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Gritty drama 'The Shield' brings FX network's niche into focus

Sunday, January 05, 2003

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

HOLLYWOOD -- Cable's FX network found a savior in an unlikely source: A corrupt cop character on a controversial series that some advertisers fled, fearful that its coarse dialogue and explicit violence would mar their image.

TV Review:
Mackey's bad, and that's good for 'The Shield'

"The Shield" did the opposite for FX, giving the Fox-owned basic cable channel an identity. Before "The Shield," FX was known as a home for reruns of prime-time series and the lowbrow humor of its original comedy, "Son of the Beach." After "The Shield," FX is seen as a place for creative visionaries, risk-takers whose fare is too edgy for the broadcast networks. FX has found a niche, building its brand as the basic cable answer to HBO.

Tuesday at 10 p.m., the series that started it all returns. That same day, the first season arrives on DVD in a boxed set ($59.98, Fox Home Entertainment). "The Shield" begins its second season with momentum: Critical acclaim, positive word of mouth and an Emmy for series star Michael Chiklis, who only two years ago toiled in sitcom hell as the lead of NBC's unlamented "Daddio."

"There isn't someone in the industry who could possibly appreciate this more than I do," Chiklis said last summer after winning a best actor/drama award from the Television Critics Association. "It's really been fascinating to listen to different people's input, because I've had people from every end of the political spectrum really respond to this show, whether they're left-wing liberals or right-wing hawks, and for totally different reasons."

Chiklis credits series creator Shawn Ryan with shaping stories that appeal to a wide spectrum.

"I keep going back to the fact that what I think is right about it is the delivery. The quality in the way we put it out there without saying, 'Here it is and this is how you should feel about it, here's the moral of the story.' "

Chiklis' Detective Vic Mackey operates by his own rules, with the ends justifying the means even if that involves breaking the law (extorting money from drug dealers is one of Vic's favorite pastimes). In the premiere episode, he murdered another cop he suspected was a narc.

"Like many people in life, I view him as a guy who compartmentalizes his life," Ryan said of Mackey. "He takes each situation on its own merits. He realizes intellectually that he does some pretty awful things and yet allows himself to believe that on the whole he's a pretty good, decent human being and the world's better for his presence."

Mackey continually butted heads with precinct Capt. David Aceveda (Benito Martinez), an untenable relationship that, if it had gone on much longer, threatened to bring down the series. Creator Ryan sowed the seeds of a solution in last season's finale.

"David realized attempting to take Vic down hasn't worked for him, so there's an uneasy alliance formed," Ryan said in July as he prepped the show's second season. "We realized we were going to go nowhere if we kept going with the repetitive thing of Aceveda almost catching Vic. It also allows us to get into some interesting stuff with David, like what makes a person like him join forces with someone he has such little respect for and who he thinks has done such terrible things."

Chiklis applauds the changes in store for season No. 2.

"If they were real people in this real world forced into this situation, it wouldn't always be about their rivalry," he said. "It would either have to come to a head and end, or they'd have to in some odd, subtle way [become allies]."

In addition to a new twist in his work life, Vic's family life spiraled out of control at the end of last season when his wife took the couple's children and vanished.

"At the end of last year, [Vic] paid a price for a lot of things that he'd done during the course of the season," Ryan said. "He is in a box. He's someone that, as season two approaches, is trying to find his way. His family ... served as a bit of a moral compass for him. No matter what he did on the street, he could always come home and feel like a good father to his children. ... When season two begins, Vic Mackey is going to be out to sea a little bit and will have lost his footing to certain degree."

In addition to Chiklis and Martinez, "The Shield" boasts a talented supporting cast, including actress CCH Pounder. She's played recurring characters on many series -- "ER" and "Millennium" among them -- but valued the opportunity to be a series regular.

"The amount of work I did in those series, you thought I was a regular," she said. "It's kind of like eating in the kitchen; I never got to sit at the table. ... This is much more of a collaboration, and I don't feel 'less than.' "

Her role as Detective Claudette Wyms was originally written for a man, but Ryan said he immediately changed the character's sex after Pounder auditioned for the part.

"She has added so much to that role and brought so much humanity and a femininity and just a wisdom to it that is, frankly, much more CC than it is our writing," he said.

Claudette's partner, Detective Holland "Dutch" Wagenbach, adds another humane element, albeit one that's a bit more pathetic. Dutch is the butt of jokes and pranks in the squad room.

"You see Dutch's pain," said Jay Karnes, who portrays the character. "He doesn't like being made fun of. He's going through the kinds of things people really go through."

Over the course of the first season, Dutch grew, even arresting a serial killer.

"Suddenly, they think maybe they have to take this guy seriously," Karnes said. "We'll see in the second season whether they do take him seriously."

Ryan said the leeway he gets on "The Shield" hasn't made him drunk with power to have his characters curse. Rather, he often tells the writers on his staff to be careful and not abuse the privilege.

"Let's make sure we do these things because they fit in the story and do the shocking not just because we can do it," he said. "As a result, we've been able to defend each and every thing we've done."

The greater freedom, he said, is the ability to write more flawed, and therefore more realistic, characters. Previously, he wrote for CBS's "Nash Bridges" and The WB's "Angel."

"There were certain rules on 'Nash Bridges,' not necessarily imposed by CBS but endorsed by CBS," Ryan said. "[Nash] was pretty heroic and almost always would do the right thing. He could have failings in terms of his personal life, but professionally, as a cop, he couldn't make mistakes."

Critical kudos, awards and positive buzz are all well and good for "The Shield," but the disappearance of advertisers has to damage a commercially supported network. Doesn't it?

Peter Liguori, FX president, said last year's boycotts by the conservative watchdog group Parents Television Council didn't hurt the network's bottom line.

"We're selling the show out because it's a value for a very, very specific and very tough audience, and that's an audience that seeks discerning television," Liguori said. "This show is a show for adults. In a strange way, we feel we should almost be the poster child for the PTC. Why? Ninety-seven percent of this audience is 18-plus. We've scheduled it at the right time, put warnings on our promos."

Of course, "NYPD Blue" premiered to protests and advertiser boycotts, too, and blossomed into a long-running hit. Liguori said FX didn't purposefully take a page from the "Blue" playbook.

"We hope to break bounds of creativity with this show. We didn't hope to create controversy," he said. "Controversy's very short-lived -- quality stands out. We think the Emmy nominations, the critical reviews, the loyal audience more than justifies the authenticity and drama that these people create week in, week out."

Rob Owen can be reached at rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2582. Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

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