If Clint Eastwood did nothing else, he man aged to mortally wound one of twentieth century culture's most sacred cows. It seems odd now, more than thirty years after Dirty Harry changed their face forever, but there was a time when police were figures viewed with unquestioned reverence. In their televisual universes, cops like Dixon of Dock Green and Eliot Ness were the knights bound to a code of chivalry as they enforced the laws of the king. Of course characters like these are only viable in the fairytales constructed by Hayes Code-restricted Hollywood and Enid Blyton, but they are powerful archetypes nonetheless.
Forced to live in something approximating the real world, the New Cop faces an audience fully aware that law enforcement is something that can't be wrapped up in forty-four minutes. Morality gets murkier as camerawork gets shakier, and the chivalric archetype blurs from the purity of Galahad to the ambiguity of Mordred. Shows become 'gritty' and 'streetwise', and producers value 'authenticity' as the highest creative achievement. Strangely, however, the stories still get wrapped up in forty-four minutes, and the compromise between reality-chic and traditional drama frequently results in shows that resemble those kids that buy the same clothes as Eminem to enhance their street cred.
While it never quite opens itself up to that sort of laughable comparison, The Shield often seems to skate perilously close. It knows all the buttons that a 'hard-hitting' show is supposed to push, and hence characters constantly throw each other up against walls to have conversations between gritted teeth and we get all the prostitutes, police corruption and child pornography that the writers can muster. The irony is that this realism frequently evaporates because the button pushing is so self-conscious. Reality becomes just another style that the viewer can recognize and dismiss as TV fantasy. There's nothing really dangerous about Vic Mackey's normal behaviour because he is such a systematic negative image of the chivalric ideal and thus predictable.
If this were all the show had to offer, it would be easy to read The Shield as a facile exercise in dramatic chest beating. The trouble with this, however, is the increasingly unsettling moments that strand Vic between reality chic and old-fashioned decency and demand that he make a choice. When a friend begs him to bash her in order to evade a murder conviction and he struggles with his conscience he ceases to be merely a collection of Eastwoodisms. The damsel in distress cannot be saved by decency nor glibly abandoned out of self-interest, and the character flounders as he is forced to invent a new chivalry rather than react against the old model.
If it manages to consistently examine challenging territory like this, The Shield could develop into a very interesting series indeed. It is a show that seems committed to taking risks, but sensationalism in itself isn't risky; it is the quest to dig below the surface and the jaded reactions of the series leads. We have to care about evil again, and the pragmatism that we may be forced into in the fight for what is necessary. We have to be able to be shocked all over again. We have to be reminded of chivalry. And that's the weirdest thing of all.
Dave Hoskin is a freelance writer. His plans for world domination are progressing well.
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|Title Annotation:||TV Eye|
|Article Type:||Television Program Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2004|
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