Television: New Cops On The Beat

As the networks clone CSI and Law & Order, two innovative cable cop shows are playing by their own set of rules

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As America busily allocates new resources to law enforcement, let it never be said that TV isn't doing its bit. Next season the four major networks will air at least 18 hours a week of police shows. That's more hours than Fox airs in prime time all week, and 6 1/2 more than last fall. This beefed-up squad will include a lot of cops you haven't seen before--except that, really, you have. CBS is spinning off CSI: Miami; ABC has a remake of Dragnet from producer Dick Wolf, who has essentially been remaking Dragnet for 12 years on Law & Order, itself the parent to two spin-offs and a reality court series debuting later this month. And many of their new brethren seem to be following in CSI and L&O's flatfootsteps: connect-the-dots whodunits neatly solved in 44 minutes plus commercials.

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.

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