The Shield is a raw, unflinching and compulsively watchable TV police drama - even though it's amazing that a cop show in the day and age of CSI (with all its attendant incarnations) and the myriad Law & Order spin-offs can feel this fresh and fearless. Fueled by an award-winning, powerhouse Michael Chiklis performance as wayward street cop Vic Mackey and backed by a tremendous ensemble cast as his fellow officers, Strike Team members and street contacts, some of the finest writing on television (cable or otherwise) and a roster of directors with a keen eye for rough-and-tumble urban storytelling, The Shield has only bettered with each successive season.
Season two closed out with the Strike Team having (barely) successfully jacked the Armenian mob for a mountain of cash, Captain David Aceveda (Benito Martinez) winning a seat on the city council and the Strike Team dodging death at the hands of a Latino gang lord; as the third season gets underway, the fellas are sweating a U.S. Treasury investigation, simmering tensions within the Team; Shane (Walton Goggins) and his new, problematic girlfriend Mara (Michele Hicks) as well as twisty machinations amongst the higher-ups. There's enough here to power a dozen primetime dramas with plenty left over.
The third season also sees celebrity helmer David Mamet take a crack at the Farmington crew; star Chiklis helms an episode as well. The fourth season, the first episode of which, "The Cure," is set to premiere March 15 on FX (home to the equally stunning Nip/Tuck and Rescue Me) attracted film, TV and theater veteran Glenn Close to take the role of Vic's new superior, Captain Monica Rawling – it's just one more reason making it even harder for the critics to continue to dismiss this intense Shawn Ryan creation.
Not that there are necessarily that many critics of this utterly involving drama left; season three took even greater risks – emboldened by the faith of its fans, the creators were able to even top the oh-my-God-did-they-just-do-that shock of the closing minutes of the pilot episode. The luxury of developing plot lines, character motivations and repercussions from seemingly insignificant actions over the course of 13 (or, in season three's case, 15) hours each season makes watching (and especially re-watching) The Shield a rich experience; it easily ranks among the best that cable television-based drama has to offer. For instance, the introduction of the Decoy Team in season three allowed for an even higher stakes office environment for Vic and the Strike Team – if it were a lesser show, the Decoy Team would've stuck around for a couple episodes during sweeps week and been subsequently written out. The Shield is able to take these new characters and seamlessly integrate them, allowing story arcs to pivot on their actions, which unlike Vic's, aren't necessarily motivated by their best interests.
Perhaps the biggest misconception about this show is that it's all about foul language and fouler situations when, in fact, the police procedural and psychological aspects, along with the cloak-and-dagger politics, get just as much, if not more play in most every episode. The escalating chess match between Detective Claudette Wyms (CCH Pounder) and Captain Aceveda during season three is a thing of beauty; the skill with which the conflict is drawn out and heightened over the course of the season never feels forced – just another in a litany of testaments to the skill and insight of the series' scribes.
However, make no mistake – this is rough stuff. Some of the plotlines, characters and situations will most definitely turn off squeamish viewers and might even give hardier souls pause; it's no secret that the first few episodes of season one cost FX some advertisers who simply couldn't handle this unvarnished look at police officers who are willing to break the rules in order to keep the peace. There are moments (I'll point out which episodes contain the biggest jaw-droppers below) during re-watching the third season for this review that I was stunned all over again – kudos to the entire creative team that The Shield can pack a punch no matter how many times you've seen a particular episode.
The third season of The Shield is spread across four discs by Fox and packaged in a cardboard slipcase housing four slimline cases (seems that's de rigueur for Fox TV sets these days) – breaking from the previous two seasons' fold-out boxes.
(Mild spoiler warning throughout!)
Playing Tight, dir. Clark Johnson
Season three opens with a bang – literally. A case of military-grade rifles goes missing, battling gangs are suspected and Vic has to muster up a temporary cease-fire to keep the streets from turning into a war zone. Oh, and some Armenian mobsters' feet go missing – which attracts unwanted attention to the money train robbery.
Blood and Water, dir. Clark Johnson
Things go from bad to worse for Vic and the Strike Team as a scheduled gun buy to reclaim the missing artillery goes sideways and with some of the Team's ill-gotten money train moolah in the mix. Detectives Dutch Wagenbach (Jay Karnes) and Wyms work a shooting that brings Vic some hope and an opportunity to do a little gangland power restructuring.
Bottom Bitch, dir. Scott Brazil
A harrowing episode and one that hints at shades of things to come – Wyms and Vic disagree about the usefulness of a particularly vengeful prostitute while Dutch uncovers a truly sickening string of elderly rapes in Farmington. (Features commentary from Scott Brazil, Michael Chiklis, Adam E. Fierro and Michael Jace.)
Streaks and Tips, dir. Scott Brazil
This is definitely a season three episode that goes all the way to 11 – the whole hour, fueled by the Team's competition with the newly arrived Decoy Team, builds to a gripping, utterly realistic and ultimately tragic brawl between Strike Team members Tavon (Brian White) and Shane that will have you on the edge of your seat.
Mum, dir. Nick Gomez
Another nailbiter of an episode with a truly shocking twist: Captain Aceveda finds himself trapped in a house with some suspects in the money train robbery and ends up at their mercy - easily one of the most gut-wrenching hours of TV in 2004. An out and out white-knuckle ride as Vic and company race to find him before the unspeakable occurs. (Features commentary from Walton Goggins, Michele Hicks, Benito Martinez, Shawn Ryan and Kurt Sutter.)
Posse Up, dir. Felix Acala
An officer at the Barn is held for questioning in the brutal murders of his family as Vic and Julien (Michael Jace) go "off the books" and do a little detective work of their own to try and clear their brother in blue.
Safe, dir. Peter Horton
The Strike Team is again forced to tighten security concerning their money train stash as Aceveda gets closer and closer. Dutch also focuses his investigation of the serial rapist of the elderly.
Cracking Ice, dir. Guy Ferland
As the Decoy and Strike Teams go undercover, a serious miscalculation by Wyms leaves two members of the Decoy Team stranded in a dangerous situation and a cop tries to leverage his way back into a full-time job. (Features commentary from Charles H. Eglee, Guy Ferland, Matt Gerald, CCH Pounder and Gareth Williams.)
Slipknot, dir. Michael Chiklis
Racial violence threatens to boil over onto the streets of Farmington as Vic attempts to get his Strike Team back into the thick of things and a pair of murders is investigated. (Features commentary from Michael Chiklis, Walton Goggins, Kenneth Johnson and David Snell.)
What Power Is..., dir. Dean White
Dutch catches a break in his serial rapist case with help from Wyms as Aceveda uses the Strike Team to flex some political muscle to his advantage in solving a crime. Clark Gregg and Rebecca Pidgeon guest star. (Features commentary from Benito Martinez, Michael Jace, Jay Karnes and Dean White.)
Strays, dir. David Mamet
A routine bust reveals a money laundering ring for the Strike Team to take down; Wyms concerns herself with Julien's performance on the street and Dutch finally comes face-to-face with the serial rapist. Clark Gregg and Mrs. David Mamet, Rebecca Pidgeon, guest star. (Features commentary from Catherine Dent, Jay Karnes, Glen Mazzara and Shawn Ryan.)
Riceburner, dir. Scott Brazil
A brilliantly conceived look at the insular nature of ethnic communities, Aceveda charges Vic with serving a high risk warrant in the Korean section of Farmington – the Strike Team meets with some unexpected hostility, which in turn, provokes some frustrated reactions from the police.
Fire In The Hole, dir. Guy Ferland
The noose tightens for the Strike Team as the Treasury closes in on a suspect in the money train robbery; Wyms, attempting to smooth things over with the Decoy Team, goes out on assignment with them. (Features commentary from Catherine Dent, Nicki Micheaux, CCH Pounder and Cathy Cahlin Ryan.)
All In, dir. Stephen Kay
Aceveda becomes increasingly suspicious of the Strike Team's involvement in the money train robbery as an Armenian hit man hunts the Strike Team. Dutch and Wyms tackle a case that could have massive legal repercussions, which forces Wyms to examine her morals. (Features commentary from Michael Chiklis, Kenneth Johnson, Jay Karnes, CCH Pounder and Scott Rosenbaum.)
On Tilt, dir. Scott Brazil
The season ends with Vic locked into a cat-and-mouse game with the Armenian mob, who are determined to rub out the Strike Team. Julien and Danny (Catherine Dent) help a comic book store owner (Outkast's Andre 3000) deal with prostitution while Wyms defies Aceveda's orders when handling a potentially explosive case that could free hundreds of convicted felons.
With its clean 1.33 fullscreen image, made to look as though it's shot on 16 mm film (same as the original broadcasts on FX), The Shield looks every bit as gritty as the world it inhabits. Restless handheld cameras, high-contrast lighting and considerable amounts of grain (particularly in low light and in nighttime scenes) only serve to enhance the scuzzy, fly-on-the-wall atmosphere fashioned by the show's creators.
Dolby 2.0 stereo is the only option available; there's a bit of punch every so often from gunshots or car crashes – source music and the show's aggressive theme sound crisp and full. Dialogue is clear and while it would be nice if the show could be remixed in Dolby Digital 5.1 to take advantage of the street environment Vic and the Strike Team call home, what's on hand is adequate.
Commentaries from various cast and crew members are on eight of the 15 episodes here (the third season was delayed two months, but to compensate, two extra episodes were tacked on to the usual 13); all of the show's principal players, writers, producers and directors are here. The tracks reveal the warm camaraderie this group shares; there's also time spent addressing issues and concerns they face while tackling these dark subjects. Chiklis, in particular, is outspoken in his defense of the show's "need for authenticity" and how in the current political climate, it's difficult to achieve that on a weekly basis. These are great tracks overall, with a few lengthy gaps of dead air.
Also onboard are a pair of deleted scenes for each episode with optional commentary from series creator Shawn Ryan and a 79-minute documentary - "Behind Episode #315" - that takes you through the creative process involved in crafting the season finale, "On Tilt." It's a well-done and informative look at the multiple layers that the writers, performers and crew must sort out from episode to episode. The booklet that detailed each episode in the first two box sets is gone; that information is now on the back of each slimline case. Each episode also has a "previously on..." recap at the beginning and the first episode has a "last season on..." recap. English and Spanish subtitles are also included.
For those who love visceral, involving and intelligent drama, I can't recommend The Shield highly enough. This is appointment television that sucks you in and leaves you wanting more. As season three expands upon and references events from the previous two seasons, those that are curious would do well to start with the first two seasons and work your way up. For fans of the show, this is a no-brainer. The extras aren't as plentiful as with the first two seasons, but consider it a case of quality over quantity with the potent action, suspenseful storylines and the meaty documentary. Highly recommended.