cop in season one) . As the two top dicks square off, yet another game of cat-and-mouse is added to an already gripping TV trap.