FX breaks new ground in a big way with “The Shield,” the most innovative, electric and foul-mouthed hour to hit the tube since one of its obvious influences, “The Sopranos.” Often funny, always frank and strikingly filmed, series takes the set-in-stone conventions of police theater — good cops, bad cops, charming criminals — and fashions a completely new take on law and order. Everything goes (nudity, language, violence), but that’s just the beginning; one-upping any overhyped “NYPD Blue”-like controversy over whether or not it’s kosher to show someone’s backside on TV, it’s also a tour de force of assorted emotions, layered relationships and raw dialogue.
The only question is: Can the relatively new cabler find an audience? Having turned a corner in January with the terrific madefor “Sins of the Father,” original programming arm is placing all bets on its first drama skein to establish the banner as a major player on every front. People will surely say things like, “I don’t even know what channel FX is,” so the promo team better rev up and find a way to attract viewers. This one is worth the effort.
Having gathered a handful of accomplished directors, including Clark Johnson (HBO’s “Boycott”), Gary Fleder (“Don’t Say a Word”), D.J. Caruso (“The Salton Sea”) and Stephen Gyllenhaal (“Losing Isaiah”), FX ups the ante in terms of quality but also in terms of narrative elements. Whereas only a few years ago, certain things hardly could be said on TV, “Shield” uses a relative boatload of nongratuitous profanity and maturely. And to be fair, it’s a harder task: While “Sopranos” gets the benefit of appearing on a pay net, “The Shield” is more restricted due to its basic cable status.
The major force is LAPD Detective Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis), a crude, loud, obnoxious and rogue cop who is terrific at what he does. Able to make silent perps squeal at a moment’s notice, he’s both extremely well-respected — nobody wants him on another team — and hated. Clark-helmed pilot, written by creator Shawn Ryan, highlights Mackey’s loose-cannon personality at every turn while slowly turning auds onto his illegal ways, a la Denzel Washington in “Training Day.”
His colleagues are clearly defined. Officer Danielle Sofer (Catherine Dent) is a loner whose affair with Mackey has made her somewhat of a Nervous Nellie. Detective Holland Wagenbach (Jay Karnes) is a calm, nerdy thinker who uses reverse psychology to great effect in order to extract admissions of guilt, and Detective Claudette Wyms (CCH Pounder) is the wily vet whose demeanor befits a professor but whose attitude is perfectly suited for dangerous work.
They’re all under the watch of Capt. David Aceveda (Benito Martinez), a crafty hunk of a leader who pits everyone against each other while incurring much wrath for being a test-taker, someone who rises through the ranks without uniform experience. Politically speaking, he spends most of his time trying to weed out his department’s bad seeds in order to look great since his ultimate goal is to become L.A.’s mayor.
Debut follows two storylines. Aceveda tries his hardest to bring down Mackey even though everybody else advises against it. Using an unproven yes-man (Reed Diamond) to report back all of Mackey’s indiscretions, Aceveda unwittingly is sending a lamb to slaughter; Mackey’s too smart to think that the rookie is trying to become one of the guys, and the consequence is extreme.
Mackey and Aceveda’s ongoing tension plays out against the backdrop of a kidnapped girl: Her crack-addicted father killed her mother and sold her to a pedophile for a pittance. Eventually discovering a trail of sickos who know where the girl is, Wyms and Wagenbach do their best to find out if she is still alive. Realizing his reputation will suffer if he can’t find her, Aceveda gives in and tells Mackey that he needs him — a sign of obvious forfeiture in their power tussle.
“Shield” has no shortage of explosive moments, with either Johnson’s wonderfully understated gritty approach or coarse language popping up at the appropriate times in appropriate ways. Critics who claim TV has gone too far will cry bloody murder, but as a slice of reality, nothing is overdone.
Anchored by a perfectly pitched Chiklis, cast is solid across the board, from the men in blue who collar the bad guys to the prominent supporting characters. Standouts include newcomer Karnes, who personifies the office geek while maintaining his ability to do his job. Pounder is the voice of reason who’s tough when she needs to be and even-keeled when faced with difficult situations. As the two-faced department leader, Martinez is either extremely cool or hot-tempered, depending on what earns him the most points with his subordinates.
As for the inspiration, the muses are evident: “The Sopranos,” “Law and Order,” “Homicide.” And while it’s a sure bet that some will see “Shield” as just another shoot-’em-up, the argument for its familiarity is this: If you’re gonna take a cue from something, it might as well be the best.
Surprisingly, however, all of this feels extremely new, which, of course, it isn’t. Shaky cameras and dark streets are staples of everything from “NYPD Blue” to A&E’s recently canceled “100 Centre Street.” Here, however, the point is crystal-clear: No matter how often this structure and method are aped, quality plots and relevant leads are the key.
Performances are sustained by an explosive style that includes Steve Polivka’s dynamite quick-cut editing, Rohn Schmidt’s bleached-out camerawork and James Newport’s fitting production design — the precinct is cramped and dingy, and there’s a constant sense of urgency.