"Your turn to play bad cop?"
"Nah. Good cop and bad cop left for the day. I'm a different kind of cop."
The Shield is a television show on the very much underrated F/X Network about to enter its fifth (and possibly final) season in January of 2006. The Shield has received consistently good reviews for its compelling and often gritty depictions of police life; the in-house politics, the regular cops on the street walking a beat, the corruption, the ambition, the sex, everything. One thing that makes the Shield such a compelling television show (and there are only two others I really and truly enjoy) is the complexity of the plotlines. Because the Shield has such a large cast of primary characters (by most television standards), it is imperative that they all have plotlines that, while seemingly unrelated at first, eventually tie back to the same source. There are nine main characters who have been on the show since day one (not even counting their non-police love interests, friends, family, etc.) and each character falls roughly into one of three main spaces of interaction. When it gets closer to the time for me to discuss the characters, I'll show these subdivisions.
In general, the Shield follows the adventures of nine members of the Los Angeles Police Department in the district of Farmington. The station these cops work at is a former church and is affectionately referred to as "the Barn." (Because, like, it's called Farmington. And stuff.) Far from forming a cooperative, cohesive unit like the cops on, say, Law & Order, the cops of the Barn come into conflict quite frequently. Every man has his own agenda, every woman has her own secrets and lies. Sometimes these agendas, secrets, and lies coincide and the characters are able to tolerate one another long enoug to resolve these issues. More often than not, however, the cops butt heads over their highly divergent interests. At the end of the day, though, these guys and gals are cops, and they're all on the same side.
Aren't they? No.
A recurring theme on the Shield is the high cost of pride and how easy it is to fall from grace on account of one's hubris. Every main character on the show fails at some time or another because they overestimate themselves. This may seem like an obvious theme, but it's been one of the key elements of drama since its inception for a reason: it works. Another contributing factor to the show's success is that it forces the audience to evaluate its moral standings. In the previews for the upcoming season, the show's protagonist -- Vic Mackey -- is shown running through Los Angeles, threatening people with physical violence, all the while with the vocalist of the background music rapping "I'm a bad man, I'm a bad man." And yet we love to watch the show, even though we know fully well that Vic (and his cohorts) are bad men. We root for Vic even though we know fully well he has done things that are highly immoral and highly illegal. We can't stand the thought of "our guy" getting caught for the things we only dream about doing. And all the while, we still know it's wrong. Does it say more about the characters or does it say more about us when we knowingly root for the bad guy?
I'm only going to be dealing with the main police characters from the first season since (a) there are enough of them already without going into minor police characters, non-police characters, villains, and second, third, and fourth season characters and (b) they truly form the nucleus of the show. As I mentioned earlier, there are roughly three stables of characters in the show: the Strike Team (the most important), the Detectives, and the Street Cops. The Detectives and the Street Cops could arguably be compounded into one group, but they're dissimilar in style and interact infrequently.
The Strike Team
Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis): The quote used to introduce this write-up is an exchange between Vic and a pedophile in the Pilot episode. Vic is the leader of the Strike Team, an elite door-kicking squad of homicide and vice detectives designed to take the gang wars of LA back to where they belong: to the gangs. Ostensibly, Vic and his team are the reason for increased arrests and lower crime rates in their district. In reality, Vic is the arbiter of peace among and between gangs, specifically allowing or disallowing certain groups and individuals to corner the drug trade in the area to the detriment of all others with a few conditions. First, what Vic says goes. Second, selling to children is strictly off-limits. Third (and most obviously), Vic and his guys get a piece of the action. The Strike Team is effective because Vic is smart and he knows that he has most of the Farmington underworld by the balls. He is very averse to any threats to his hegemony on the streets and responds with brutality and a surprising lack of decor; for example, when a Mexican sociopath-turned-druglord refused to play by Vic's rules, Vic shoved his face onto a hot eye on a stove. As far as the way the audience perceives Vic, he is tainted by an original sin from the very first episode: a prospective Strike Team member (and a fellow detective) decides to become an informant against Vic and the team and Vic hears about it, he shoots the man in the head during a drug bust and blames it on the dealer (whom he also killed). Vic is a family man, although he is divorced and has only limited custody of his three kids. Two of his kids are autistic, something that disturbs Vic and threatens his conceptions of his personal adequacy. He attempts to rationalize his illegal activities (protecting drug lords for a share of the profits and going so far as to manufacture evidence against rivals and even to kill to cover his tracks) by telling himself that he's doing it to support his family. The truth, however, is that Vic is "a bad man" because he's gone too far down that path to ever go back and it's all he knows at this point. Vic sees himself as being an Übermensch: the quote should reveal as much. He believes he is beyond good and evil and that he only needs to adhere to traditional morality and to the law insofar as it helps him accomplish his goals.
Shane Vendrell (Walton Goggins): Shane is Vic's best friend and the second-in-command of the Strike Team. Vic is clearly the alpha male in their relationship and Shane looks up to him, although he would never admit as much. Put another way, they have a big brother/little brother relationship. Shane craves Vic's approval, but desperately wants to be seen as someone other than Vic Lite. To this end, Shane is reckless and irresponsible and takes risks that the more pragmatic Vic would just as soon avoid. Shane is also a racist, viewing blacks especially as being largely inferior; unless, of course, they're his friends. Shane knows that there is a time and a place for his outbursts: when he's in a hotel room with the members of the Strike Team essentially holding a local basketball star hostage and outnumbers him three-to-one, it's all right to call him a "nigger;" when a black drug kingpin puts a gun to his head after murdering a 14 year old girl, he keeps his mouth shut. Shane is unique in that he is the only one who knows that Vic murdered another police officer. Despite their ups and downs (and there have been many of those), Vic and Shane trust each other on a level that they deny to others, specifically their other partners and their wives. Shane is immature, but is humble enough to come to Vic when he gets in too deep and needs help. Shane is also highly protective of Vic; when it looked as though Vic was going to go to prison for his complicity with the above-mentioned Mexican drug dealer, Shane had the man killed in custody to prevent Vic from taking a fall.
Curtis "Lemonhead/Lem" Lemansky (Kenneth Johnson): Lemonhead (or Lem; so called because of his last name as well as the fact that he has really blonde hair) is the brawn of the Strike Team. He's not as cunning as Vic or as ruthless as Shane, but he is by no means an entirely clean man. He is violent and has a tendency to act out at the slightest provocation. He and Shane come into frequent conflict over the latter's somewhat tactless handling of "business," but they generally get along. Lem is probably the most noble member of the Strike Team in terms of his motivations, but he is fearful and naïve, unaware of the true extent of Vic's crimes.
Ronnie Gardocki (David Rees Snell): Ronnie is the somewhat enigmatic fourth member of the Strike Team. Little is known about his background, although he is (a) a techie and (b) a hypochondriac. He strikes me as something of an odd man out in terms of his being on the Strike Team as he comes across as really very nice and hardly as shark-like as Vic and Shane. He is good at gathering intelligence for the Team, however, and is a loyal and reliable partner.
David Aceveda (Benito Martinez): I'm cheating a little in my descriptions. Aceveda was the Captain of the Barn so he was not technically a detective, but he fits into this category better than the others since he was the focal point of interaction for the other two detectives. I'm using the past tense here because he's actually on the Los Angeles City Council now but was the Captain for the first two seasons before moving up and is still a prominent figure on the show. Aceveda is a scheming, ambitious, Machiavellan figure. He's the closest thing to a villain you're likely to find among the main cast since he's Vic's primary antagonist (and we are of course supposed to root for Vic). Aceveda made it his personal crusade to "get" Vic in the first season; not because he was seriously concerned that Vic was a bad person or that he truly cared about the law, but because he knew that successfully battling corruption would gain him political capital in vital segments of his would-be constituency. Aceveda was not above using Vic to crack cases (or skulls, as the case may be) but he was careful. As you might have figured out from the name, Aceveda is Hispanic. He counts on his heritage to get him votes among the Latino electorate in LA, but he has no particular attachment to his ethnicity and is regarded by other Hispanics as being "too white." In his heart, he knows this is true, but denies it since this would be politically inconvenient. After winning election to the City Council, Aceveda was high on life -- you might even say prideful. In keeping with the consequences of this pride, Aceveda ran into a dangerous situation thinking he was invincible and wound up paying the price: he was forced to perform fellatio on a Latin gang-banger at gunpoint, with the latter taking a picture of the act on his camera phone for proof. Aceveda has suffered from an inferiority complex ever since, questioning his sexual adequacy and employing the services of "professionals" to make himself feel like a real man (this mainly consists of bending a prostitute over a couch and forcing himself on her while she yells "no, stop! Oh, you're too powerful for me!"). Eventually, he had his rapist murdered in prison and (for the time being) seems politically secure.
Holland "Dutch" Wagenbach (Jay Karnes): Most fans see Dutch as the most honestly likeable character on the show; he's honest, he's funny, and perhaps most importantly, he's not corrupt. He's sort of dorky and is frequently the butt of practical jokes perpetrated by Vic. He's an intellectual person but feels underappreciated by the rest of the precinct (because he is). Everyone acknowledges that he's a good detective, but so what? There's a difference between being a good cop and a truly outstanding cop. His "big break" came after he almost single-handedly caught and broke a serial killer operating in the Farmington District. He's not above pettiness, however, as evidenced by his dating Vic's ex-wife partially out of spite. He has a huge crush on a female officer named Danny who, while friendly to him, is unavailable and unattainable. This frustrates him to no end, particularly because she has been having an affair with Vic for years and he is one of the few people in the precinct aware of it. He sees himself as the living embodiment of "nice guys finish last," but the truth is that there are times when Dutch is not very nice. Still, he's a by-the-book detective who even occasionally wins Vic's approval (although they are more often than not in conflict).
Claudette Wyms (CCH Pounder): For a black woman in what is often perceived as a white man's world, Claudette does all right for herself. The character of Detective Wyms was originally written as a black man, but CCH Pounder convinced Shawn Ryan, the show's creator, to let her play the part. It worked out fairly well as Claudette more often than not represents the "common sense" approach to life and police work. She is partnered with Dutch, and while they get along well, she is not above telling him to shut up when he's talking about some esoteric psychological theory of a crime that has nothing to do with the case. Initially, it was her desire not to take sides in the Aceveda/Vic feud since, in her words, anyone who did so was likely to "end up with a hose full of piss running down their leg." However, when Aceveda assigned her to secretly investigate the Strike Team, the more she saw, the less she liked. She was somewhat anti-Vic, but in the second season, Vic and Aceveda struck a bargain to protect each other's interests. When it became clear that Aceveda was running interference on her, she came to dislike both of them. Before Aceveda's election to the City Council, she was tapped as his replacement as Captain of the Barn; this was because Aceveda was expected to lose and resign after his defeat because of some comments made to the Chief of Police. After his victory, however, Claudette was put on the backburner and passed over for promotion. This intensified her hatred for Aceveda (as she has always been secretly ambitious herself), but she still dislikes Vic's methods and his personality.
The Street Cops
Danielle "Danny" Sofer (Catherine Dent): Danny is one of the few female street cops at the Barn. She enjoys her job, but by watching the show, one gets the feeling that she's only a cop because she couldn't think of anything else to do with her life. But by all accounts, she's good at what she does. She's a tough gal, but then again I guess she would have to be to tumble with Vic...figuratively and literally. She has been carrying on a semi-secret affair with Vic for several years but has no desire for an actual relationship with him (which is clearly how he prefers it as well). Still, she obviously feels unfulfilled in life and is a lonely person. Hints have been dropped here and there that she is listening intently to her biological clock and that she desperately wants to have a family. Her friend and confidant is her partner Julien, with whom she had an acrimonious disagreement in the first season over trust issues (which were solved by Aceveda curtly telling them to "get over it") for reasons I will detail in a moment. She seeks validation from her job and often finds it, but for how long?
Julien Lowe (Michael Jace): Julien is your standard-issue rookie cop. He's just a local kid who wanted to give back to his community by helping bring its crime under control. He's a tall black guy who is popular with the ladies at the local cop hang-out. He's partnered with Danny (whom he feels he has to protect, since she's a woman and he's a man) and is over-eager to do the right thing. In the early part of the first season, he witnessed Vic and Shane stealing drugs from an evidence bag to distribute to their contact on the street. Julien is a very religious person and values honesty and goodness, so he went to Aceveda straight away with the complaint. Aceveda seized the opportunity as a good political tool, but it blew up in his face when Julien eventually withdrew his statement and blew the case against Vic. Why did Julien do this? Did Vic entice him with money? No, that can't be it. Oh, wait, I remember: Julien is a self-hating homosexual whom Vic happened to catch in flagrante delicto with a suspect. Vic preyed on Julien's inner conflict over his sexual identity several times in the first season, culminating in his violently beating an HIV+ transvestite in custody after he scratched Danny and drew blood in a self-admitted effort to infect her. Danny intuitively knew Julien was gay, but desperately wanted him to confide in her, which he refused to do despite his clear inner turmoil. Eventually, Julien's ex-boyfriend told the whole precinct about his homosexuality, which resulted in Julien receiving a similar beating at the hands of two minor cop characters. Julien underwent a "sexual reorientation" program at his church and married an older divorcee. Unsurprisingly, Julien has problems performing sexually with his wife. They are attempting to conceive, but have met with limited success.
The new season of the Shield premieres January 10, 2006 at 10:00 PM EST.