If I were to compile a list of what I felt were some of the best television shows in the last decade, I would undoubtedly list quite a few shows that were born on premium channels. Dexter, The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, Deadwood, The Wire; these are shows that have been able to flourish and pull in audiences at will because they offered an experience that was closer to reality than anything cable had to offer. If cuts and edits were made, they were made to ensure the story would be able to evolve for the better, never to appease the FCC. That kind of a free pass doesn't exist on cable though, and although major networks might attempt to bring something truly intense and dramatic to their schedules, they seldom ever succeed at doing so. Most every effort the networks made to give us something 'real' and gritty usually ended up looking like the typical Hollywood mold, but when the highly acclaimed The Shield premiered in 2002, it was clear FX had something special on its hands. After the show finished its long and successful run in 2008, it was being described by many as one of the most memorable shows in televised history. It's a sentiment I share with the vast majority, but if you haven't taken the time to become familiar with this show as of yet, there's no time better time than the present with The Shield - The Complete Series Collection now available on DVD.
Gang activity throughout Los Angeles' Farmington district (The Farm) is at an all time high. Local citizens have watched their quiet neighborhoods turn into a hot zone for drugs and drive-bys, and they've been forced to either stay indoors or get into 'the life' themselves. Fearing the 'do nothing' approach will prove fatal in the polls, elected officials open an experimental police division in an abandoned church (The Barn) at the heart of the city. Its primary goal is to show the gangs and drug dealers that the streets belong to the honest and hard working taxpayers, and to make sure that message is nice and clear, they've put together a four person Strike Team to hit the streets and beat it into them on a daily basis. The Captain of The Farm, David Aceveda, feels that the Strike Team is a little too efficient though, and becomes suspicious enough of their activities to add a fifth member to the team as his personal snitch. In a matter of days, Team leader Vic Mackey regretfully informs Aceveda that the newbie took a bullet to the face during a drug bust that went bad. Aceveda knows better than that though, as it's too coincidental a story to be taken at face value. As an audience member you'll explicitly see what really went down and get a sense for what kind of a person this Vic Mackey truly is; a bad guy that you're absolutely going to love to hate.
Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis) is chasing a perp down an alleyway, and the criminal on the run hops over a wall as a last ditch effort to escape the law. Vic Mackey doesn't have time for walls though... so instead he runs right through it. If there's one scene in the series that can sum this guy up in a single moment, it's this one. If anything stands in Mackey's way, he's going to go at it full bore no matter what the cost. He's the kind of guy that will grant drug kingpins carte blanche as long as he's consistently fed information that leads to arrests. Lying, cheating, skimming, stealing; it's all in another day's work for Vic. I know it sounds like he's the typical dirty cop you see on television every day, but he couldn't be more different. Everything he does has a justification behind it, usually with a 'can't go by the book if you're going to expect results' kind of mentality. It's not long before Mackey realizes that his actions have dire ramifications, and instead of taking responsibility he tries to clean up the whirlwind of shit he leaves behind every step of the way. Every time he digs himself out there's an even bigger problem that awaits him around the next bend though, and thus begins Mackey's downward spiral that inevitably affects every person he knows, both personally and professionally. Mackey's once genuine motives for bringing his own brand of justice to the streets eventually deteriorates into achieving a single endgame; self preservation. Vic manipulates everyone that stands in his way like a devious puppet master, and if someone is clever enough to actually see through his bullshit, he makes it his top priority to hit the streets and find the proper leverage to make sure the cards continue to stack in his favor. Often enough it seems that Mackey is in complete control, other times it seems like he just can't help himself. Whatever the case may be, it makes Vic one of the most interesting character studies on television to date, and considering how big a fan I am of The Sopranos and the characters it brought to the table, that says a lot.
Vic is undoubtedly the reason why everything he touches takes a drastic turn for the worst, but his problems are greatly exacerbated by one factor he's unable to calculate or control; partner and best friend Shane Vendrell. Shane looks up to Vic like a big brother and tries to prove he has what it takes to play ball in Vic's court time and time again, but he never gets the approval he so desperately seeks. He's instead kept under Vic's thumb in very much the same way as everyone else, and he's constantly lead to believe that he's not considered to be trustworthy. This makes for a highly unstable relationship that proves to be an overwhelming liability for the Strike Team to handle. Everything Vic says, every little decision he makes requires him to be in control one hundred percent of the time, otherwise things just won't pan out the way he wants them to. Shane however inevitably begins to question his 'friendship' with Mackey, and once the seeds of doubt and betrayal are planted in Vendrell's mind there's no turning back. That precious commodity of 'control' is something that starts to slip away in practically epic proportions.
As Vic becomes more and more comfortable eliminating the people that stand in his way, Shane is a puzzle that he can't seem to find a permanent enough resolution for. For one thing, he genuinely cares about the guy. Logically speaking however, Shane is too close a friend and colleague to just 'disappear'. It would raise too many questions for Mackey, especially considering most people in The Barn already suspect he's playing by his own set of rules. This is definitely the most intriguing aspect of the series overall, but that's not to say The Shield doesn't have anything else to offer. In fact, if you ask me, the most impressive aspect of The Shield is its ability to make every supporting character in The Barn no matter how small the role, just as enjoyable to watch as the central players themselves. In this respect I'd have to give a special nod to CCH Pounder and Jay Karnes as Detectives Claudette Wyms and Holland Wagenbach respectively. Every person in The Barn is fleshed out to an impressive degree, and almost every one of them begins their arc when they unwillingly become entangled in the disastrous web of Mackey. This not only ensures the show continually entertains even when the main cast members are off screen, it also guarantees the ante keeps going up against Mackey and his partners in crime.
I'm sure you've had friends come up to you time and time again, telling you to watch some show they just fell in love with because "It's the best show evahhh!" Their opinions usually turn out to be gross exaggerations, but if anyone ever tried to twist your arm to see The Shield, listen to them. This is absolutely one of the most addictive shows you'll ever see by far. It starts off intense and dramatic right from the very first episode, and the series is successfully able to intensify that feeling episode after episode right up until the very end. Every season will leave you with a masterfully crafted cliffhanger that you'll be glad this set will provide instant gratification for, and when everything is all said and done, you'll know you've just witnessed one of the better and most fitting finales you've ever seen on television. The acting is top notch, the writing is clever and consistently induces nail biting, and you'll constantly gawk your eyes at the screen and say, "How the hell were they able to show that on television?!" There are even some incredible performances to be seen from well known stars such as Anthony Anderson, Forest Whitaker and Glenn Close. The Shield is truly the first show I've ever seen on television that made me think it could have been on a premium channel. If there's one negative I have to say about the series overall, it's only that I'm sad that it's over because I know that The Shield will never be replicated, no matter how hard the entertainment industry may try.
The first five seasons of The Shield were originally aired and released on DVD by Fox in a 4:3 aspect ratio, but eventually Sony quietly rereleased these seasons in 16:9. It's of no surprise then that the entire series is presented in this collection in the widescreen format, but this brings with it a little bit of a debate. Some people prefer the widescreen version of the show as it fills up the entire screen on their expensive HDTVs, not to mention it shows more of what was originally shot to boot. However, there are the OAR (original aspect ratio) purists that don't care to stray from the 4:3 format because the creators wanted this series to look and feel like a documentary. I think the latter picture format is a bit more effective overall, but I can't say I find the widescreen aspect ratio to be that offensive to the eyes. Below I'm going to include some screenshots that compare the widescreen presentation to that of Fox's full screen releases, and you can judge for yourself. Be warned though, screen grabs in and of themselves aren't truly indicative of how these ratios look in motion. The wide screen grabs I've taken show quite a bit of useless information on the sides of the screen, but the camera is always jostling around like you would expect from a cameraman that's filming from his shoulder, so the sides never really look that 'empty' for long.
Other than that though, you can pretty much expect more of the same in terms of picture quality on this release. The vital grain element is still around to provide the show with gritty realism, and colors and contrast are stylistically blown out to further enhance that 'filmed on the fly' look. I know it sounds like a pretty ugly presentation, but that's exactly how The Shield was meant to be seen. Many scenes were shot on film, and others were shot on video. This tends to dramatically change how much grain can be seen throughout any given episode, but the transfer on these DVD's seem to be able to present the grain fairly well without too much macroblocking and little to no edge enhancement. If you've enjoyed The Shield on DVD up until this point, then you're not going to find this release to be a disappointing one.
The entire series is presented in a Dolby stereo, and although the sound design of the show isn't as fancy as some of the latest shows that utilize impressive 5.1 mixes, we have to remember this was supposed to feel like a documentary. This means that the sound design isn't elaborate by any means, but it's faithfully reproduced on these DVD's without issue. I checked various episodes throughout the set and found the dialogue to sound consistently clear and easy to understand, and gunshots were always realistic and never overpowering. Usually I throw in a little argument at this point in my review where I say something like, "It would have been nice if the sound people took the time to make a 5.1 track." Considering the intention of this audio design for the show however, I can't say a thing. The Dolby track although minimalistic, has been given great care to recreate a realistic 'on the street with a camcorder' experience without ever muffling dialogue or even subtle audio cues out of the mix.
My oh my, what a gorgeous looking set this is. All the discs are housed in a book with glossy cardboard pages, while the book itself is housed inside a plastic sleeve that isn't very stiff but not really too flimsy either. The police shield on the front of the book is shiny and actually dented into the book cover a bit for an authentic look, and this is a very nice touch. Once you start flipping through the pages you'll find a letter written by show creator Shawn Ryan, episode listings by disc which include episode summaries, and a background design on every spread that's meant to look like the work desk of various characters from the show. Unlike The Sopranos book packaging, the discs actually slide in from the top of the page. It's an impressive looking set through and through, but we all know that cardboard sleeves are going to provide a lot of minor scrapes and scuffs. If you're sensitive to having discs that have any sort of defect on their underbelly, you might want to stick with the individual season sets.
There's a little something on each of the 28 discs, but it's all the stuff you've already seen and heard before. Between a generous amount of cast and crew commentary tracks, deleted scenes and featurettes, there's more than enough to keep any fan of the series happy. What is new however, is a brand spanking new bonus disc that contains two never before released featurettes:
Rampart - This documentary (about a half an hour length) covers the actual police scandal that inspired series creator Shawn Ryan to make The Shield. The 1990's saw a string of unprovoked shootings, beatings, evidence tampering, and even robberies from the real LAPD anti-gang unit CRASH (Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums). This informative documentary pools together information from community activist leaders, a journalist, a Dean at UC Irvine Law School, a private investigator and former LAPD officer, and even a sociologist in order to cover every possible angle of the story for the audience at home. I can't recommend this documentary enough. You would think while watching any given episode of The Shield, the things that we see the Strike Team do on screen are overly exaggerated, bit this featurette will let you know there's very much truths and reality to back it all up. There's a wealth of information presented here that parallels many of the scenes in the series, so make sure you don't miss this one.
The Barn - Oddly enough, this featurette is called 'A Place We Called Home' inside the collection book, but the disc menu has this labeled as 'The Barn'. It's a fitting title regardless of which one you choose to refer to it by, as it's basically a seven and a half minute final look at the main stage of The Shield. For being such a short featurette, it's really touching in a sad sort of way. You'll see the set being dismantled, leaving a once lively looking office on television to look as if it were dying. It almost brings a little taste to the viewer at home for what it must have been like for the actors and actresses to have had to say goodbye to the set they worked on for seven years. As a matter of fact, it's downright heart breaking.
I wouldn't exactly say these two new featurettes are worth the price of a complete series boxed set alone, but if you don't own the series already, they're definitely great inclusions to an already bountiful list of extras that are plastered throughout every disc in the set.
The Shield didn't just break the Hollywood mold; it smashed it against a wall and then beat it with its fists until it was decimated into a fine powder. This show has everything - Drama, heartbreak, action, laughs, nudity, sex, violence, it's all here. None of it would have worked if it wasn't for the incredibly talented writers that made every scene even more gripping than the last, or the incredibly talented cast that made every character worth paying attention to. If you haven't taken the time to watch through this series as of yet, stop coming up with excuses and just do it already. Now. You're going to find not only is the writing and acting superb in practically every way (especially as you get into the latter half of the series), but Michael Chiklis' Vic Mackey is one of the most intriguing character studies to ever grace a television screen. This show has been given the proper treatment it deserves in this gorgeous complete series collection with a ton of extras, and video and sound quality that accurately represents the look and sound of the show without majorly distracting compression issues. The two new featurettes are well worth taking a look at as well. This isn't a rating I hand out too often, but The Shield - The Complete Series Collection deserves a DVD Talk Collectors Series rating. Make sure to put this one on the top of your Christmas wish list!