MICHAEL CHIKLIS IS LOOKING GOOD, LIKE A GUY who's not only working out all the time, but thinking about working out even when he's hoisting nothing heavier than his chunky wristwatch. Dressed in a form-fitting blue T-shirt, jeans and sneakers, the actor who plays Detective Vic Mackey in FX's acclaimed new cop show The Shield swaggers like a middle-aged man reborn into a gym rat's version of youth. The top half of his tan, cleanly shaven head looks like a giant bicep with eyes. His movements are fast, decisive and just a little impatient. Talking to Michael Chiklis turns out to be remarkably similar to watching him play a rogue cop on TV.
But maybe he's just in character. We're standing outside the building that houses The Shield's set at the ABC lot on Prospect Avenue, and Chiklis is in between scenes, sitting on the hood of a silver Mercedes, chewing gum, exuding the confidence that comes with being the star of a red-hot new show. (The pilot was the highest-rated original series premiere in Basic Cable television history, reaching 4.8 million viewers.) For the former star of The Commish, it's the part of a lifetime. It would be a hell of a role if it were just in a movie; but stretched out over a 13-episode season, with more episodes likely to follow, every possible angle and nuance can be explored, and so far he's played it brilliantly. "I'm still finding a lot of things out about this character," he says, fixing me with the ice-cold blue eyes he trains so effectively on perps. "I've got a good handle on him at this point, but there's still a lot of discovery going on."
Chiklis won't give his opinion of Mackey, however. What he likes best about the show is that it doesn't tell you what to think, and he's not about to supply the moral himself. "The camera just sees what it sees," he says. "The reflection is unbiased. We want to evoke thought, emotion, dialogue. Wasn't it Shakespeare who said that art was a mirror held up to life?" Chiklis will reveal that a while back he invited two friends over to his home to watch the pilot. By the end of the show, one had decided that Chiklis' character was a hero, the other that he was a villain, and the discussion got so heated that the two friends almost came to blows. Not surprisingly, Chiklis concluded then and there that this new show was something special.
Detective Vic Mackey isn't, in his own view, a good cop or a bad cop. He is, as he explains to a perp, a "different kind of cop," a less flashy, less obviously evil version of the streetwise detective played by Denzel Washington in Training Day, but one who similarly plays by his own rules. The difference is that Mackey seems to have an overall goal in mind that benefits society as well as himself. As the leader of an elite strike-team unit stationed in East L.A., he's the sort of cop that other cops go to when they have a problem they don't want to deal with themselves -- like torturing a child molester to get a confession out of him, for instance, because if they don't, a little girl locked up somewhere is going to die. He's also a cop -- most controversially -- who's willing to kill a fellow officer about to rat on him, and does so in the shocking end to the first episode. If that alone appears to place him beyond the pale, as the incidents and episodes pile up, Mackey is nonetheless revealed as an increasingly complex figure with an intuitive understanding not just of the criminal world, but of human nature as well.
A good example comes at the end of the fourth episode, "Dawg Days," in which Mackey, who's been trying unsuccessfully to broker a peace between two warring rappers named Kern Little and T-Bonz, decides to force them into a détente by locking them up in a shipping container in a train yard overnight. It's a dumb mistake, and uncharacteristic of Mackey, who opens the door of the container the following morning to find that only one of the rappers walks out alive, with a bruised face and a shirt stained with blood. Not quite what Mackey had planned, but the two of them step out into the morning light and gaze at the skyscrapers of downtown L.A. as if they were on a different continent. "You hungry?" Mackey asks. "Goddamned starved," Little replies. It's a great moment, and it reveals two important things about Mackey. One, only he'd ask that question, even though it's an obvious one to ask. (You would be hungry after spending a night inside a pitch-black shipping container, fighting someone to death.) Two, it shows how he's already accepted the situation and moved on to the next stage, which in this case is bacon and eggs. Mackey is who he is because he never loses his head in a crisis. In a list of qualities one might ask for in a detective, that has to rank near the top. Too bad he had to go and shoot another cop.