This post has nothing to do with novel-writing or novel-reading (although right now I'm rereading The Black Dahlia... more on that later, maybe). I want to ramble about the only TV show that I think is or has been great since the mid-nineties Simpsons.
The Shield, an hour-long police drama airing on the FX Network and set to begin its sixth season in a few months, is one of the most complex and profound American stories being told right now. Most TV sucks but a few writers in the last fifteen years have taken advantage of the unique long-form storytelling possibilities available in the medium. I watched the first two Shield episodes again last night at a friend's house and was reminded of how skillfully and with what affecting results the show's creator, Shawn Ryan, and staff writers have followed Faulkner's edict that "the young man or woman writing today" ought to explore "the old verities and truths of the heart...love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice."
(And here I ought to note that crucial plot details lie ahead. Probably. This being blog-writing, it's off the top of my head.)
The Shield's protagonist, Vic Mackey, is both a cop and a cop-killer. The show's pilot episode ends as he and another cop pull off the calculated murder of their new teammate. (And disturbingly enough, Mackey is no outright villain, no Tony Soprano character. Let me digress here and note that while I enjoy and respect The Sopranos, I feel it is vastly overrated. The Shield has it by the balls in every way. As The Sopranos has slowly declined in quality over the years, The Shield has increased, building to epic levels of betrayal and tension in the fourth and fifth seasons. Even in terms of daring content, The Shield comes out on top despite the constraints of appearing on basic cable. Nothing in The Sopranos, even Tony sawing off Ralphie's head, can compare to the scene in The Shield's third season where the proud and politically ambitious police captain David Aceveda is raped at gunpoint by a gangster. Or Mackey holding the child-rapist Armadillo's face to red-hot oven coils in season two. Or Anthony Anderson's drug lord murdering a little girl in season four and forcing two cops to watch--in one of the most powerful episodes of any show I've ever seen air on television.) That cop-on-cop murder was a bold way to launch the series, and while the issue seemed to be resolved after Mackey managed to cover it up, it returned with a vengeance in later seasons--when the intricacy of the show's narrative truly started to show through.
Indeed, it didn't really become apparent until the fourth season what a profound show The Shield was. (Fortunately, I started watching while the fourth season was underway and caught up on all the earlier seasons after the fourth concluded but before the fifth started. I never watch shows in their first season. Who knows if they'll end up sucking?) The first three seasons are powerful and entertaining, but only in the fourth do the intricate and tragic character arcs begin to curve downward. You start to realize that all these people are going to be destroyed for the things they've done. The stakes for everyone have gotten progressively higher as they build families and make allegiances, and some of the people who've participated in ugly things are genuinely good people, but in the end they're going to suffer.
The fifth season, which ended this spring, eschewed the one-case-per-episode formula of cop shows and instead worked basically as a miniseries (it's only ten episodes) about the noose slowly tightening around the necks of Vic and his three partners. Forrest Whitaker's insane season five performance as the sweaty, obsessed Internal Affairs investigator trying to turn Vic's men against each other was truly sublime. (In the penultimate episode he screams about Mackey to his superiors: "He's pissin' all over us! Okay? Do you feel that? What does that taste like to you? Because to me it tastes like piss.") The only guest performance that has rivaled Whitaker's is Anthony Anderson's (yes, the guy from Kangaroo Jack and Agent Cody Banks) in season four. Anthony Anderson, believe it or not, is a genuinely great actor. In The Shield, he was a ferociously brutal drug lord who stood on the neck of a crooked cop, took his gun, and used it to shoot a little girl in front of him--then buried the girl and the gun in an unknown spot to ensure the cop's loyalty.
The betrayal that ends the final episode of season five is one of the great character deaths in television, and it set up what ought to be a gleefully intense sixth season. I plead with Shawn Ryan and the show's writers not to chicken out (by allowing these guys to escape their seemingly inevitable fates) or drag the series on for too long. The story, as it left off, is at a feverish level. I'd rather see the writers produce ten more episodes at or near the level of the spectacular fifth season than thirty more episodes with the intensity dialed down a notch. Let them not pull an X-Files. A story this gripping and complex ought to flare out, not fade away.