Film noir has been done on TV before, but usually in watered-down variations that suited uncomplicated weekly formulas: detective show (Peter Gunn), lawyer show (Perry Mason), cop show (Miami Vice). The Shield is a cop show, but it's not just another cop show. And though, like Miami Vice, it has its own stylistic replacement for noir's signature chiaroscuro, The Shield's heightened, handheld grit is a smart modern idiom in which to explore a complex moral universe.
Shawn Ryan's series doesn't merely concern itself with the usual cops-and-robbers conflict, with clear lines and a corrupt cop here or there for the hero to put in place. There are plenty of conventional bad guys (gangbangers and murderers) and a handful of basically unimpeachable good cops (CCH Pounder's Claudette Wyms, Jay Karnes' "Dutch" Wagenbach, Michael Jace's Julien Lowe), but the hero is perhaps TV's most fascinating anti-hero: LAPD detective Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis, in a career-remaking performance). A corrupt cop first seen murdering a partner who has his number, Vic routinely shakes down gangs for money while lying to his bosses. He's not above murder (doctored to appear a "clean shoot" or frame another criminal), especially when matters get personal. As savvy as Vic is, you don't want to make him angry; his rage is the only thing that trumps his self-protective instinct. Ultimately, he wouldn't seem out of place alongside a despicable but scarily understandable tragic hero like Macbeth. From his tenuous position of power, he talks a good game, but he knows the blood won't ever wash out.
Though Mackey is the average person's worst nightmare of what can thrive within a police force, he also gets results. A loving father, he has a genuine drive to take back the streets from criminals; he just doesn't mind grabbing some of their ill-gotten gains for himself. And whether he's right or wrong (a constant source of debate), Vic knows that he represents the city's best line of defense against the worst scum, which serves as self-justification for anything that keeps him in business (including that haunting cop killing from the show's pilot). Even Wyms, who wants Vic permanently out, must continually eat crow and accept Vic's help to meet the numbers expected by her higher-ups.
Ryan has managed to spin ever more juicy moral tangles over the years, and Season Six sets up audiences for the final season endgame (airing in Fall '08 on FX). Season Five culminated in another cop killing within the Strike Team, this one carried out by Vic's more reckless subordinate Shane Vendrell (Walton Goggins, long overdue for Emmy recognition). Though acting from the same motivation as Vic, Shane's slaying of a close friend, based on false intel, turned out to be an error of judgment by any standard.
Season Six deals with the emotional fallout of the crime, and vengeance-blind Vic's bullish path of destruction, leading to the inevitable discovery that Shane is responsible. Their police station "The Barn" once more faces closure unless Wyms can prove its essentiality, and Vic is looking at a forced early retirement unless he can pull off a miracle of his own. Former police captain Aceveda (Benito Martinez), now a power-playing politician, digs himself a new hole while trying to help Wyms.
The Shield's brilliance is bolstered by the top-of-the-line talent it has attracted in front of and behind the camera. Glenn Close did a season-long stint in the series' fourth year, and Forest Whitaker returns in Season Six to wrap up an Internal Affairs storyline that spanned the previous season. David Mamet has directed for the series, and Frank Darabont (whose The Mist utilized The Shield's shooting crew) helms one of Season Six's key outings. The show's writers not only incorporate dark humor (more grounded and less self-conscious here than on The Sopranos) and outdo the bread-and-butter investigations of an NYPD Blue (including an evolutionary step forward in boundary-pushing sex and violence), but they also traffic in the shadowy moral ambiguity of noir.
Sony's four-disc set of The Shield: Season 6 is the first season of The Shield to debut in anamorphic widescreen, but otherwise its contents are consistent with previous releases: a crisp and detailed transfer with potent Dolby Digital audio and a nice selection of supplemental features.
Given that the sixth season comprises only 10 episodes, this could easily have been a three-disc set, but the extras are significant: 36 deleted scenes with optional commentary (a staple of The Shield on DVD); 7 commentaries, spanning the cast and key creative staff (including director Frank Darabont on his episode), and 3 in-depth behind-the-scenes featurettes.
"Saturn's Sons" (29:46) is a Season Six overview, with insights offered by creator Shawn Ryan and the rest of the writers and cast, as well as generous on-set footage detailing production. "Two Directors" (29:24) splits its time to profile the season's celebrity director (Darabont, best known for The Shawshank Redemption) and highly respected workaday TV veteran Paris Barclay (NYPD Blue). "Full Circle: Franka Potente" (14:14) focuses on the guest star (best known for The Bourne Identity), her character, and her storyline.
Looking forward to the next big thing, Sony includes an FX preview for Sons of Anarchy (:32). For now, it's time to catch up on The Shield, as the final season begins to unfold on FX.
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