The way the media are chattering this week, it seems all TV glory emanates from The Sopranos. The tube as we know it has been changed forever by the daring, depth and resonance of HBO's returning series king. In the concluding days of its reign, this tale of two types of "family" is being anointed with every superlative known to the critical class.
All of it, of course, magnificently earned. The Sopranos stands as timelessly acute entertainment -- a modern American Shakespearean play. There's so much to admire, to savor, to treasure, to revisit.
But all that brilliance still unfolds at a distance, in somebody else's mobbed-up universe. While we are being wowed, we are safely watching from afar.
Which inspires a strong argument for the parallel glory of The Shield. FX's own milestone drama of ambivalent crime and existential punishment is a riveting page-turner that grabs you in the gut, then slams you against the wall. And while your adrenaline races with the gritty docu-style urgency of police officers tackling the mean streets -- a real-world 24 -- your social conscience gets tied in knots, too. Unlike Tony Soprano, Vic Mackey and his renegade police compadres are not just acting on their own behalf. They're out there in our name. They're serving the greater "good."
And their own ends, yes. But the dichotomy of their twin impulses -- and ours -- is what gives The Shield its own enduring power. When the sixth season begins on FX at 10 tonight, series creator Shawn Ryan and his well-oiled team spotlight both the justice-seeking strengths of Mackey's Strike Team cops and their selfish human weaknesses.
If these men forsake pieces of their souls each time they cross the line to bring down evildoers -- or satisfy their own urges -- then so, perhaps, do we. The ways these characters rationalize their actions extend far beyond the particulars. We upright citizens are implicated, too, in the moral transgressions forgiven in the name of keeping us "safe," so we can comfortably watch the show in neighborhoods free of drug-fueled gunplay, on flat-screen TVs we can reasonably expect will still be there when we return to our sheltered homes each night.
It's the Strike Team's job to keep the inner-city cesspool of crime and violence confined, away from good people like us, while perhaps even aiding some worthy folks trapped within its boundaries. That's a job these cops actually do approach from a principled perspective, as we see tonight when Vic (Emmy winner Michael Chiklis) and his team enter a horrific hostage situation with the chance to "save three innocents from a homicidal junkie."
The Shield amazingly keeps topping its already stratospheric stakes-raising standard. Vic remains the target of a fanatically obsessed internal affairs lieutenant (Forest Whitaker, toweringly itchy), who crosses his own lines tonight in desperation. New district captain Claudette (the searing CCH Pounder) vows this season to "right a lot of wrongs" and "fix this place," under pressure from both political higher-ups and her own sense of moral decency. But tonight, a ghastly mass murder intensifies the bad blood between Mexican gangs and Salvadorans in L.A.'s ethnic stew. As Vic observes in a coming episode, "This thing's gonna get a lot uglier before it gets better."
Diane Werts writes for Newsday.