Vic Mackey, though, is definitely not a cop you've seen on TV before. In the pilot of FX's astonishing The Shield (Tuesdays, 10 p.m.), he brutalized a suspect to find a kidnapped girl, then murdered a fellow Los Angeles cop who was about to rat on him and his antigang Strike Team for corruption. By this week's season finale, he has become the most memorable, divisive and hard-to-pin-down character of the TV season and his series, a lesson in the difference between network and cable TV making.
Creator Shawn Ryan says he was inspired to write The Shield by L.A.'s Rampart police scandal. "At the same time," he says, "I was reading about all these politicians crowing about how crime was down. I drew the connection that maybe these guys were dirty but successful." Ryan, a veteran of CBS buddy-cop show Nash Bridges, hired another network-cop-series refugee as his lead: Michael Chiklis, who in ABC's The Commish was a cop as plump and sweet as a powdered doughnut. For The Shield, he shaved his head, hit the gym and gave TV's performance of the year as a Mr. Dirty Cop with a Mr. Clean physique, a Tony Soprano with a badge, the stresses and contradictions of his life betrayed by his tensed jaw and cornered-animal eyes.
Some advertisers quailed, but viewers responded--3.6 million a week, by far the most in the little-watched network's history and FX stood only to gain from taking the chance. That extended to the content: frontal nudity, extreme violence and, instead of the standard TV euphemisms, nearly every curse word short of the big F. "Whenever I hear somebody on a cop show say, 'Get on the ground, dirtbag,' I think, 'Oh, for Christ's sake, I'm an adult,'" says Chiklis. More important, The Shield did what network cop shows have lately abandoned: it created a richly imagined world with continuing story lines, driven by L.A.'s roiling racial politics achieving a payoff far bigger than solving the murder of the week.
Ironically, it was a network cop show, Steven Bochco's Hill Street Blues, that introduced serial "story arcs" into genre drama. But networks have retreated to the pre-Bochco era of "procedural" cop shows, in which character comes second to plot. The cops may have perfunctory personal stories, but you can easily ignore them and still enjoy the mysteries that's why L&O has lost every original cast member yet enjoys its highest ratings ever. Cop procedurals are the new sitcoms: easily digestible, with stories wrapped up in one episode, they demand little commitment (and sell well in syndication). "Self-contained dramas are performing much better than serial dramas and perform better than repeats," says Nancy Tellem, president of entertainment for CBS (which has four new cop shows on its schedule). With CSI now the No. 1 drama on TV and serial dramas like 24 and Alias showing middling ratings no big network has incentive to do much else.
That's part of the reason that HBO, which bills itself as the network that makes shows the others can't, picked up The Wire (Sundays, 10 p.m. E.T.), a sprawling octopus of a story that follows a single drug investigation over 13 episodes. (Later this month Showtime adds Street Time, an earnest but somewhat tone-deaf series about parolees and parole officers.) Creator David Simon says The Wire is "not a cop show" but a series about how the drug trade and the war against it have become institutions that chew up and spit out the people who work in them.
That said, it is a cop show though one that, unlike those on network TV, suggests that not only cops but their objectives as well can be flawed. When Detective James McNulty (Dominic West) pursues a drug kingpin in the Baltimore projects, he's undermined by higher-ups who want quick, low-level "buy and bust" stings to generate p.r., not the painstaking investigation required to ensnare the bosses. The series also plumbs the Byzantine world of the criminals, focusing on D'Angelo Barksdale (Larry Gilliard Jr.), a midlevel captain who wants to rise in his organization but questions its pointless violence. The two men are enemies, yet both, says Simon, are "middle managers ... in a world where everybody's working for Enron. Whatever you commit to as an institution bigger than yourself, in the modern world, it will f___ you."