Behind The Shield
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.
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 Blue in 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 Blue off 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 Blue and 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 Dragnet to 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 Dragnet episodes 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."
The Shield, on the other hand, is saturated in equivocation. (Tellingly, its working title was Rampart.) According to Ryan, one of the moments that inspired the show came when he opened up a copy of the Los Angeles Times and saw an article about police corruption on one side of the page, and an article about dramatically falling crime rates on the other. Put those two things together, as he did, add the rogue element of a strike-team unit, and you get a story about a morally questionable, frequently lawless group of cops who keep the streets safe while their more scrupulous partners fiddle in the station house.
"What people want these days is to make it to their car without getting mugged, come home from work, see their stereo is still there," says the veteran Detective Claudette Wyms (the terrific CCH Pounder), a black female cop who's seen it all and respects Mackey's achievements without necessarily agreeing with his methods. "If they hear about some murderer in the barrio, they want to find out next day the police caught the guy. If having all these things means roughing up some nigger or spic in the ghetto, as far as most people are concerned, it's don't ask, don't tell."
Not everyone on the force would agree with Wyms' viewpoint. Dissenters include the new precinct chief, Captain David Aceveda (Benito Martinez), a Latino with political ambitions and a fear that rogue elements like Mackey will get in his way. (It was Aceveda who placed a snitch on the strike team, and, though he can't prove it, he's pretty sure that Mackey murdered the snitch and aims to make him pay.) Detective Holland "Dutch" Wagenbach (Jay Karnes), a vain, by-the-book, Al Goreish nerd obsessed with serial killers, doesn't much care for Mackey's methods either, though he is frequently forced to concede their effectiveness. Then there's Officer Julien Lowe (Michael Jace), a closeted black rookie who spots Mackey pocketing a brick of cocaine during a strike-team bust. Like Aceveda, he wants Mackey gone, if for moral reasons -- he's a fervent Christian, determined to do good -- rather than political ones.
Mackey is something of a dinosaur, in fact -- a white maverick on a multiracial force swaggering around neighborhoods most whites abandoned years ago. There's a lot of Caucasian anxiety ("Who're all these white folk?" are the first words you hear in one episode) on The Shield, and to some extent African-American too, about living in a city in which even the native-born often feel like bewildered foreigners. In one scene we see Dutch reading an undocumented immigrant his rights in Spanish. He's as painful to listen to as Margaret Thatcher speaking French, and, as you might expect, the joke is on him. You'd think that a guy like Dutch -- who isn't above remarking on the "great rack" on a female corpse -- would resent having to make a fool of himself in front of a group of grinning migrant workers, most of whom he could presumably turn over to the INS, but, if so, he doesn't mention it. Although multiculturalism and illegal immigration form a major subtext of the show, discussion of it adheres mostly to well-worn liberal lines.
IF THERE'S ONE THING THAT MAKES VIC MACKEY a uniquely riveting TV cop, it's that he's both hunter and hunted, enforcer and criminal, rolled into one ballsy, high-octane package. For viewers, it's an addictive combination. In almost every episode, Mackey is not only chasing someone down himself, but, along with his fellow strike-teamers, laid-back Curtis Lemansky (Kenneth Johnson) and the insecure, brutal Shane Vendrell (superbly played by Walton Goggins), frantically evading Aceveda, who grows increasingly determined to nail him for each and every infringement of the police rule book. Although it makes for exciting TV, at times the contradictions in Mackey's personality stretch credulity and weaken the show's overall effect. That he would shoot a fellow officer, even a snitch, in cold blood never quite seems plausible, and the fact that at least two people in the station house know about it and continue to sit on the information seems utterly fantastic.
Not surprisingly, Shawn Ryan disagrees. "There are a lot of ways to spin that," he says dismissively. "One of my favorite movies is Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors. Martin Landau's character orders a hit on his mistress in that movie, and then he gets away with it and goes about his life. I don't know what it would be like to kill someone, and how much it would weigh on me, but people who do commit murder rationalize it and justify it in some way. Mackey thinks he's a good person who's forced into doing a bad thing."
Though the noose seems to tighten on him in each episode, so far Mackey is getting away with it, and, as a viewer, one roots for him to keep doing so. In any case, it would probably be a mistake to assume that just because The Shield boasts unusual location shots, four-letter words, raucous rap parties, gay sex, crack houses, pedophilia, racist white spree-killers and gang-initiation ceremonies, it's necessarily any more realistic in terms of how crime fighting actually works than any other cop show. The series has no paid police consultant -- a deliberate choice on Ryan's part -- and Ryan himself claims no great expertise on the subject of police work.
"Really, you just use your imagination," he says. "This is a TV show. It's entertainment. And beyond the entertainment, I hope it's asking some important questions and using the idea of good cops and bad cops to get at what we as a society are willing to allow the people who work in our name to do to keep us safe."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss LA Weekly's biggest stories.