When it was originally on: 2002-2008
Original network: FX
Had I seen it before: No.
Where you can stream it now: Hulu
What IMDb says: Follows the lives and cases of a dirty Los Angeles Police Department cop and the unit under his command.
Why I picked it: I had never heard of The Shield until I started reading William Rabkin’s books on how to write a pilot, and he cited this as a great example of one. I later learned that many people point to The Shield as one of the earliest examples of basic cable drawing inspiration from premium cable originals. The Sopranos may be the show that started the whole white man anti-hero trend that become so prevalent, but The Shield is the show that proved this character archetype could work in other settings and still feel just as gritty even when playing by the stricter rules of basic cable.
What I liked: It seems that oftentimes in these reviews, I have to talk about whether or not the show did enough to compensate for its intentionally unlikable protagonist. I usually say something along the lines of “well it can work, but that unlikable protagonist still has to be interesting, and there needs to be reasonably likable supporting characters to offset this protagonist.”
Well, The Shield does something I’m not sure I’ve seen yet, which is that it introduces a character who’s not necessarily likable, but is out to get our anti-hero protagonist. Vic is a dirty cop, willing to be as violent as he needs to be to get results. “A thug with a badge,” they say. But a city council rep who may or may not have his own nefarious agenda knows Vic is a dirty cop, he just has to prove it. And that’s the story the pilot sets up, a cat and mouse game between him and dirty cop who doesn’t play by the rules but “gets the job done.”
Yesterday, I lamented how the Law & Order pilot didn’t properly explore the difference between cops and the more white collar side of law enforcement, and so I was impressed and surprised to see how The Shield is so good at this. We have Vic, and the pilot does a fantastic job of demonstrating just how many lines he’ll cross within the first 5 minutes. Throughout the episode, we get different opinions from different other cops about Vic, which of course reflect larger opinions on how law enforcement should work to begin with. We get moments where Vic begrudges people like David who get to make rules about how the police operate but don’t really know what it’s like out there.
I also think this one did a really good job of hitting both the expected beats of a procedural cop show while also establishing tons of long-term conflict that make me anxious for more episodes. Virtually everything that does happen over the course of our case of the week helps reveal character information about the various cops that will help us contextualize future cases.
And maybe the coolest thing this pilot does? It sets up this whole show to be that aforementioned cat and mouse game between David and Vic, only to end on a huge game changing cliff hanger. When a pilot does this, it shows that the writers are not afraid to make the story far more complicated right as you were beginning to think you understood it. It indicates there’s more “OH SHIT!” moments to come, and part of why we watch tv in the first place is for the “OH SHIT!” moments.
In a lot of ways, The Shield takes many of my favorite things about the last three pilots I watched and digested them into one story I could really see myself loving. It has the complexity and philosophical quandaries of Law & Order; the unpredictability of Twin Peaks; and the idea of cops with varying ideas on how much force is too much force like we saw in Hill Street Blues.
What I didn’t like: This one does the thing where it kind of focuses on rather than quantity of characters developed rather than quality. Again, I get the sense that the conflict between Vic and David is going to be THE conflict that fuels this entire series. I kind of wish the pilot had zeroed in on these two and what makes them tick. I didn’t necessarily need to know that the one female cop has slept with Vic but doesn’t want to now. I didn’t necessarily need quite so much with the bland, boring cop who plays by the rules. I get why said bland, boring cop needs to be there for the sake of the show, but did he need as much time as he got? Overall, these are relatively minor gripes in a strong pilot.
Do I want to watch Ep. 2: Indeed! There’s enough loose ends here to keep me interested even though the show was otherwise fairly procedural.