The Shield – Back to basics – not bodies

Chicago Tribune , IL
March 9 2004

Back to basics — not bodies

By Steve Johnson
Tribune television critic

When “The Shield” — which returns for a sharp-looking third season
Tuesday (9 p.m., FX) — came on the scene two years ago, it made an
impact way out of proportion to its venue.

Airing on the then-little-known cable channel FX, the gritty series
about a violently corrupt cop drew a big-for-cable audience and even
won star Michael Chiklis an upset Emmy for best dramatic series
actor. It was a scorcher of a show, too, giving viewers an angle on
TV police work they hadn’t seen before: more violent, more venal and,
making it all seem more real, with an arresting attention to little
details such as the way a bystander reacts to a violent bust.

Then, last season, it seemed to suffer sophomore slump in the early
going. Creator-executive producer Shawn Ryan (a Rockford native) was,
perhaps, a little drunk on his freedoms, a little too stuck on the
idea that violence was what sold the show.

There was an ill-conceived violent foray into Mexico by Chiklis’
Detective Vic Mackey and his renegade Strike Team, and Mackey felt
the urge to punish one drug dealer by searing his face on an electric
stove coil.

By the end of the year, though, it had settled back into a study,
primarily, of the characters in the show’s pressure-cooker,
illuminating not just the dirty work of keeping the peace but the
brutal office politics among police and the family pressures the job

This third season, in its first four incendiary episodes, seems to be
following suit, more like the beginning of the first year than the
beginning of the second.

Ryan isn’t just piling up bodies here, he’s putting the carnage in
service to taut storytelling that’s often leavened by humor and
always features crackling dialogue and one of TV drama’s best casts.

The animating story is a version of “I’ve Got a Secret.” Last year,
Mackey and crew pulled off a massive heist of Armenian gang money.
This year, they’re feeling the pressure, and temptations, of keeping
the money.

“Just gotta ride things out,” says Detective Shane Vendrell (Walton
Goggins), Mackey’s increasingly troubled and troublesome second.

The plan is for the Strike Team to do everything by the book, draw no
attention, until it becomes safe to spend.

Playing it cool proves to be not so easy, however. First, the bodies
of dead Armenians start showing up as the gang leaders try to figure
out where their cash went. In one of the charming gruesome touches
that have become a signature of the show, they’re footless.

Straight-arrow Detective Dutch Wagenbach (Jay Karnes) is
investigating the murders, and he’s the kind of guy who’s likely, one
way or another, to figure out the truth.

Capt. Aceveda (Benito Martinez), newly elected to City Council but
still on the force until his term begins, has his own suspicions
about the money, even as he plays hardball to keep one-time ally
Detective Claudette Wyms (CCH Pounder) from taking over the

And there are pressures at home for cash.

David Mamet, apparently a big fan, will direct an episode later in
the season, but he’ll have a tough time matching the penetrating eye
of Clark Johnson (“Homicide: Life on the Street”), who helms the
first two episodes of what is, once again, a first-tier TV series.