The Shield: Season 2 (Ryan, 2003)

After a startling and exhilarating opening act, the sophomore season of The Shield goes into repeat mode. Vic and his Strike Force Team continue to bend the law, shifting from the drug game to planning a daring and dangerous assault on an Armenian money train. The same office politics plague The Barn while Aceveda turns into a lame duck leader and heads for the City Council. You can tell Shawn Ryan and his skilled team of writers and directors attempt to reveal the problematic fissures tearing the Police Force apart, but these commentaries don’t hold the weight they should. The Shield depends on strong writing and complex characterizations to make an impact, but Season 2 allows superficial plot devices and artificial aesthetics to overwhelm these great characters. That’s not to say there isn’t a lot to like about Season 2, including the emergence of a devilish Mexican drug-lord named Armadillo, a savage rapist and murderer who challenges Vic and his crew for supremacy of the Farmington drug trade. Also, Det. Wyms (the stoic CCH Pounder) begins to comprehend her own importance as a leader and force in the department. I’m hoping the show will take some more narrative chances in Season 3, possibly mixing up the relationships and situational procedures to show a clear evolution.

The Shield: Season 1 (Ryan, 2002)

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It’s strangely ironic that The Wire and The Shield, two vastly different but equally influential cop shows, both premiered in 2002. If David Simon’s Baltimore-based urban mosaic is a sprawling, intelligent, and insightful window into the contradictions plaguing modern day institutions, then Shawn Ryan’s L.A. cop show is its schizophrenic, brutal, and raging younger brother, a West coast beast consumed by horrific representations of good and evil and the blurring of ethical and moral lines post -9/11. If anything, The Shield never pulls punches when it comes to characterizations and story. The Farmington Police Force provides the focal epicenter for the show, a group anchored by a special Strike Team led by Vic Mackey (played to perfection by Michael Chiklis). Drug dealers, pimps, murderers, and rapists are the local flavor of the week, but the narrative runs on the fuel of deception, greed, corruption, and guilt within the departmental ranks. Unlike The Wire, Ryan’s vision centers specifically on cops, both dirty and clean, ambitious and contentious, and the devastating stories they both solve and create. It’s almost never a pleasant world to inhabit, but shards of light fill the frame every once in a while, complicating what should be black and white judgements. The first season of The Shield uses shock and awe tactics to create a chorus of long-lasting visceral moments, however it builds to a startling crescendo through the audience’s connection with each character, and the complexity of their plight. It’s hard to imagine six more seasons of such a draining story, for the characters and especially the viewer. But the beauty of The Shield lies in it’s desire to keep pushing genre toward the edge, both curious and frightened at what will happen when the entire whole tips over the side. Objects of heroism have never been more clouded with doubt.

Damages: Season 1 (Kessler, Kessler, Zelman, 2007)

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Have we now reached the point where American Television provides consistently better acting and storytelling than home-grown feature films? Possibly, but it might be better to point out that the sheer dynamics of a television show has a key advantage over film. Great shows like The Wire, Deadwood, and Dexter spend multiple years developing characters and plot-lines, ultimately allowing for a deep audience connection throughout a meticulously crafted process. Also, quality television shows sometimes create a fascinating bridge between literary and cinematic devices, as in The Wire, transcending expectations and genre for a more substantial, crucial vision of our modern day world. For these reasons, Television has made itself indispensable again, and I’m keen to explore the many possibilities on the airwaves today.

Damages, a gripping legal thriller from F/X (now in it’s second season), takes themes of deception and manipulation as its key thematic pair, deconstructing scriptwriting expectations at every turn from the Pilot on to the gripping first season finale. But maybe more so than any other modern show, Damages depends on the potency of performance, and the nuance of cinematic acting. Glenn Close plays high-powered NYC attorney Patty Hewes, a woman of great intelligence and influence currently embroiled in a civil suit against a corrupt CEO played to sleazy perfection by Ted Danson. By the end of the Pilot, it’s clear Patty isn’t your normal heroine, and the show’s creators go to great lengths to complicate her brutality and rage. But Damages is so fascinating because of the character trajectory of Hewes’ foil, Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne), a young lawyer whose entanglement in the case sets of a dynamic chain of narrative events that structure the entire first season. The battle between Ellen and Patty becomes the core mind game within show a stricken with betrayal. The casualties of this bloody and verbose war make a lasting impression, and like in all great television, keeps you invested during the long, painful wait for next season.

Southland: Pilot Episode (Biderman, Wells, 2009)

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I don’t write about television very much on this site, probably because specific programs need years to develop a voice, and in turn are far more difficult to consider in short format. But sometimes a show immediately grabs you with its distinct vision of the world, characters, and tone (Sports NightBoomtown, and The Wire come to mind). Having just watched NBC’s outstanding pilot Southland, I can affirm that this is one such case (see it for yourself here). Procedurals often offer the most potent and sane approach to the unthinkable horrors of everyday life, and Southland tries to examine the difficult complexities of urban existence through a juxtaposition of devastating moments of senseless violence and the professionals and civilians caught in the middle. The show considers a mosaic of peace officers – a stoic rookie (Ben McKenzie), worn beat cops (Michael Cudlitz), and detectives of all sorts (Regina King being the stand out), thankfully favoring them as a collective, individuals staring the same social contradictions in the face, yet choosing to go on with the job. These characters matter from the start and their decisions make an impact on everyone around them, letting the dramatic moments ring true. This is possible because the writing paints these people as conflicted, not indicative of simplistic cliche. Like all good pilots, the first episode opens countless inroads to intriguing story-lines, while reveling in the fascinating ambiguities surrounding each main character. With a show like Southland, it’s all about the atmosphere, and it creates a powerful menace that seems to linger around each corner. With Southland, for an hour each week, we might get a sense of what it’s like to be a police officer, putting yourself out there in an ocean of uncertainty because you have no other choice.  But it’ll be the varying layers underneath the genre facade that will make this show particularly viable and valuable.

Fissures of Joy in Twin Peaks (Lynch, Frost, 1990-91)

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After countless false starts, I finally finished David Lynch and Mark Frost’s scarily addicting television opus (it’s prequel Fire Walk With Me is next on the agenda). Being a David Lynch fan,Twin Peaks is of course everything I’d hoped it would be – horrifying, funny, menacing, and most surprisingly, truly sincere. But after almost thirty hours, the small moments of pure joy shared between certain characters stand out, whether it be the trio of Donna, James, and Maddy singing a haunting song, Cooper sipping a nice cup of Joe while giving Audrey a smiling glance, or Nadine squeezing the life out of Ed with a superhuman strength hug. These fissures of joyous character interaction counter the overall darkness lurking around every corner of Twin Peaks, exemplified by reflections of demons in the mirror, the loud hoot of owls searching for prey, and the terrible screams of unfortunate women being extinguished. The unfinished mysteries of Twin Peaks will always overwhelm and outweigh its surface-level certainties.

Sucker Free City (Lee, 2004)

Modern day sagas of urban decay and failing social institutions will inevitably pale in comparison to David Simon’s penultimate series The Wire. But Spike Lee’s harrowing glance at gang life in San Francisco does an admirable job interlocking race, stereotype, and economical alliance with interesting characters worth examining, producing fresh clarity on the tragedies of the street. Sucker Free City gets its edge from combining multiple classes as well as ethnicities, showing how dependent each have become on the success and failure of the rest. Anthony Mackie’s lead performance bristles with a fascinating combination of raging intensity and plotting calm, proving yet again he’s an underused force in the movies.

The Wire: Season 5 (HBO, 2008)

The Wire looks long and hard at the wide-ranging falsities ravishing modern day social institutions (the police department, city hall, and most notably the media), ranging from the most minute white lies of fabricating a quote to the grandiose corruption within the highest echelons of bureaucracy.  As usual, the devastating ramifications of this trickle down effect fall directly on the shoulders of the innocent, the naive, and the weak, creating an intricate urban mosaic plush with drama and tragedy. Creator’s David Simon and Ed Burns have fashioned a worthy ending to what many believe is the finest piece of media in the last decade, engaging the numerous characters through moments of finality and clarity before dimming the lights over the locale’s epicenter, the shifting landscape of Baltimore. The Wire, with its sprawling scope and fascinating parallels, is not just about the human cost of the drug war, shady politics, or education cuts. It deals with the circularity of the entire process, where ignorance and arrogance spawn generations of ill-equipped professionals and cynical civilians, leaving everyone caught in a lie. Together, this tandem slowly dances the community towards a grave of irrelevance, shaking the very notion of human interaction to the core. The Wire reflects the most complicated and calculated aspects of human nature in shades of grey, but never loses sight of its greatest idea; that the dark and muddy waters of truth might lead to a newfound propensity for hope.