Last year at this time, I described the pilot for The Shield as more intense than the late, great NBC drama Homicide: Life on the Street, saying that's about as intense as you want your cop dramas to get.
The Shield returns for the start of its second season tonight, and the news is that it has ratcheted the intensity even higher. In fact, the two-episode story arc that starts tonight on cable channel FX is more violent, visceral, brilliant, troubling and in-your-face than the acclaimed episode of HBO's The Sopranos this year that featured Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) killing Ralph Cifaretto (Joe Pantoliano) in a bloody ballet of a kitchen fight and then beheading of the corpse.
The producers understand that urban violence in all its ugliness is crucial to their drama about a cop as hero whose moral ambiguity shatters a black-and-white model of good and bad that has shaped police shows on television since the debut of Dragnet some 50 years ago. They go right to the violence at the start of tonight's episode: gasoline-soaked automobile tires are placed over the bodies of two young men, who are then burned alive.
The scene is incredibly graphic. The camera lingers on the executioner as he holds his lighter in the first victim's face before striking the flint. We see it all, starting with the flame spreading across the tire and then onto the victim. The camera pulls back to show us a ball of fire with legs moving crazily from side to side as the agonized screams mount.
And the opening credits have not yet even finished playing.
The man with the lighter, Armando "Armadillo" Quintero (Danny Pino), is at the center of tonight's story as a drug dealer who moves up from Tijuana with the idea of uniting two Latino gangs in Los Angeles' gritty Farmington District and taking over the drug business there. The only problem with the plan is that much of the drug business in Farmington is controlled by Detective Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis) and the elite squad he leads. It's obvious two beats into the hour that Mackey and Quintero are going to war, and they are two bad cowboys.
As complicated as The Shield can get in terms of ethics, the producers work a pretty simple moral mathematics: Yes, Mac- key's a corrupt and bad cop, but the people he is fighting are monsters capable of the kind of evil about which most civilians don't even want to know. You don't maintain societal order in the face of that by playing nice. The writers, producers and directors are among the best in television, good enough to make you feel positively righteous in rooting for Mackey to hold the thin, blue line against the forces of darkness.
If the sadistic delight Quintero exhibits during tonight's opening with the tire "necklaces" doesn't justify the methods Mackey uses to try to take him down, what the sociopath does to two young female victims probably will. After he rapes the two, Quintero and his gang tattoo a dove on their faces to brand them as his.
Thankfully, neither assault is shown.
Nevertheless, hearing a teen-age victim recount how she was raped and tattooed will rattle you. Later, when you see Quintero's handiwork on the face of a 10-year-old girl, it will break your heart. Next week's episode ends with Mackey and Quintero in hand-to-hand combat in a kitchen just like Tony and Ralph on The Sopranos. There's also a stove with a red hot burner, and Mackey in a murderous rage trying to brand Quintero's face.
This is powerful and challenging stuff. It is also exceptional television.
As a viewer, the question you have to ask yourself is whether it is for you. If you are a parent, you also have to decide whether it is for your children. I don't think it is for everyone, certainly not small children.
But, as a critic who has wrestled with this issue for more than 20 years, I believe such violence has a place on television. And that place is on cable, where you have to go out of your way and pay extra money to bring it into your living room.
Television has become too large a part of the process through which we as a society construct our notion of social reality for us to have dramas that offer only a sanitized, fantasy notion of America. Violence is at the core of the American experience from the revolution in colonial times to the frontier wars of the 19th century and urban riots of the 20th. Keeping it off of television altogether won't make us a better people, just a more delusional one.
What: The Shield
Where: Cable channel FX
When: 10 tonight
In brief: Even more intense, violent and powerful than in its acclaimed freshman year