The first but least distinctive entry on FX’s impressive dramatic blotter, “The Shield” opens its fourth season with Glenn Close assuming a prominent role but doesn’t begin to sizzle until the third episode. Although grittier than the crimeshow glut evident elsewhere, Shawn Ryan’s creation is still mostly about very bad perps and almost-as-bad cops, the latter ferociously embodied by Michael Chiklis. The slow start notwithstanding, the show should have its core audience locked up, especially with thematic godfather “NYPD Blue” having left its precinct.
Tapped as the strife-plagued L.A. police unit’s new captain, Monica Rawlings (Close) works to inaugurate a gang task force and use money from drug seizures to finance her ambition-fueled plans. That requires controlling and putting to use Vic Mackey (Chiklis), who is back on detective duty after the dissolution of his corrupt strike team.
Vic’s latest quarry is a former drug distributor, Antwon (comic Anthony Anderson), whose activities as a “community leader” mask a Geppetto-like role manipulating criminal activity. Meanwhile, the unit’s most stalwart defender of morality, Claudia Wynns (the always fine CCH Pounder), struggles with being relegated to the doghouse for breaking the code of silence, having blown the whistle on tainted convictions.
A final plot involves Vic’s former running partner, Shane (Walton Goggins), now operating as a vice cop with unsavory ties to Antwon’s operation. It’s not until the third segment, however, that the threads begin coming together, as Rawlings and Mackey work to stop a string of gang murders.
Dense and provocative, “The Shield” proves especially daring in dealing with race and poverty, highlighted by the gangs’ cavalier attitude toward life and death. At least initially, though, the program is too slow developing in connecting its scattered roster of characters.
Close represents a nice addition, in part because Rawlings is enticingly difficult to read in regard to long-term objectives. That said, her promise remains limited until the third hour, when she addresses the troops about the daunting task of patrolling an impoverished neighborhood. “We can’t make fathers want to stay in kids’ lives,” she notes.
As for Chiklis, he continues to bring an almost primal quality to his much-honored role as Mackey, a complex character who genuinely despises criminals but has no problem with engaging in a little criminality of his own.
Jarring at first in its subject matter and shaded characterizations, the basic problem now is that these themes are so familiar and worked over, especially compared to the cable net’s “Nip/Tuck,” “Rescue Me” and even the show’s previous seasons. “The Shield” thus plays like a saltier version of what’s available on every corner — an able warrior, essentially, whose beat suddenly feels a bit too well trodden.