A Closer Look

Watching the premiere of The Shield's fourth season this Tuesday, I felt a bit like the show's newest addition, top cop Monica Rawling, who walked into a precinct haunted by a snarled back history and shrieking hostility. I confess I've missed out on one of cable TV's hottest series, and so found myself somewhat at a loss when confronted with the frightening, delicious dysfunction of the Farmington Police Department for the first time. What does one do, for example, with the bald, Rottweiler menace of detective Vic Mackey, who clearly feels the need to transgress the law in order to enforce it?

Rawling's entrance created a bit more buzz around this already edgy show. The new captain is played by none other than Glenn Close, whose movie characters' tastes in bunny soup and Dalmation coats precede her. Watching the actor rub up against her reputation is a fascinating exercise; she plays Rawling with an unsettling combination of charm and cunning. She's unpredictable, and that makes her a perfect fit for The Shield's cast. She's also a truly welcome sight for TV viewers with a feminist bent -- when was the last time we had the pleasure of watching a fine older actress play a character of such potential depth and power?

The series draws on now-familiar TV-for-adults tropes, as patented by Homicide, The Sopranos, and NYPD Blue: The Shield has the grainy footage and handheld camera work of Homicide; the long Sturm und Drang story arcs of The Sopranos; and the potty-mouthed, buns-flashing aesthetic of NYPD Blue. It also has these series' “morally complex” -- i.e., occasionally very unsympathetic -- main characters.

Of The Shield's predecessors, two became somewhat formulaic. The Sopranos has become tied to a bit of tired brinkmanship with Tony Soprano's die-or-get-out-of-the-Mob dilemma. And NYPD Blue devolved into a strangely comforting routine: Something bad happens, flawed detective Andy Sipowicz (Dennis Franz) and partner chase down a potential perp and hurl him into the interrogation room; eventually, he writes down a confession. Who knew coercion was so easy?

The Shield still seems in its volcanic element, and Close's character has just added another dose of volatility. She's clearly meant to go head to head with the rogue Mackey, embodied with such complex, scary charisma by Michael Chiklis. They look like they'll play out an interesting tango of glares and manipulation and grudging mutual respect. At some point, they are nearly guaranteed to have a spittle-spraying fight.

Close had a juicy premiere to sink her teeth into, as the episode laid out the potential minefields for her character: an officer, now in disfavor, who was once up for the captain's job; a bristling Mackey, who nearly came over the table at the departing chief; the streets of L.A., home to a drive-by shooting, the drowning homicides of a family, and the abduction of the family's tiny son. Close's character handled the situation with a sort of hands-on aplomb, threatening potential witnesses into coughing up information and taking on the resident messiah of Farmington, an ex-con turned motivational speaker. Amid the hardball, The Shield's writers had her snuggle a distressed child -- a clichéd means of softening up or feminizing the character, and one that Close pulled off with warmth.

The episode's most interesting turn was Rawling's decision to open up a gang unit, to challenge the reign of the motivational speaker, clearly up to some shady business while simultaneously preaching to the community's young black men. Vickers is dying for the chance to head up the unit, but it's not an entirely comfortable fit. He'd have to play social worker a bit, help provide an alternative to the gangs he is so eager to bust up. Can he harness his explosive rage? Can Rawling finally put mad-dog Vickers on a leash (or at least puzzle out a functional relationship with him)?

That plot sets up ample potential conflict, but it also raises important questions about law enforcement and gang prevention that real-life police departments also face -- a deft way of touching on complex issues of race, economics, and police responsibility while avoiding a political pulpit. Similarly, Close's character plays with the potentially hackneyed “woman in authority” dilemma, but avoids one-dimensionality through the actress' fine, slippery performance -- which just may be the thing to save Close from her one-note, bunny-boiling reputation as well.

Noy Thrupkaew is a Prospect senior correspondent.

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