Raw, gritty: Cop drama spits nails

Preview: FX's in-your-face `The Shield' hits a new intensity high. Think `Homicide' on steroids.

March 12, 2002|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

This is supposed to air on HBO or a major network in September, not on a basic cable channel in March. But to see the best cop drama on television, tune in to FX at 10 tonight for the premiere of The Shield, starring Michael Chiklis as a rogue cop on the Los Angeles Police Department.

Michael who, on the F-what?

Come on, you know Chiklis. He starred in The Commish, an ABC cop drama in the early 1990s - only, he's a little hard to recognize. Instead of the soft, friendly, roly-poly, teddy bear of a police commissioner he played in that drama, here he's gone muscle shirt, leather jacket, shaved head and pumped-up to the point where we think "steroids" when we meet his character, Detective Vic Mackey.

And, boy, is Mackey one angry guy. And, man, do I love that kind of anger in a cop drama.

In fact, I love The Shield so much, I spent the two weeks since I saw it wondering if I could bring myself to actually say in print what I thought after screening the first three episodes: This is better than Homicide: Life on the Street. If you've been reading The Sun for any length of time, you know I face East, bow my head and light incense in an act of worship at the mere mention of that late, great, ratings-challenged NBC drama.

After a marathon screening of Homicide episodes over the weekend, I found a critical middle ground. The Shield is not as deep as Homicide was, with its profound world-view that somehow managed to be both existential and spiritual. But The Shield is more raw, grittier and in your face than Homicide, and that's about as intense as the tube can get.

These comparisons aren't coming out of left field; the shows have a shared sensibility. Undoubtedly, that's partly because Clark Johnson, who played Detective Meldrick Lewis on Homicide, directed the pilot and two more of the first four episodes. Johnson proved himself as a director with HBO's Boycott made-for-TV movie last year, and here, he sticks the camera in the middle of Detective Mackey's morally messy world and never pulls back to let viewers catch their breaths.

Two other Homicide alums have guest roles in the pilot: Reed Diamond plays a detective brought into the precinct by Mackey's boss, Capt. David Aceveda (Benito Martinez), to join Mackey's elite strike force unit, and secretly get evidence of police corruption. Max Perlich plays a low-life street hustler. Perfect casting, with a fine performance from Diamond as the reluctant and conflicted mole.

Besides Mackey and Aceveda (who essentially are at war for control of the precinct house), the other lead role belongs to CCH Pounder as Detective Claudette Wyms. She's a savvy, battle-hardened veteran who is trying to do an honest job and make retirement without getting killed, or sucked into the intramural warfare.

The three work in a world of moral ambiguity surrounded by drugs, gangs, prostitution and crimes most of us don't want to know about.

That's what I mean by raw and intense: One main story line tonight involves Wyms and her partner investigating the murder of a young woman, and the disappearance of the woman's daughter. It turns out that the child's father, a crack addict, sold the girl for $200 to a man who sexually molests children. Johnson's camera forces us to look right at the victim.

Mackey is crooked, and the members of his unit are as dirty as he is; they take payoffs, steal drugs and violate civil rights left and right. But they are effective in establishing some sense of order in the urban hell they police. Meanwhile, their politically correct boss, Aceveda, seems to be all public-relations and impotent at protecting citizens.

I'll be there for the next 12 episodes this season, to see which side wins in a world where everything on its best day is gray.

Drama debut

What: The Shield

When: 10 tonight.

Where: FX cable channel

In brief: A new, improved generation of in-your-face cop drama.

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