The Shield v The Wire

It’s official! Television viewers and critics, Booker Prize-winning novelists, the United Nations and even God all agree that The Wire is ‘the best television show ever’. And I think I’m with them; the widespread acclaim belatedly given to the show over the last year or so is mostly deserved. But I’m curious to see if any of the glory will rub off on my other fave show, The Shield, when it returns to UK screens later this month for its final season. After all The Shield has a lot in common with The Wire: it’s a challenging and intelligent cops-and-robbers show with great scripts and acting; it doesn’t make clear-cut distinctions between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ characters; police brutality and corruption are presented as the norm rather than the exception; and it has built up a decent-sized UK fan base by word of mouth. But, in a reverse of The Wire’s fortunes, it was a ratings hit in America (at least for a non-network show) and still remains largely ignored by the UK media.

The general consensus amongst fans of both shows is that The Shield took television drama to a new level and The Wire propelled it to even greater heights. So I was intrigued to hear that Chris Petit had written a piece for the Guardian which argued that The Shield is in fact better than The Wire.

Unfortunately, it turned out to be another article about The Wire: only four-and-a-bit of the 26 paragraphs mention The Shield. Of course, it’s always refreshing to have a critical take on a show that’s been showered with as much praise as The Wire. But did the article get sub-edited to shreds, or did Petit not have much to back up his claim? Either way, I think he did both shows a disservice.

Drama v Journalism

Most of the article is given is over to telling us how journalist David Simon came to create The Wire. This is there partly so that Petit can make a half-hearted point about journalistic exploitation, noting that whilst Simon’s career thrived off the back of a year he spent hanging around with Baltimore police officers, their careers suffered because of it and still languish in the doldrums. Funnily enough, Petit doesn’t mention that much of The Shield was also borne of similar inspiration, creator Shaun Ryan having spent time riding with police officers whilst working on Nash Bridges, nor does he enquire as to how much those officers have shared in the success of The Shield.

Petit’s more substantial claim is that Simon is ‘non-fiction boy’ (as he was dismissively tagged by his colleagues on the cop drama Homicide: Life on the Streets). The implication being that The Wire is constrained by the need to tell the ‘truth’, in contrast to the more freewheeling and imaginative Shield. He does have a point, but he brushes over the important role played in creating The Wire by crime fiction writers such as George Pelecanos and Richard Price. Simon’s forthright opinions may have given The Wire its shape and purpose but the show avoids (mostly) becoming didactic because it is first and foremost a well-crafted drama, with all the ambiguities and open-endedness that brings.

Good v Bad

So what does Petit have to say about The Shield? He argues approvingly that it lacks ‘the core of good guys who police Homicide and The Wire… everyone hates and mistrusts each other, most of them are slimeballs, with little bonding beyond sadomasochistic dependency. It goes beyond dysfunction… The Shield has something very dark to say about personal corruption’. Not a surprising thing to read in The Guardian, where it sometimes seems the worth of a piece of art lies in how much it reveals the ‘true wickedness of the human soul’. But this paints a one-sided picture of the show and willfully ignores the characters of Dutch Wagenbach and Claudette Wyms who provide a counter to the pragmatic and self-serving worldview of The Shield’s star, crooked cop Vic Mackey (note: short for Machiavellian). Yes Dutch and Claudette too are flawed and sometimes do some questionable things, but they mostly act benevolently in very difficult circumstances. In fact you could turn Petit’s argument on its head and point out that most of the cops and some of the criminals in The Shield try to do good but they all have different ideas of what that means. And this is part of its appeal – The Shield is unflinching in putting its characters in extreme situations, giving them tough dilemmas to deal with, and making it difficult for us viewers to work out where we stand. In short, it’s engaging and thought provoking.

Story v Character

Petit argues that The Shield is less predictable than The Wire, and it’s true there is a certain inevitability about some Wire plotlines which is entirely absent in The Shield. It’s worth noting that The Shield’s approach to storytelling comes in part from an unlikely source: Buffy the Vampire Slayer (and its creator Joss Whedon). Ryan cut his teeth writing scripts for Buffy spin-off Angel and commented: “One thing I learned from Joss Whedon that I blatantly stole was the idea of approaching the stories first from character… The cop stories were always the last thing we’d figure out on a ‘Shield’ episode”. This means that it avoids the pitfall of many shows which force their characters to do whatever a given story or situation demands, however unlikely or against type that might be. And in contrast to The Wire, where story rules and the plotline for the entire 5 series was set in stone from almost the beginning, The Shield doesn’t follow a pre-conceived scheme. Instead it proceeds in an organic fashion with the writers having a loose idea of where each season is going but the option to change course if a better idea occurs to them along the way.

This approach comes with its own set of drawbacks. The later series concentrate more and more on Mackey and his Strike Team to the detriment of its other equally interesting central characters; supporting characters are introduced and fleshed out only to be dropped the moment they are no relevant to the ‘emotional journey’ of the leads; and ironically the show even resorts to some age old drama series contrivances in order to keep characters such as Mackey’s ex-wife Corinne in the series, when in a more story-driven show they would have had no reason to stick around.

Fast v Slow

Petit picks up on The Shield’s urgent style and the adrenalin rush that usually goes with watching it – it’s ‘the pure stuff that gets you hooked.‘ I’d argue that this is more than a stylistic device; it derives in from the way the characters behave, and reflects a more dynamic view of people’s capacity to respond to situations and act decisively than we’re used to. If you’ve watched a few American telly drama series over the years, you’ll be familiar with the limited and predictable ways in which characters behave and you’ll probably be able to predict the pace at which a given story will develop: a plot thread is introduced, it’s explored over a couple of episodes and then it’s resolved. The Shield throws all this out the window; characters come straight to the point and confront situations head on, and events that would normally take a series to unfold are dealt with in twenty minutes.

It’s fast paced to a fault (and at some point or other all of The Shield’s strengths become weaknesses). Episodes are written very quickly, giving the show plenty of interesting rough edges and a strong sense of spontaneity, but it also means that the writers sometimes trip over undeveloped plotlines, write themselves into corners, or just fail to set up situations convincingly. The Series 6 finale, which is the single worst episode so far, even resorts to an embarrassing ‘Scooby Doo’ scene where Mackey and accomplice untangle ten episodes’ worth of convoluted plot threads in as many seconds.

Ryan recently acknowledged that the show’s rapid plot twists and turns can baffle viewers, but responded ‘it still all makes sense and … you guys [viewers] love that complexity on The Wire’. But The Wire takes things at a third of the pace of a normal drama show, gradually and carefully laying out the pieces of its enormous puzzle. The Shield in contrast rushes by at a hundred miles an hour. Blink and you miss a key plot point. (Watching it on DVD is highly recommended – you can switch on subtitles and hit the rewind button when necessary). Yet despite their opposing approaches, both shows credit their audience with intelligence. The Wire assumes we have the patience to wait for the story to unfold, The Shield assumes we are quick witted enough to keep up.

The Shield’s sheer dramatic ambition means it can encompass storylines that most TV shows would steer clear of through faint heartedness or lack of ambition. Ryan, who seems a very calm and considered fellow to be writing such an edgy and testosterone-driven show, may have arrived at this by accident. He wrote the pilot as a showcase for his abilities and, assuming it would never get made, he had his lead character commit cold-blooded murder in the sort of stakes-raised cliffhanger that would normally be saved till the final episode of a run. When he got the opportunity to film the pilot, Ryan could have played it safe and gone with a less ambitious ending, but to his credit he left it as it was and then continued to up the dramatic stakes even further as the show developed.

Arguably the urgency and impetus of The Shield comes from both Ryan the writer and Mackey the character trying to deal with the implications of that first episode. Ryan once described Mackey as ‘a guy who is really able to compartmentalize his life and separate the bad things he does from the good things he does’. He could have been describing his own approach to keeping the various storylines of The Shield under control, starting with the need to keep his lead character out of prison; Ryan had the chutzpah to simply put the murder to one side for the next few series.

Yet even Ryan couldn’t keep raising the stakes forever, and the first wobble came when he copped out on the aftermath of the show’s most interesting and ostentatious storyline, the robbery of an Armenian gang by Mackey’s Strike Team. Mackey’s staggering ability to evade punishment for his bad deeds has also stretched credibility the longer the series had gone on. Ryan himself acknowledged the need to avoid the show becoming ‘Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner with Vic as the Road Runner’, but it did at times fall into that trap, most memorably in the episode where Mackey somehow dupes most of his colleagues into helping him undermine an internal investigator, in a triple-bluff that doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny.

People v Institutions

David Simon has spoken somewhat dismissively of this aspect of The Shield:

…nothing is more the quintessential American dramatic impulse than to make the individual bigger than the institutions which he serves. Vic Mackey, he is the id that rages well beyond the L.A.P.D. It’s “What is he capable of? What is he not capable of?

“The Wire” has not only gone the opposite way, it’s resisted the idea that, in this post-modern America, individuals triumph over institutions. The institution is always bigger. It doesn’t tolerate that degree of individuality on any level for any length of time. These moments of epic characterization are inherently false. They’re all rooted in, like, old Westerns or something. Guy rides into town, cleans up the town, rides out of town.

This is where Petit is right about Simon. From a narrow journalistic viewpoint, The Shield is unrealistic and so (if I read Simon’s comments correctly) worthless. Well, The Shield may be unrealistic in terms of how well it reflects modern day society, but as a piece of drama it does tackle important questions about human nature, morality, loyalty and power. And even though it uses an extreme setting to tease them out, it speaks to people because these questions are universal.

And, for all the squalor and degradation in The Shield, Mackey’s position at the centre of it is the key to its success. Ryan has noted with perhaps disingenuous bafflement that the more bad things Mackey does, the more viewers root for him. Whilst it’s tempting to put this down to charisma (which Michael Chiklis, the actor who portrays him, has in spades), we shouldn’t forget there’s many admirable aspects to Mackey’s character: his willingness to take enormous risks and sideswipe rules and regulations in order to achieve what he thinks is right; and his ability to solve the most apparently intractable problems by sheer determination and quick thinking. These aren’t just any old character traits, they’re heroic qualities which strike a chord in our directionless and risk-averse modern day world. So, while The Wire accurately identifies some very serious problems with society, The Shield offers some hope that we may find a way to solve them. I say, praise be to them both!

The Shield series 7 begins Monday 16th February at 10pm on Five USA.