Shiny Shelf

The Shield

By Mark Clapham on 12 November 2002

An under resourced, inner city police station: some of the cops are corrupt, others are more honest. On paper there’s very little difference between ‘The Shield’ and ‘The Bill’. Thankfully, in execution they couldn’t be further apart. While ‘The Bill’ is another cheap, turgid British pseudo-soap, ‘The Shield’ hails from the US’s Showtime network, deep in the creative hotzone of US cable television. ‘The Shield’ also represents one of the first signs of Joss Whedon’s proteges taking over television – creator Shawn Ryan worked on ‘Angel’ for that show’s second season.

So, a straightforward cop show premise, the freedom of a subscription channel, and a creator who worked on a camp vampire show. Not the most promising combination, but through some feat of alchemy Ryan and friends have created a distinctive, entertaining drama series with an unflinching approach to the horrors of police work. At the centre of the series is the conflict between two men who represent polar-opposite approaches to their jobs. Detective Mackey is corrupt, violent and the leader of the highly successful ’strike team’, a cop who gets results. The precinct’s captain, Acaveda, is determined to close Mackey down and bring his corruption to an end.

In most shows, Mackey would be the villain and Acaveda the hero, but in ‘The Shield’ things are more complicated. Mackey may be a murderer, a man who deals in drugs on the side, while threatening and blackmailing his enemies into submission, but he’s friendly and loyal and may be one of the few people in the beleagured precinct capable of actually reducing crime. Mackey does all the wrong things – in one notable instance shooting dead a fellow officer sent to spy on him – but he does so with what could be judged to be the right reasons. Acaveda, while determined to close Mackey down and reveal his corruption, is not motivated by any public interest or desire for justice, but simply to further his own political ambitions. Acaveda is after the big score that will make his name, and for him police work is a distraction from his own career.

So, both men are partially admirable, partially reprehensible, and both have their appealing qualities. Their conflict gives ‘The Shield’ the ethical complexity of a morality play, and affects the lives of everyone else in the precinct. While Mackey and Acaveda are the heart of the series, the other characters are all well drawn. There’s Dutch, the detective who fancies himself as a crime-solving genius. Julian, the honest rookie with religious beliefs who finds his life disrupted by his own desires and the strategies of his superiors. Shane, Mackey’s unstable, gung-ho sidekick. All great characters, all approaching their work from different perspectives. If there’s one quality that radiates from ‘The Shield’, it’s moral complexity. The world that the characters have to negotiate is one of constant emotional distress and moral decay: child prostitution, serial killers, drug dealers, domestic violence… all bleak phenomena, leading to radically different responses from the officers who encounter them.

Thankfully, ‘The Shield’ is nowhere near as grim as it could be. The characters all have their human sides, thanks both to excellent scripting and brilliant performances. The subject matter may be dark, but the tone isn’t grindingly depressing. The stories are fast-paced and exciting, with all the high production values you’d expect from a prestige US production.

‘The Shield’ represents another win for Five, a channel thriving in the face of a waning Channel Four, cash-strapped ITV and generally incompetent Beeb. Now if only a British producer could… nah, let’s not even bother pretending.

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By Mark Clapham

Mark Clapham is a Devon-based writer and editor. You can find out more about him at the egotistically named

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