Recently I wondered whether or not some of the acclaim which has been showered on TV-show-of-the-moment The Wire would rub off on The Shield, the cop drama which shares some themes with The Wire and which has, in its own way, been pretty great through most of its seven series run. We’re now half way through the final series, and the answer to my question appears to be ‘no, not really’.
This may in part be because the first few episodes shown this year were, truth be told, terrible. I suggested previously that at some point all of The Shield’s strengths become weaknesses, and so it has come to pass, en masse, this season. The already fast-paced show went into plot twist overdrive, in the process becoming detatched from whatever was anchoring it to reality. As a friend put it, it’s as if the show’s writers suddenly forgot how to tell stories: characters have been behaving bizarrely, in situations which have been set up unconvincingly, and the contrivances have been piling up left, right and centre. With the show looking like a lazy parody of its former self, the usually reliable cast of actors have had little choice but to mug their way through as best they could or, in some cases, go into chicken-in-headlights mode. Only Walton Goggins (normally the closest-to-the-edge member of the cast) has maintained his actorly dignity in the midst of this dramatic car crash.
But, returning to my question, why did The Shield not get more attention when it was actually good? It’s easy to see why The Wire has caught the imagination of critics at this particular time. Amongst other reasons its bleak message – that people’s attempts to change their circumstances are doomed to failure – chimes with the modern penchant for celebrating victimhood. In contrast The Shield is an undeniably intense, macho and testosterone-driven show, in which human willpower is central, and I suspect this sits uneasily with many of the liberal-minded folks who have taken The Wire to their hearts and for whom masculinity is a bad word. Then there’s politics. Given The Wire’s subject matter and sprawling scope, left-learning critics and columnists haven’t had to try too hard to reduce it to a salutory tale about the evils of Bush’s America. It is much more difficult to do the same to The Shield, with its tighter focus and tough questions about morality and human nature.
Or so I thought. In one of the few features to herald the return of the show, Ben Marshall (writing in the Guardian Guide on 14th February) argued that The Shield works as “a hyper-real depiction of a wounded, deeply conflicted country and even as a metaphor for the Bush administration”, whilst pointing out that the show’s run coincided more-or-less with George W Bush’s term in office. He provided evidence for his claim drawn from an interview with Shield creator Shawn Ryan who claimed that the character of corrupt cop Vic Mackey was “very much inspired by the Bush ‘my country, right or wrong’ doctrine”. Michael Chiklis, the actor who played Mackey, also got in on the act: “Bad times often produce great art. If you believe that art is human outcry then there has been a lot to cry about over the last eight years.”.
This has the whiff of hindsight and revisionism about it to me, but of course we can’t know for sure what was in the heads of Ryan and co when they were making the show or how directly they were influenced by political events. Whatever the case, if The Shield is genuinely intended to be a giant metaphor for the hubris of the Bush administration, it’s not a very good one.
Power is their common factor but The Shield tells us little about George W Bush and vice versa. For a start, the highly intelligent and calculating character of Mackey just doesn’t make a good proxy for Bush, for obvious reasons. And it’s not just a matter of personality or strength of character. The source of their power, their motivations for using it, and the manner in which they do so are all very different. Mackey is the head of a small but effective team of police officers which bends the rules in order to keep drug dealers under control in a rundown part of LA. Bush was the head of the most powerful nation on the planet at a time when, post-collapse of communism, it lacked any meaningful purpose or direction. Mackey routinely takes incredible risks and makes them work. Bush and other American politicians view the very idea of risk as something to be avoided wherever possible, and haven’t any idea how to see whatever risks they do take through to a successful conclusion. Mackey and Bush could hardly be more different in what they represent.
Viewing a show like The Shield or The Wire through the narrow prism of anti-capitalism means you’re likely to miss a lot of what makes them interesting. Take the way The Shield handles the question of money – normally treated as ‘the root of all evil’ (hand-in-hand with consumerism and a love of material things). True, the pursuit of large amounts of cash does lead the corrupt cops in Mackey’s Strike Team into all kinds of trouble and eventually causes them to turn on each other. And they do jokily fantasise about using it to bring them a carefree life of leisure. But their actual concern, as seen again and again throughout the series, is to support and protect their families (as reflected in their description of their ill-gotten gains as a ‘pension fund’). And material possessions hardly figure in their lives, which mostly consists of incredibly stressful and dangerous work. If anything, the show raises questions about why Mackey and co feel they need to be go to such extremes to secure a decent lifestyle for their loved ones. And Bush-shaped blinkers won’t help us answer questions like that.