When The Shield debuted back in 2002, I could not have been less interested. Another cop show? Starring The Commish? At the time I had room for but one prestige TV drama in my life, and it was HBO's The Sopranos. Thanks, I said, but not thanks.
Fast forward a couple years, and a friend of mine got addicted to the series. Wouldn't stop talking about it. He told me it wasn't really the show he expected, that it was something much darker and bold. Eventually this friend sat me down and forced me to watch the first few episodes, and that was that: I was fully hooked on The Shield. It wasn't just the writing, which was top-notch and filled with crackling dialogue, and it wasn't just the performances, which were across-the-board excellent. What really sold me was the overwhelming sense of authenticity, the immediate feeling that Shawn Ryan and company were willing to go to some very unsavory places in order to fully explore the lives of The Shield's characters, and that it would never flinch in the process of examining those characters' actions.
For those unfamiliar: The Shield takes place in the fictional Los Angeles district of Farmington, a place overflowing with crime and corruption. It's happening out in the streets, it's happening in the back room of every corner store, it's happening right there in The Barn, the makeshift police station (once a church!) where Farmington's police officers have been forced to set up shop. Most of the action revolves around the increasingly volatile police work being done by Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis) and his Strike Team, a ragtag group of cops who are willing to do just about anything to keep Farmington's people safe...which sometimes means doing things that aren't entirely legal. Planting evidence, say, or killing their fellow cops. At its heart, The Shield is a story about fighting evil with a different kind of evil, and the toll this takes on everyone involved.
Much in the same way that viewers had a love/hate relationship with Walter White and Tony Soprano, being a Shield fan meant both loving and hating Vic Mackey and his crew. In the beginning, their hearts are in the right place, each of their corrupt actions counterbalanced by an act of undeniable good. In those early seasons, part of the thrill of being a viewer is wrestling with how you feel about the Strike Team's methods (sure, Vic might brutally beat a suspect with a phone book to obtain a confession, but maybe that was also the only way to learn the whereabouts of a kidnapped child). As the series goes on, however, the balance shifts. Greed creeps into the equation. Violence begets a whole lot more violence. The justifications sound increasingly desperate. Several seasons in, The Shield becomes a different kind of show, one where the entertainment comes from seeing how these terrible people will wriggle their way out of the latest corner they've painted themselves into.
It's not all about Mackey and his crew, though. There are plenty of other characters in The Barn, and each has their own story worth telling. There's Dutch Wagenbach (Jay Karnes), the rumpled detective who approaches each new case with the methodology of an FBI profiler. There's Claudette Wyms (the incomparable CCH Pounder), who may be the only person in Farmington who isn't willing to bend the rules to get the job done. There's Aceveda (Benito Martinez), the police captain with political aspirations whose tolerance for bad behavior depends largely on whether it will benefit him directly. There's beat cops Danny (Catherine Dent) and her partner, Julien (Michael Jace, now in actual prison for murder)(!!!), the latter of whom is struggling with his sexuality in an environment that is particularly unfriendly to homosexuals. The Shield is a rich, grimy tapestry that weaves all these plotlines together, often in satisfyingly unexpected ways.
The back third of the series (which goes on for seven glorious seasons) shuffles a few new characters into the deck, some of whom are played by heavy-hitter performers you might be surprised to see on an FX cop show: Forest Whittaker, for instance, or Glenn Close. Each of them run afoul of the Strike Team in their own ways, none of them exit the picture without having their lives turned completely upside down. Indeed, some of them don't make it out alive. In the show's final two seasons, simmering tensions and old crimes raise the tension to unbearable levels, with one episode after another delivering savage blows to both its characters and viewers. It all culminates in one of the all-time greatest series finales in television history, one that manages to give The Sopranos a run for its money in the "Holy shit, they really did that" department.
On the whole, The Shield is an all-timer, a show simultaneously ahead of its time and too brutal for today's audiences (there's stuff in here that would absolutely not fly on television in 2019). The complete series Blu-ray set, recently released by Mill Creek, functions as both a time capsule and a gift to fans, many of whom have spent years waiting for this series to escape its standard-definition bonds. This set, which was "remastered in 4K from the original 16mm film elements", presents the best-looking version of the show that's ever existed. The grit and grain that were so iconic to The Shield's look have been largely preserved, but everything's also sharper than it used to be. The process of converting the show's original footage could not have been easy (it is, in fact, why it took so damn long for this set to get made), but it was worth the wait.
In addition to the presentation, there are extras. Many extras. Some of these carry over from the complete series DVD set that was released some years ago, some are new. There are episode commentaries, behind the scenes featurettes, a documentary on the Rampart division of the LAPD that served as the inspiration for the Strike Team, in-depth looks at the set design and editing that went into the show, audition tapes, panel discussions, a 2018 cast/crew reunion featuring virtually all of The Shield's main players, a writer's panel from the ATX Television Festival (featuring Shawn Ryan, Kurt Sutter, Glen Mazzara and others), and a new series retrospective. All of these extras are split between two discs, with the show's 88 episodes spread across another 16 discs. It's a massive set, and - from where I'm standing - a fairly definitive one. They've even gone to the trouble of housing it all in a sleek case crowned with a replica police badge. It's great.
For years now, I've been fruitlessly recommending The Shield to anyone who'd listen, only to hit the same brick wall over and over again: it was difficult to find, and once found it wasn't available in HD. This was frustrating, to be sure, but I'm thrilled to say Mill Creek's new set takes care of that problem once and for all. If you've been holding off on watching The Shield until it was available in HD, or with all the bells and whistles a completist might want, this is the set you've been waiting for. If you've never experienced this series, you're all out of excuses. Buy with confidence.