How ‘The Shield’ Helped Pave the Way for Gritty Cable Dramas and Peak TV

     November 14, 2018

the-shield-revisited-pilot-finaleRoughly 10 years ago, one of the greatest cop dramas ever told on the small screen was wrapping up its run of 7 seasons, 88 episodes, and multiple award wins. FX’s The Shield brought the story of Det. Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis) to a close, not with the violence, gunfire, and bloodshed the gritty series had become known for, but with a more realistic finale akin to that of its premium network counterpart, The Sopranos, which put a hard stop to Tony Soprano’s story just a year earlier. Against all odds, The Shield had taken the easygoing and creatively comedic lead actor of The Commish, turned him into a brutally violent and manipulative anti-hero, and let him get away with (almost) all of his sins squeaky clean while everyone in his circle of influence suffered. The finale may have been the end of Vic Mackey’s story and the end of The Shield, but it was just the beginning of Peak TV.

Even all these years later, The Shield is still on par with those dark, mature, and boundary-pushing premium channel series it was created to compete with. FX, a network that had the better part of a decade’s worth of growing pains in the mid to late-90s, aspired to the standards of HBO, Cinemax, Showtime and the like in the early 2000s, elevating its cable channel programming to that of premium-tier packages without the cost to consumers. What they got was a carousel of award-winning shows led by showrunners who became household names and talented cast members who got their big breaks on the small screen. And it all started with The Shield.

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Image via FX

Before we get too deep into Mackey’s demise in 2008, it’s important to know where he started. Originally marketed as Rampart, due to taking its inspiration from the Rampart Division of the Los Angeles Police Department’s corruption scandal in the late 1990s, Shawn Ryan‘s take on the anti-gang task force made its debut on FX as The Shield in early March of 2002. Initially appearing similar to a well-produced episode of Cops thanks to its cinéma vérité, shaky-cam style of filmmaking, the pilot introduced audiences to a rough-and-tumble group of enforcers whose job it was to rid the fictional streets of Los Angeles’ Farmington district of drugs, crime, and gang violence while also going home to be fathers, husbands, and good friends to each other. That’s what you get on the surface: some rough talk among friends and colleagues, even rougher action when it comes to street justice, and some good-natured ribbing of the new guy, Terry Crowley (Reed Diamond). When audiences meet Crowley in the pilot, he’s just been appointed to the squad and acts as the everyman for viewers to relate to.

(Spoiler alert for a 16-year-old pilot.) But the real punch, the thing that separates The Shield from all the other cop dramas before it, happens next: Vic, who leads his own little criminal gang composed of fellow cops Shane Vendrell (Walton Goggins), Curtis Lemansky (Kenny Johnson), and Ronnie Gardocki (David Rees Snell) in order to get their tough jobs done while taking a cut for themselves, opts to fatally shoot the outsider Crowley and frame a suspect for the deed. So the character that viewers could most relate to, an outsider thrown into this hectic world, isn’t going to grow along with the audience; he’s dead on arrival. This is how The Shield starts out; it grabs you by the collar and shakes you out of your broadcast-TV doldrums to let you know you’re not in Law & Order land anymore.

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Image via FX

That bold storytelling approach led to the series becoming a breakout hit. The early success of The Shield snowballed into other dramas like Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk‘s “I can’t believe they did that on TV” series Nip/Tuck and, later, American Horror Story, and Denis Leary‘s PTSD drama Rescue Me. And that was just for FX, a network that would go on to launch successful dark comedy series It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and Archer while also continuing its platform for gritty dramas like Kurt Sutter‘s Sons of Anarchy (which premiered as The Shield was coming to a close and features a fantastic guest role for Goggins) and Graham Yost‘s Justified (also starring Goggins). Other networks took notice, notably AMC, which launched Breaking Bad the year of The Shield‘s final season, and The Walking Dead not long after that. (Sutter and TWD‘s Glen Mazzara found early success in their careers with The Shield, leveraging those experiences into heading up darker dramas down the road.)

But it wasn’t just The Shield‘s ballsy pilot that launched it into TV history and inspired a rise in prestige television; its excellent series finale, regarded as one of the best ever made, also provided a fantastic bookend to a game-changer of a show. (Another spoiler alert for a 10-year-old finale.) Over the 88.5 episodes, including “Wins and Losses” a mini-sode directed by Sutter, Vic’s team paid for his transgressions in various ways: Crowley meets his maker early on, Lemansky is killed by Shane when it appears as if Lem has turned on their team, and the resulting guilt (along with the guilt from their other nefarious deeds) causes Shane to take the lives of his family and himself. Vic, on the other hand, cuts a deal with higher-ups, one that lands Ronnie in handcuffs while Vic himself walks away scot free. Mackey even manages to parlay his deal into a job with ICE. But that’s where his own personal Hell comes into play.

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Image via FX

Mackey, whose own family has been relocated by witness protection to keep them safe (from him, as well), is resigned to a desk job, forced to wear a suit and tie, and forbidden from carrying his firearm for at least three years, or else he loses any privileges of his deal. For a man like Mackey, a man of action and intensity, this is like a sentence in purgatory for him. It’s telling that one of the last shots of the series is Vic reacting to the sounds of police sirens outside and contemplating whether or not to join in the chase once more. It’s also a fitting and infuriating end to not only one of television drama’s greatest anti-heroes, but to one of TV’s greatest stories ever told. The rest is TV history.

The Shield: The Complete Series arrives on Blu-ray for the first time December 11th.

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Image via FX

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