20 Years Later, 'The Shield' Is Still a Shock to the System

When it debuted in 2002, the FX cop drama was like nothing else on TV.

the shield michael chiklis
Michael Chiklis in 'The Shield' | FX
Michael Chiklis in 'The Shield' | FX

When "Bawitdaba" kicks on during the last five minutes of the pilot of The Shield, coupled with the image of a police officer cracking open a door and slipping on a backwards baseball cap, it's only natural to feel your stomach turn. The song, released as the third single from Kid Rock's 1998 breakthrough Devil Without a Cause, is a churning mix of bombast, grit, and intensity, opening with the singer shouting his name as a way to mark his arrival as a hellraiser. Memorably, the CD itself had an image of a middle finger on it. In its own way, the cop drama The Shield, which debuted 20 years ago this week, kept the same energy across seven seasons.

Starring Michael Chiklis, then best known for his role in the early-to-mid '90s network cop dramedy The Commish, The Shield arrived with a nü-metal bang on March 12, 2002. The pilot, penned by creator Shawn Ryan, famously ends with Chiklis' bald-headed cop Vic Mackey shooting a fellow officer, a rat infiltrating Mackey's elite Strike Team crew played by Reed Diamond, right in the head with little hesitation. It's the original sin that drove the white-knuckle drama of the series, delivering Emmys, reinventing Chiklis as a prestige TV hard-ass, and putting FX—then the home of X-Files re-runs and the Howard Stern-produced sitcom Son of the Beach—on the map as a place for original programming suffused with sardonic bite, aggressive style, and ethical ambiguity. The show wasn't interested in cookie-cutter solutions or heavy moralizing. Like Kid Rock sings on "Bawitdaba," "This is for the questions that don't have an answer."

I keep bringing up Kid Rock, an obviously goofy and loathsome figure, not to poke fun at The Shield, a show I obsessed over in its heyday, but to establish context. It would be unfair to characterize The Shield as purely a piece of turn-of-the-century macho kitsch, like NYPD Blue with a Woodstock '99 ticket instead of a badge. But it's interesting to consider its larger place in the pecking order of so-called "Golden Age" TV dramas: The Sopranos, The Wire, Deadwood, Breaking Bad, and Mad Men all feel relatively secure in their place in the conversation as nostalgia objects. They still reliably produce books, retrospective essays, and Twitter memes. The winds of taste can shift, depending on the success of a revival or the quality of a follow-up series, but they remain the legacy shows that many modern series, particularly the ones walking down the well-trodden "difficult men" path, are measured against. The Shield is a trickier beast.

walton goggins, michael chiklis the shield
Walton Goggins and Michael Chiklis in the pilot of 'The Shield' | FX

The trickiness is baked right into the pilot, which can be jarring and exhilarating to watch in 2022. As much as the show is remembered for Mackey murdering another cop in cold blood, the first episode also prominently features other less remarked upon aspect of The Shield's appeal: a deep understanding of procedural storytelling mixed with more revealing character-focused moments. Over the course of the episode, you see Mackey in a number of different situations: relaxing at a backyard family BBQ, shamelessly hitting on colleague Danielle "Danny" Sofer (Catherine Dent), antagonizing his new boss Captain David Aceveda (Benito Martinez), roughing up a suspect, scolding a sex worker for not spending time with her kid, and yukking it up in "The Barn," the cramped Los Angeles police station located in an old Baptist church where the drama unfolded.

From the beginning, The Shield toyed with conventions in a way that's often best done by artists who are keenly aware of the rules they're breaking. In a recent Entertainment Weekly oral history, the writer Glen Mazzara, who worked with Ryan on the network drama Nash Bridges, notes that the show's origin, even the Kid Rock needle drop, comes from an impulse to pitch "grittier, more realistic, crime-driven material" that the CBS cop series starring Don Johnson could not handle. (In addition to Ryan and Mazzara, Nash Bridges was created by Carlton Cuse, who would go on to serve as co-showrunner on Lost with Damon Lindelof, another Bridges writer.) In the same way David Chase channeled his frustrations writing on network shows like The Rockford Files and Northern Exposure into The Sopranos, the writing staff of The Shield bucked against cop show conventions. Their hostility came from a place of authority.

In a post-True Detective climate, one where limited series and even individual seasons are often framed as "10-hour movies" by their creators, the narrative efficiency of The Shield's pilot is enthralling. The old-school craftsmanship of the writing pairs well with the graphic, horrifying subject matter. Yes, the case worked by Detectives Claudette Wyms (CCH Pounder) and Holland "Dutch" Wagenbach (Jay Karnes) involves a child getting abducted and sold to a pedophile. But the way the mystery gets solved, including a series of tense interrogation scenes, recalls the best work of Homicide and NYPD Blue, the acclaimed network cop shows of the '90s. As much as The Shield pushed the envelope, it was still very much "TV": reliable, satisfying, and formulaic in ways that could still be surprising and compelling.

'The Shield' creator Shawn Ryan and the cast at the Golden Globes | KMazur/WireImage

That rigorous commitment to suspense, turning the screws to the characters as they got in over their heads, served the show well across its 88 episodes, culminating in the tragic "Family Meeting," still one of the best series finales ever made. (The last few seasons hinge even more on the performance of Walton Goggins, who only has a handful of lines in the pilot as Mackey's spiky-haired right-hand man Shane Vendrell.) As The Shield became more of a phenomenon and brought movie stars into the mix, casting Glenn Close as a new captain and Forest Whitaker as an IA investigator in key antagonistic roles, it never lost its aesthetic bearings or its ability to provoke. The shaky camera, the startling close-ups, and even the cheesy theme song stayed the same. The core of what made the show tick was right there from the jump.

When assessing the impact of The Shield, it's easy to get caught up in a series of mostly short-sighted questions: Would The Shield get made today? Is it too forgiving of its swaggering antiheroes? Too in awe of their bluster and sadism? More copaganda masquerading as a critique of corruption? Not unlike the endlessly relitigated social media debates about "making Blazing Saddles today," that retroactive line of thinking misses out on the fact that a show like The Shield, like any movie or book, is clearly the product of a hyper-specific time. Partially inspired by the Rampart scandal of the late '90s, Ryan wrestled with the fallout of actual history while also messing with TV cop clichés. The show's urgency is inseparable from its queasier aspects.

That's perhaps why unlike Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, or FX's other underrated crime drama Justified, there's not too much talk of revisiting these characters. (Ryan did float the possibility in the EW oral history, but it didn't sound like something he's actively pursuing.) Along with the even more high-octane (and politically chaotic) 24, which debuted in November of 2001, and the similarly in-your-face cop ride-along thriller Training Day, which won Denzel Washington an Oscar in March 2002, The Shield signaled a broader shift in how American pop culture viewed badge-waving antiheroes in the post-9/11 environment. You could attempt to re-contextualize Vic Mackey for the contemporary moment. Or you could simply revisit the show in all its grimy, "Bawitdaba"-worshipping glory.

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Dan Jackson is a senior staff writer at Thrillist Entertainment. He's on Twitter @danielvjackson.