On March 12, 2002, the traditional TV cop drama was reinvented when The Shield premiered on FX. Not your typical good cop chasing bad guys show, The Shield featured a cast of morally ambiguous characters who constantly had the viewers asking, “Do the ends justify the means and will good triumph over evil in the end?” TV Guide once noted that The Shield was "dramatically tantalizing and morally perilous."
But The Shield didn’t just change the cop show genre, it changed the entire landscape of basic cable, as well. The show popularized the hard-hitting, edgy dramas full of anti-heroes and complex story arcs on pay TV, previously reserved for the premium channels. FX launched in 1994 with a slate of talk/variety/reality shows along with classic TV reruns. But by 2000, the network began dipping its toes into the waters of original dramatic programming. The mandate was to go head-to-head with HBO and Showtime. The Shield’s success paved the way for other basic cable hits like Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, Sons of Anarchy, Mad Men, and many more. When Michael Chiklis won an Emmy in 2002 for his portrayal of the lead character, “Vic Mackey” on The Shield, a first for a basic cable TV show, the floodgates opened and a new era of TV viewers was born — fans rooting for the villain to prevail.
The Shield was created by Shawn Ryan, who came up with the concept for the show while he was doing police ride-alongs as a producer on the TV series Nash Bridges. He was exposed to the darker side of police work, the tough decisions, the grey areas many police face, but knew that those stories were completely inappropriate for the softer, broadcast network scripts of Nash Bridges. At the same time, the real-life Rampart district of the Los Angeles Police Department, particularly the CRASH gang unit, was under intense scrutiny for involvement in drug deals, robberies, and even murder-by-unit members. Ryan was intrigued by the fact that while this was happening, crime in the LA streets was at a record low and pondered the daily decisions cops made when lines were blurred.
Ryan wrote a pilot (originally called The Barn) about “Detective Mackey” and his Strike Team unit who operated out of a converted church. They were on a mission to rid the Farmington district (The Farm) of drugs, violence, and prostitution, even if that meant crossing the line between right and wrong and at times moving the line completely. Through a chance meeting at a Gymboree class with Michael Chiklis, Ryan gave the actor the pilot script. Chiklis, who initially assumed The Barn was about farm animals, thought it was the best script he had ever read.
Known primarily for his broadcast television work on shows like ABC’s The Commish and NBC’s Daddio, Chiklis began preparing to audition for his role by working out, losing weight, and shaving his head. After taking six months to get ready, the network executives still did not think he was right for the part. Even Ryan himself has been quoted as saying, “I always described [“Mackey”] as a young Harrison Ford role and Michael came in and made me reimagine it.” Chiklis arrived for his final audition filled with rage, thinking he was not going to get the part. That edge of anger in his reading was exactly what he needed to earn the role.
The pilot was shot in the summer of 2001 and picked up in August of 2001. One month later, after the tragedy on 9/11, the cast and crew questioned if it was the right timing for the series. They wondered if the show was too edgy for a country that was still so raw. But everyone involved decided it was the perfect time to examine what it meant to be a cop in 2001, to explore what citizens were willing to accept from law enforcement in the name of being safe, and to see how far was too far when it came to civil liberties.
“Vic Mackey”, who was often compared to the character “Tony Soprano” (played by James Gandolfini), was rotten to the core. He took dirty money, planted drugs on suspects, tortured prisoners, lied to pretty much everyone, stole drugs and sold them to other drug dealers, and even killed cops — all in the name of keeping the good people safe. Yet viewers still loved him because all that criminal behavior was done for what he maintained was the right reasons. As Chiklis told The Interviews, people can “justify all manner of heinous deeds if they believe the guy's heart is in the right place.”
The Shield featured an ensemble cast including “Vic Mackey’s” protégé “Shane Vendrell” (Walton Goggins), “Curtis ‘Lem’ Lemansky” (Kenny Johnson), and “Ronnie Gardocki” (David Rees Snell) — all “Vic’s” partners in crime and crime fighting. CCH Pounder played “Detective Claudette Wyms,” the show’s moral compass, and Benito Martinez portrayed “Mackey’s” biggest adversary on the force, “David Aceveda.” He was the Captain in seasons 1 through 3 and went on to become City Councilor, when he was replaced by “Captain Monica Rawling,” played by Glenn Close in season 4. Back at home was “Vic’s” wife, “Corinne” (played by Cathy Cahlin Ryan, Shawn Ryan’s real-life wife) and three children, including his daughter “Cassidy” played by Michael Chiklis’ real-life daughter, Autumn.
Shawn Ryan was the executive producer/showrunner for the entire seven seasons of the series and brought in some of TV’s most brilliant minds to write scripts. Writers included:
Kurt Sutter (who went on to create Sons of Anarchy), Glen Mazzara (who went on to create The Walking Dead), Charles Eglee (who became an executive producer of Dexter in season 3), and Scott Rosenbaum (who went on to executive produce Chuck, V, and Queen of the South). Directors included Scott Brazil (who got his start directing Hill Street Blues), Guy Ferland (who went on to helm many episodes of The Walking Dead and Sons of Anarchy), and Michael Chiklis, who directed six episodes of the series.
During the run of the show, The Shield garnered an extraordinary number of awards and accolades, including six Emmy nominations and one win for Michael Chiklis for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series in 2002. CCH Pounder, Glenn Close, Shawn Ryan (producer), and Clark Johnson (director) were also nominated for their work on the show. In addition, the show won two Golden Globes — one for Chiklis for Best Television Actor/Drama Series and a second for Best Drama Series (both firsts for a cable TV series). The show also won a Peabody Award in 2005, “for creating an ongoing narrative that clarifies values and actions even as it questions them.” The Shield received two TCA nominations for Outstanding Achievement in Drama and made many “top” lists, including TV Guide's 60 Best Series of All Time (#50), Time Magazine’s All-Time 100 Shows (listed alphabetically, not by ranking), The Guardian’s The 100 Best TV Shows of the 21st Century (#77), and AFI’s Television Programs of the Year (one of ten shows chosen).
The Shield series finale, “Family Meeting,” aired on November 8, 2008. The show went out as it came in — to great acclaim, with many calling the episode the greatest TV finale of all times. AFI said, “The season finale is an episodic masterpiece, as extraordinarily satisfying as it was inevitable — the perfect ending to a landmark series.”
- Amy & Nancy Harrington, Pop Culture Passionistas
Michael Chiklis as “Vic Mackey”
Catherine Dent as “Danielle ‘Danny’ Sofer”
Walton Goggins as “Shane Vendrell”
Michael Jace as “Julien Lowe”
Kenny Johnson as “Curtis ‘Lem’ Lemansky “
CCH Pounder as “Claudette Wyms”
Jay Karnes as “Holland ‘Dutch’ Wagenbach”
Benito Martinez as “David Aceveda”
Autumn Chiklis as “Cassidy Mackey”
Reed Diamond as “Terry Crowley” (season 1, guest season 2)
Autumn Chiklis as “Cassidy Mackey” (Recurring, season 1-7)
Glenn Close as “Monica Rawling” (season 4)
David Marciano as “Steve Billings” (seasons 4–7)
Forrest Whittaker as “Jon Kavanaugh” (season 5)
Paula Garcés as “Tina Hanlon” (seasons 5–7)
David Rees Snell as “Ronnie Gardocki” (seasons 5–7)
Cathy Cahlin Ryan as “Corrine Mackey” (seasons 5–7)
Executive Producers: Shawn Ryan, Scott Brazil
Producers: Michael Chiklis, Adam E. Fierro, Kevin G. Cremin, Dean White
March 12, 2002-November 8, 2008, FX, Tuesday 10pm
Jacobs D. The Shield: Notes From The Barn: The Elite Strike Team Files. NAL Trade, 2004.
Nicholas Ray N. Television and Popular Culture: Interrogating the Shield. Syracuse University Press, 2012.
Sabin, R.; Wilson, R.; Speidel, L. Cop Shows: A Critical History of Police Dramas on Television, McFarland & Company, 2015.