Trial by Fire
The film plods at points, trudging along, and there are a few misguided narrative "devices" tacked on, but still, "Trial by Fire" bristles with anger.
Every critic has their touchstones, films, or TV shows that helped them hone their writing. I was lucky enough to be able to really cut my teeth writing recaps of “The Sopranos” in the early ‘00s, but the first show that I really remember writing about from series premiere to series finale is FX’s “The Shield.” As the Prestige TV era has expanded in the 15 years since Shawn Ryan’s show premiered, I keep waiting for it to ascend to the tier on which it belongs when we’re discussing the current form’s most influential programs. Perhaps the recently-released complete series Blu-ray release, the first time the show has ever been available on the HD format, will restart the overdue conversation.
It’s hard to overstate how much “The Shield” shook the TV landscape when it premiered in 2002. The cop show format had dipped its toe into the anti-hero genre over the years, but we had never really seen anything like Vic Mackey, unforgettably played by Michael Chiklis. He wasn’t just a “bad guy,” he was a murderer and creator Shawn Ryan deftly played with how we were supposed to feel about from episode one to the series finale in 2008. Again, it sounds common now, but characters this complex weren’t common even 15 years ago.
Neither was this program’s gift with cumulative storytelling. Few shows have built a narrative over seven years like “The Shield.” In one of the excellent new special features on the Blu-ray set, a critic even suggests that the show got better every year. Name another program that improved over the course of seven season. You probably can’t. But Ryan and his cast were constantly challenging themselves, bringing in great supporting actors like Forest Whitaker and Glenn Close for a season, but always coming back to the regulars at the Barn.
The writing and acting on “The Shield” can be held up against anything else in the ‘00s. It was fearless in the way it was willing to subvert expectations, kill beloved characters, or leave us questioning exactly how we were supposed to feel about what just happened. Even today, but especially in the mid-‘00s, TV can spoon feed you predictable, often morally righteous drama. “The Shield” never did that, and stuck the landing in a way that arguably no show ever has before. A lot has been written lately about the series finale of “The Sopranos” as the show reaches its 20th anniversary, but the series finale of “The Shield” is an underrated gem, a masterful closing act.
The long-overdue Blu-ray not only includes HD versions of every episode but great special features, including a few new ones. The best is an hour-long reunion of most of the cast and Ryan. Watching them reminisce about how they got their parts, their favorite episodes, and why the show still matters to them is fascinating, especially the wonderful insights of Walton Goggins (who should have won a few Emmys for this show and “Justified” and somehow still remains underrated). Watching Goggins, Chiklis, Ryan, CCH Pounder, Jay Karnes, and the rest of the Barn members, I was actually a little emotional. I miss this show, not only for how good it was then and remains today, but because there are so few shows now that feel like they are truly pushing the envelope and changing the form like “The Shield” did.
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