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August 23, 2008

First look: 'The Shield' final season

The_shield Preferring to leave the cheering and jeering of TV content to readers and critics, outright reviews are rare in this space. But having just spent the past three nights watching the first eight episodes of the upcoming final season of "The Shield" -- toggling between FX’s crime drama and NBC's Olympic coverage until I half expected cherubic gymnast Shawn Johnson to be gunned down on the uneven bars by Byz-Lat gang members -- I feel compelled to break format.

With notable exceptions (season two of "Dexter," the second season of HBO's "Rome" and last season's "Lost" come to mind), television's post-millennium experiment in serialized, cliff-hanging dramas has had an uneven and disappointing past year. Several popular shows have been physically halted mid-season due to the writers strike, or faltered creatively -- becoming lost in a forest of their own mythology, relying on meandering tangents to delay handling the main arc that viewers actually care about. The struggle of serialized programming is best exemplified by "The Sopranos" final scene, an ending with undeniable brilliance matched by its undeniable frustration.

So this week, to watch eight hours of a veteran show's final season and have it actually exceed expectations … well, communicating that to readers doesn’t feel like a review so much as writing a breaking news headline: tell one, tell all, "The Shield" has returned to demonstrate how serialized television is done. (Some will inevitably disagree. But I'm betting they will be few. Singing the praises of the seventh season's opening episodes feels less like expressing an opinion than downright empirical observation. If you’re a fan of the show, this is great stuff.)

What’s remarkable here is that showrunner Shawn Ryan gives viewers exactly what they want. To an overly sensitive writer, this might come across like a backhanded compliment. It's not. Fans don’t want "The Shield" re-invented for the home stretch. They want the familiar police drama only, if at all possible, even better than before -- more exciting, higher stakes, sharper writing and delivering an emotional payoff to the show's multitude of story threads.

Ryan delivers all this final-act urgency without derailing the narrative train he has so painstakingly constructed (just as his cast promised he would back at TCA in July). Some old faces return to tie up loose ends from seasons past, but they do not distract from the propulsive central drama.   

One of Ryan’s strengths is his ability to juggle a large ensemble cast and dizzying exposition without breaking stride. This talent is firmly on display in the highly effective premiere, which opens to detective Vic Mackey immediately seeking retribution against his longtime partner Shane Vendrell.

The complex web that follows shows the Strike Team devolving into a cannibalistic game of survival. It's all hugely suspenseful and will leave viewers impatient for each new episode. Ryan puts Mackey right where viewers want him: in narrative quicksand, his every move to save himself only sucking him further down.    

Any complaints? Sure, sure. A "blackmail box" of files containing incriminating information on L.A.'s most influential is an overly played MacGuffin. The contents prove to to be such a powerful motivator to all involved that when the cardboard container is finally opened, you practically expect God's wrath to pour out like its the Ark of the Covenant.

And Dutch Wagenbach continues to be the show's double-edged sword -- a character so compelling that Ryan doesn't dare keep him in the background, but too brilliant a detective to believably integrate with the flagrantly unethical Strike Team drama. Dutch sometimes feels like the lead of an entirely different show (hmmm… you don't suppose that ... nah). Here he matches wits with a murderer unlike any he’s ever encountered. It’s a fun hallmark of Ryan’s writing that -- for all his gritty cable network realism -- he occasionally embraces a plot device as parlor-room quaint as “detective struggles to solve the perfect murder.”

With The Final Five episodes still unseen, it’s not yet certain that Ryan will, in the words of Olympic commentators, stick the landing. While watching the final season of “The Sopranos,” viewers felt a meta-tension generated by the creation of the story instead of the story itself. Worries of “Will we be satisfied?" lingered over the viewing experience. Those last episodes were like living with a temperamental artist. You never knew if creator David Chase was going to draw a painting he liked, you liked, or both.

On “The Shield,” we are rushing into a very dark place. I watched the riveting final minutes of the eighth episode twice. Once you get there, you will not know how this story will end. But you will go into those final hours with full confidence.


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