Saturday, May 9, 2009

Top TV Pilots of All-Time, #5

Miss me? Don't worry. I'll never leave you. At least not until this countdown is finally concluded, which, at this rate, will then be an obsolete list (thus necessitating a brand new countdown which will keep this going on in eternal perpetuity).

#5 The Shield (2002)

The last pilot on this list was the "gritty" cop drama Hill Street Blues, a show whose influence can be easily seen on almost every cop drama that has since followed. The Shield, an FX drama starring Michael Chiklis as a rogue cop, is basically Hill Street Blues on steroids. Indeed, the character of Vic Mackey is somewhat of a cross between Blues' Sgt. Mick Belker and Lt. Norman Buntz, all three of whom are tough, conflicted and whose behaviour borders on primal.

I'll just cut to the chase right away (not unlike how The Shield's pilot opens---see below) and say that the single most significant thing about the pilot is its ending. If you don't want to know what happens, stop reading this immediately. While the pilot moves along at a quick and entertaining pace, there's just no good way to discuss the genius of the pilot without revealing a very big plot point...which I will do following the spoiler alert below.


The character of Vic Mackey is presented as a cop who's willing to break the rules in the name of justice. It's not exactly an original premise, but the intensity with which Chiklis tackles the role is unforgettable. We know he's dirty and under investigation, but as a family man who seems to have the best interests of his community and children at heart, the audience easily accepts him as an anti-hero. He's The Commish, for crissakes. We love that guy, right? In one character-defining scene, a suspect with knowledge about the whereabouts of a child abductee laughingly suggests during an interrogation that Mackey is playing the role of "bad cop". His response? "Good cop and bad cop left for the day. I'm a different kind of cop." Understatement of the year. He then proceeds to beat the suspect with a phone book until the information is revealed...saving a little girl who had been raped and kidnapped. Perhaps Cheney watches this show, too.

By the end of the pilot we've grown to accept Mackey as more good than bad, more helpful than harmful, more likable than not. And then comes the left hook you never see coming. Earlier in the pilot we learn that one of the members of Mackey's strike force team, a newcomer, is actually working for the Feds to try to expose Mackey's tight knit crew as the corrupt force they are. The show is set up to proceed in later episodes with that conflict as the major premise. And then BLAM. Mackey murders him in the final scene. In cold blood. For the purely selfish reason of not wanting to be caught and exposed. It's dizzying. The murder of an innocent police officer goes beyond the realm of acceptable behavior for an anti-hero and, yet, that's the star of the show. Are we supposed to like him? Hate him?

Even more problematic to consider---what if we're better off with people like Mackey? Not to get overly political, but one could easily view parts of The Shield as an allegory for the illegal antics of the Bush administration. People talk about "24" as one reason why torture is shockingly viewed as increasingly acceptable by the American people. More interesting to me, however, is seeing the self-perpetuating downward spiral that such behavior causes---and in that regard, The Shield is invaluable. It's the best dramatic example of the ends vs. means argument.

Chicklis won an Emmy for his performance in Season 1, and the victory was a stunning upset. Not only did it basically "make" the FX network, but it also signaled a change had come in both the quality and in the recognition of original programming for prime-time basic cable programming. The pilot was also nominated for best directing and best writing. The Shield is most definitely not for everyone. It's vulgar, it's crude, it's violent, and it's upsetting. But it is not gratuitous. It's decidedly purposeful and the result was the creation of one of the most memorable characters in television history. The Shield concluded it's seventh and final season this past November, and it somehow managed to remain fresh almost the entire time.


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