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‘The Shield’ prepares to go out with a bang

Stellar crime drama "The Shield" ends on Nov. 25, but fans will remember it fondly for some time. The show was a risk when it first aired, but ended up saving the FX network and making room for shows such as "Rescue Me" and "Damages."
/ Source: contributor

The Barn, the battered police station on FX's "The Shield" will certainly have a permanent place in TV lore, but not in the same way as Central Perk in New York, the Cheers bar in Boston or even the Bada Bing.

The inhabitants of this dilapidated police precinct have never spoken in warm and fuzzy tones and rarely, if ever, talked about the good times. No, the folks who have called the Barn home are the beaten-down detectives in the fictional Farmington district of Los Angeles. They are the pulse of “The Shield,” and when the show ends its seven-season run on Nov. 25, they will all be missed. Immensely.

Even if there have been 100-plus police dramas in TV history, there has never been a cop like Vic Mackey, a guy who’s so far removed from the LAPD days of Joe Friday that the two wouldn’t even recognize one another. If Mackey needs to solve a case by framing an innocent citizen, so be it. If he can get rich stealing cash from a drug raid, he rationalizes it as his just reward for cleaning up the city.

Yet, there are many viewers who, despite Mackey’s transgressions, want him on their side when it comes to fighting crime. Following the law? Protecting someone’s civil rights? The hell with that —we want justice, and we want it now.

And now, as the finale quickly approaches on Nov. 25, all those misdeeds are finally catching up with him.

“He’s a man plagued by regret, and the fallout of his actions starting from Day One of the series have led to the other actions, and created a course that leads him to where it ends up,” said actor Michael Chiklis, who embodied Mackey in such realistic fashion that the Emmys bestowed its best actor award to him in the inaugural season of the show. It marked the first time a lead actor from a basic cable series won.

“He’s definitely a changed man in a lot of ways," Chiklis says of Mackey, "but you can’t change the spots on a leopard sometimes. He’s in that vortex, and he’s swimming.”

Drowning actually. Always the negotiator, Mackey has been busy this final season trying to convince various drug cartels that he’s on their side, all the while plotting revenge against his former Strike Team partner Shane Vendrell (played by the sensational Walton Goggins).

Mackey has been so consumed by lying and manipulation that he doesn’t even realize his own family — the only stability he thought he once had — wants nothing to do with him anymore.

“He’s a guy who has his belief system, and he’s trapped between the conflict of his regrets of what he’s done and having no regret for his actions because of his philosophical beliefs. So you can take that for what it is,” Chiklis explained.

'Shielded' by a great castAs wonderfully complex as Mackey was, he alone couldn’t make “The Shield” so compelling. If Mackey was the iconic rogue cop, Det. Dutch Wagenbach, played by the underappreciated Jay Karnes, was the show's moral center. Wagenbach couldn’t stomach Mackey’s professional indiscretions, and it irked him to no end that Mackey would earn a collar by getting a perp to confess only by beating on him on the streets or, brazenly, in the precinct’s own grimy interrogation room.

Claudette Wyms (CCH Pounder) was partnered with Wagenbach before her character was promoted to captain and tried to rule by the book. The struggle between doing what’s right and also managing to catch the bad guys often become too stressful. Not only were the cops who worked for her sometimes crossing the line, but she was forced to deal with a recurring bout of lupus that took the wind out of her ability to lead.

Looking back now, it only seems logical that a show such as the “The Shield” would find a network home and flourish. That certainly wasn’t the case, however, back in 2002 when the series first began. It was considered far too controversial for broadcast networks, and the only reason it got on FX was because up to that point, Howard Stern’s “Son of the Beach” (remember that one?) was the network's only signature show.

FX president John Landgraf wasn’t running the network back then, but he’s appreciative of the gamble taken at the time.

“It was a very audacious bet,” he recalls. “At that point in cable history, only HBO had had any success with scripted series. And basic cable had never before attempted the type of high-quality serialized dramas for which HBO was renowned.”

The show was pitched, bought and put into the hands of Shawn Ryan, a newcomer to TV. A risky gamble, indeed, and one that paid off handsomely. The first episode — in which Mackey murders a fellow detective with a gunshot to the noggin — drew 5 million viewers, the most viewers for a cable premiere.

Clearly, if “The Shield” had failed, FX could have collapsed as well, and there would never have been “Nip/Tuck,” “Rescue Me“ or “Damages.”

So while we watch the end of “The Shield” now, sad for its impending departure but appreciative for the incredible ride, know that if not the work of Ryan, Chiklis, Goggins and the rest of the cast and crew, the Barn would’ve never become a symbol for both the best and worst of police officers who act as the last line of defense against the ills of society.

And when those ills come from within, there’s much to worry about. But it makes for a one hell of a great cop show.

Stuart Levine is an assistant managing editor at Variety. He can be reached at .