STUFF I LIKE #4: The Shield

15/04/2010 at 3:17 pm 1 comment

Last year in preparation for a panel on popular culture the facilitator asked me (as one of the panelists) to list some of their favourite books, movies, TV shows (and so on) so she had an idea of who she was dealing with. This is quite an interesting exercise, as it forces you to narrow down the scores (nay hundreds) of forms of entertainment one might consume in a ten or twenty year period of one’s life. Given that I have given most of my career over to the entertainment business it’s especially tricky. But worthwhile. In the end, I cheated slightly listing a top ten for separate categories; splitting Movies and Television (how can you compare The Simpsons with Alien?), also breaking down ‘Books’ into fiction, non-fiction and drama. It makes for quite a long list (especially when you add categories like Music & Art), but a fascinating process to determine which are the major influences on my art and work in a world so information heavy.

Looking back at the list I want to reflect on why these particular choices stood out. Once a week I’ll be picking one and posting on why that particular show/film/book/song/work influences me as an artist. Hopefully this will help me further my understanding of why I create.

Previous posts on District 9, The Wire and Survivor will be classified as #1, 2 & 3 – (although the order is arbitrary), and I’ll probably post on them again, but for now we move onto…

#4: The Shield (This is Hardcore)

As cop shows go, seven seasons is a pretty good run, especially for a show that offers up characters with such intense moral ambiguity you’re left spinning by the end of each episode to the point of vertigo. The first episode of the final chapter aired last night in Australia (at midnight), and no wonder, given the content is true to form, upping the ante even further than we might have thought possible. Looks like a screamer. All the loose threads from six years of Strike Team shortcuts and slightly-off-kilter ways of getting things done are unraveling, and fast.

But I’m getting into spoiler territory, so let’s take a step back and look at some of the reasons why this show is so powerful.

The Writing
Conflicted characters, bad choices, good choices, sharp dialogue. Intense content presented without pulling punches. It’s all there. In between shootouts and interrogations with serial killers there’s some very clever banter to lighten things up. Shane Vendrell is one of the most darkly funny (and real) creations TV copland will ever see. Which perfectly demonstrates why good writing is king. Great writing attracts great actors.

Buy or rent Season One and (after watching) listen to the commentary on DVD. It’s a masterclass in casting, and for that matter directing – writer/creator Shawn Ryan riffing with director Clark Johnson on the development process in episode 1 give SO MUCH insight on how to get an original show off the ground. Johnson comes with his own cop show pedigree dating back to his work on Homicide: Life on the Street, precursor to The Wire, in which he also features. But it’s the acting that lifts everything to the next level.

The consistency of the guest roles across the board is astonishing. You don’t notice how good they are because you’re so caught up in what their character is doing. It makes a certain Australian crime show look like Neighbours. They don’t really cast recognisable faces so much – Michael Chiklis being the only ‘profile star’ in the pilot that I can think of – but later seasons feature heavyweights such as Glenn Close and Forest Whitaker as regular players. And when they get involved, they really get involved. Whitaker in particular is like a train wreck fused with a time bomb. You can’t look away.

The Direction
Stylistically it’s almost heavy handed, almost documentary, but so fast and punchy that you’re caught in the headlamps and knocked over before you know it. So when the camera does slow down, it really works. Direction isn’t just the enviable mise-en-scene though, it’s also the direction that the stories take – always unexpected, always with vision and clarity. It’s worth noting how FX, the cable studio that produces the show, take a hands-off approach to the creators, letting them take the show to the places they want, trusting them to fulfill a vision. And it pays.

Australian drama production could learn a lot from this.
The Shield doesn’t try too hard. Scratch that- they are clearly working their arses off, but in a way that seems effortless. So much local content is force-fed, with the irritating expositional voice-overs and scenery chewing, to say nothing about the music videos masquerading as ‘hip’ directing. Yes, I’m talking about Underbelly, but also all the contrived whitebread police shows that have plagued our screens for the past ten years or so. It’s no risk, and no-win. I’m waiting for a production house to really raise the bar, and offer this kind of character driven, morally ambiguous story arc -in a way that doesn’t glorify criminal behaviour.

It’s Hardcore
The commitment of the cast and crew is such that the snapshot of Los Angeles streets in the early part of the 21st Century will probably serve as one of the more poignant reference points of history. Where shows like The Wire offer sprawling, character driven plotlines to depict urban decay and corruption, The Shield brings its narrative in vignettes, anchoring the minor characters’ stories through the wider arc of the Strike Team and surrounding police staff. There’s no overarching symbolism, instead the creators have gone for intense realism and high-stakes action. The choices that are made in the thick of police work give us plenty to chew on; without getting too intellectual about it either.

This style reflects elements of our society that are quick-draw. Always on the move, always shifting our focus, but with a constantly bubbling danger in the background, that if left unwatched will create catastrophe. The boy’s club brotherhood at the centre of the cast are a tight unit, and the machismo is both charming and grotesque. Vic Mackey is a study of the Alpha male ability to simultaneously attract and repel. Nasty cop, corrupt, brutal, does what ever it takes to protect his family and friends. You want him on your side. Somehow we end up sympathising and barracking for the man who breaks the rules and laughs all the way home.

His buddies are just as bad (for no other reason than that they condone it), in varying shades of grey; as decent & hardworking cops or flawed assholes it doesn’t matter – what pulls you in is the complete faith they have in each other. It’s something that sadly lacks in our world so even in this harsh environment, we want to believe in it. So when it starts to crack… oh boy.

What I like about this show is it doesn’t take sides, it’s not preachy, but nor is it overtly bleak. The formulaic cop show format is all there, with wisecracking detectives and subplots delving into people’s personal lives – yet it’s looking at places that no other show can. The bright Los Angeles streets can cast some very dark shadows.

Entry filed under: Film REVIEW, Stuff I Like. Tags: , , , , .

WE’RE NOT IN ANCIENT GREECE ANYMORE I AM NOT A MUSE (some thoughts on performance)

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. miabakovic  |  18/04/2010 at 12:03 am

    I was here….
    Hit 1

    xoxox Mia Love


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