By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
THE SHIELD TAKES PLACE IN A STUDIEDLY SCUZZY version of L.A. in which the white majority is a thing of the past, and where Koreans, Armenians, Arabs, Iranians, Russians, Latinos and other minorities of all stripes live uneasily alongside each other. In this version of L.A., which divides into enclaves as naturally as a TV series does into episodes, soccer is the popular sport, pit bulls the preferred pets, and children and hookers the sex objects of choice. The layers of race and ethnicity are so densely interwoven that when Mackey hires an Armenian student to translate a recording he's made of some Armenian drug smugglers, the student can barely understand a word of what his countrymen are saying. The crooks, it turns out, are from a different part of Armenia. As for the cops themselves, foreign language dictionaries are becoming as vital a part of their arsenal as truncheons and guns.
There's a lot of pride on The Shield's set about the wealth of racial and ethnic communities depicted in the series, as well as a rueful admission that, this being a crime show, those communities aren't always depicted in a flattering light. (No doubt Korean-Americans enjoy seeing their faces on a TV show, but they might not appreciate it quite so much when the Koreans in question are involved in child prostitution.) But for the show's creators, the important thing is that the immigrants are getting screen time. This is the new L.A., and they want to see it dramatized -- in terms of both ethnicity and geography. One of the advantages to setting a show in L.A., as opposed to New York or Baltimore, is that you don't have to fly clear across the country to shoot a scene outdoors. As a result, only indoor scenes are shot in the studio, and parts of L.A. rarely seen on TV appear with regularity.
"There is this whole area of Los Angeles that the Hollywood community really only sees when they drive to Staples Center to watch the Lakers," says Shawn Ryan, the show's 35-year-old creator and executive producer. "You know -- between Hollywood and downtown. But that's really what Los Angeles is. That's the 8 and a half million people out of 9 million. I'd bet you'll see more Hispanics in our 13 episodes than you'll see on NBC in prime time all year."
With his pale skin and shaved head, Ryan looks like a pudgier version of his protagonist, Vic Mackey. He was a writer on Nash Bridges (which regularly clobbered NYPD Bluein the ratings, if not in quality) and a producer on Angel. He hails from Rockford, Illinois, a religious stronghold whose local ABC affiliate kept NYPD Blueoff the air when it first came out, due to the show's (relatively) graphic sex and violence. Later he went to college in Vermont, which he calls "statistically the whitest state in the country," before moving to L.A. in 1990. "To go from Vermont to Los Angeles, and get on a bus, which I have done a few times, and see Hispanics, Chinese, Arabs, blacks, to feel like, hey, there's really no majority, is a good thing," he says. "I've sort of taken it and twisted it in this show because one of the themes is of all these groups feeling like they have to fight each other for what there is. Which I think is the sad part of that reality. That's certainly not how I feel, but it makes for good drama."
It certainly does. From the power surge of its introductory theme music to the kinetic buzz of the hand-held camera work, quick-cut editing and bleached-out colors, The Shield is as edgy as they come and revels in it. Compared to a dreary funeral march like Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, this is a show with verve and color, humor and pizzazz, and a hero who relishes his job and conveys his enjoyment to the audience. It's also a late West Coast entry into a field that until now has been dominated by Eastern settings. Even if they were shot on soundstages in L.A., most of the hardest-hitting cop shows, like Homicide, NYPD Blueand Hill Street Blues, have taken place amid the grim realities of cities of broad shoulders and tall buildings. The best cop show ever set in L.A., according to Ryan, was Dragnet, a relic from the 1950s. Unfortunately, it hasn't held up very well.
"If you showed Dragnetto a group of high school and college kids now, they'd walk out," he says. "They'd think it's a comedy show. I've watched Dragnetepisodes over the last few years on TV Land, and it really is funny to watch Jack Webb lecture someone on the evils of drug use. And I'm very anti-drug! I've never used illegal drugs in my life. And yet I'm sitting there just laughing at it. It's reflective of how television's evolved over the years, because back then it was always the good guy who did the good thing and got the bad guy. There was never any equivocation."
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