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History of TV: Behind ‘The Shield’ is a different kind of cop show

March 24, 2022
5 min read time

Television procedurals have long been the heart of primetime viewing: the decades-long Law & Order series, the never-ending Grey’s Anatomy, the 9-1-1s, CSI: Crime Scene Investigationand everything by Wolf Entertainment. Twenty years ago, The Shield joined those ranks, and then promptly shattered them in its first hour on TV. Premiering on March 12, 2002, the FX series was a little different than other cop shows. It featured an “experimental division” of LAPD in a fictional district of Los Angeles. The show itself is a bit of an experiment of how invested audiences would get in its leads—namely, Michael Chiklis in his image-changing role as corrupt Detective Vic Mackey. The pilotbroke records as the highest-rated scripted premiere in basic-cable history. The Shield scooped up a Golden Globe® Award for Best Television Series - Drama its first year out of the gate, while its seventh and final season won an AFI Award for best television series. Chiklis also won Best Lead Actor at the Primetime Emmys® and the Golden Globes.

Real-life roots

The Shield’s depiction of law enforcement felt ground-breaking for 2002. The line between good and bad blurredas Mackey cemented the theme with his line: “Good cop and bad cop left for the day. I’m a different kind of cop.”

It was a risky move putting that kind of anti-hero in the driver’s seat of a show. Creator Shawn Ryan (S.W.A.T., The Unit) originally based the concept for The Shield and its “Strike Team” (which Mackey heads up) on the real-life Rampart Division police scandal of the late ‘90s, which involved systemic corruption within its anti-gang unit. This sort of corruption sees the light more and more now, in part thanks to the advent of technology and increased transparency. It is a fragile subject, today and when The Shield first aired. A time when anger and fear permeated the atmosphere at an all-time high, fresh off of 9/11. Perhaps audiences were more willing to tune in to watch cops like Mackey and his team because he kept children safe and dangerous rapists off the street. He even gives a hooker cash for soup while insisting she visit her child (right after giving her drugs for a tip).

His unethical and sometimes illegal methods of achieving "just" ends, juxtaposed with other facets of his personality and serves to put “cops like that” under a microscope—just as their Captain David Aceveda (Benito Marinez) does in the show, along with detectives Claudette (CCH Pounder) and Dutch (Jay Karnes). This is where The Shield’s incredible writers excel. They present a multi-faceted picture, as well as the cringe-worthy, shocking drama that sort of makes you question, well, everything and anyone in the show (including your own opinions) consistently break expectations.

Touchy subjects

One of the things that can make a procedural compelling is the side-stories of its main characters. These storylines can underscore the main plot’s case, as well as heighten the stakes for those involved. The Shield didn’t pull any punches when it came to these “B Stories” either. 

Starting with Mackey, who is a morally questionable cop that cheats on his wife. Two of his children are autistic, and he has an illegitimate child with co-worker Danni Sofer (Catherine Dent) who becomes a single parent. The show also dealt with homosexuality through Julien Lowe (Michael Jace) and his struggle coming to terms with his sexuality as a devout Christian. Claudette is diagnosed with Lupus and is a Black woman fighting to advance in her career. Meanwhile, Captain Aceveda is sexually assaulted in the show,

By elevating these storylines to personal struggles with characters we know, rather than just through the case-of-the-week, the audience is more fully immersed in the emotional journey and how it can impact all aspects of life. The show’s handheld shots part of its cinematic style made an impact in the show. The Shield feels raw because we’re made to feel in the fray.

In Retrospect

This gritty show never lost its edge, drawing attention and big-name big screen guest stars like Forest Whitaker, Glenn Close (who received Emmy and Golden Globe noms for her role), Laura Harring, Anthony Anderson, and Franka Potente. David Mamet and Frank Darabont even directed episodes. The show’s series finale doesn’t waver an inch from its core trajectory, despite being shot during the WGA strike and thus without Ryan. Fun fact, Kenny Johnson—who portrayed the ill-fated Curtis Lemansky on The Shield—is now on Ryan’s new cop show (co-created with Aaron Rahsaan Thomas) S.W.A.T.

The Shield did a phenomenal job at mirroring everything as a society we are, wish to be, or could be. It aired at a time when subjects were still taboo and taking risks on television wasn’t the norm.

Stream The Shield on Hulu, or FX Now in Canada.

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