Commentary: The reason The Shield is television’s greatest drama is that it holds to the most basic rule of drama: characters act, and those actions have consequences. Events happen, not to make a point to us, but from what the characters do. (The best kind of creator was described well in the 14th-century text The Cloud of Unknowing, and even better in Futurama: “when you do things right, people won’t be sure you’ve done anything at all.”) The most basic rule of The Sopranos is that its characters don’t act; as Todd van der Werff noted on the AV Club, it shows, over and over again, how people make the choice to not choose, to not change, to remain complacent. And because there are rarely any consequences to this, the show can go on forever. Even if you believe that Tony was finally killed for all he’d done (I do), Chase deliberately chose not to show the consequences of that, literally stopping the show before we could see what happened. That’s why The Sopranos’ ancestors are literary, not dramatic; it’s not a unified story moving from a first action to a last consequence but rather a series of sketches and short stories. Its nearest relatives aren’t the dramas of Shakespeare and Sophocles but the short stories of Dostoyevsky (who gets a shout-out from Dr. Krakower), Sherwood Anderson (Winesburg, Ohio), and Bret Easton Ellis (The Informers).
Storytelling is a fundamentally ethical activity, because we see characters making a judgment and then making the crucial next step: acting on that judgment, and then experiencing the consquences of that judgement. Did Corrine do the right thing in revealing Vic giving her the money? To answer that, we have to at least consider all the consequences of that act; we have to at least take a moment to ask if it was worth the death of Lem and of Shane’s family and of Shane. I don’t believe she’s responsible for all that, but we have to at least think about it. Because its characters act, The Shield creates an ethically complex world; because The Sopranos’ characters don’t act, its characters can be simply judged. Judgments can be pure, whereas ethics are always messy, because acting in the world always leads to consequences. (Only for God can judgment and ethics be the same thing.) In storytelling, the creator has to face the consequences too, but Chase created very few acts, and very few consequences, so he could create scenes like this one that judge without any risk or complexity.
The Sopranos has a different purpose than The Shield; many have called it the best critique of contemporary American life. I won’t dispute that for a moment. The first power of drama, though, isn’t to tell us about one country at one moment in its history. The first power, literally the Godly power, of drama, is to create people who feel alive, so that we in the audience feel no distinction between those on stage and those in our lives. Whenever an author chooses something else as the first power, to make a point, to teach us something, to provide social or political criticism, their drama becomes less alive. Any time we find ourselves thinking “this is a story that someone made up; what are they trying to tell me?” we are not feeling that first, living power of drama. The purpose of The Shield was always to show us what the characters would do next, what they would have to do next, and that is why, over and over again, it collapsed the distance between itself and us; that is why, over and over again, we empathize rather than judge. The Sopranos is judgmental, The Shield ethical; The Sopranos is lifelike, The Shield is alive.
MORE COMMENTARY: I didn’t finish up The Shield until some years after it ended. I can distinctly remember shotgunning the final season in a day and watching the last six episodes the way I have ever since, in one unbroken sitting. That first time through, I finished at something like 2am, and I just sat there stunned for I don’t know how long…. I was awestruck by how elegant and necessary those last five hours played out the events, how one after another the options for everyone closed off, and how it couldn’t happen any other way. It was like nothing I’d ever seen on television, and some years later it would send me back to the ancient texts to understand its power. At the time I was sure, though, I would never see anything like it again, and so far, ten years out, I’ve been right.
* I watched The Shield in the first place because I wanted to expose myself to new and interesting ideas, and like all the characters in the show I got exactly what I asked for. It shook my very worldview, and continues to shake it as I try and process what it all means even two years later. The Shield‘s relentless and unsentimental dramatic construction makes it sneakily one of the great philosophical works of fiction, not just in its day-to-day moral questions like “what’s the best way to police” or “is it right to strangle a cat to understand a serial killer” but in the sense of how you survive after answering them – to not just have a worldview, but live by it.
* The Shield has had a permanent impact on how I think about drama, storytelling, and morality. The ending is what brings all that home. …here it is for you to empathize with, and for you to empathize with in a dangerous way, a way that is rooted in choices and feelings rather than in psychology. The Shield is full of different kinds of people, but there’s never a diagnostic sense to it, never the sense that being a particular kind of person will keep you from doing a particular kind of thing. Or, for that matter, fate you to do it. I know when I watch it that I could do anything these characters do: that’s the terrifying responsibility and glory of being human.
* The Shield is a complete work in a way that isn’t supposed to be possible in long form serialized storytelling. You get the idea that if you gave the creators a time machine, gave them the chance to go back and rework narrative threads and characterization and foreshadowing, address all the problems of the show with total perfect hindsight of what the finished project would be, that (with the exception of a single misguided episode) they wouldn’t really change anything at all. The ending of The Shield is the culmination of a journey that has been advancing relentlessly for seven years, launched by the choices characters made in the very first episode. The Shield isn’t just a great series, it’s a miracle. A 65 hour long story without an ounce of fat. This is perhaps most remarkable when it comes to Shane, who does a thing that is monstrous and incomprehensible, but still feels right for his character, even though that character is never treated like a monster. He ends the show as both the most loathsome and most sympathetic. It’s a daring choice from an artistic perspective, all but impossible to pull off and even under the best circumstances alienating and devastating to the audience, but the show does it because it is the correct way for the story to end. There will be shows with better acting than The Shield, with higher production values, better cinematography, sharper dialogue. But there will never be another show that runs as long as The Shield and feels so complete.
* Breaking Bad at its best could match the suspense and the intensity, but The Shield’s relentless forward momentum and watching the characters making each decision, step by step, completely plausible at the time, even justifiable, down this dark, dark, road made the impact, the final destination, that much more powerful and overwhelming. That much more real and human. I don’t know if a show will ever blow my mind, my heart, and my guts like that again.
* The Shield isn’t just my favorite show, it’s a show where I’ve worked hard to make sure my name, such as it is, will always be associated with it; and it’s a show where a principal cast member killed his wife in front of their children. That has affected nothing about how I see The Shield, or what I have to say about it, because it’s a work that exists past the character of its creators and past the politics of its time, and our time.
* Shawn Ryan’s great, defining choice was to ask his question in a way that got him a narrative rather than an essay. Not “What is the terrible cost of using violence to gain security?” but “If someone uses violence to gain security, what happens?”
* What defines The Shield as part of its time for me is more its lack of self-consciousness… There’s much more of a critical consensus now about what kinds of entertainment are worthy and there’s a much more established stylebook. Slow pace, disorganized timeline, narrative ambiguity, withheld gratification.
* The Shield was always conscious of its audience; trying to be entertaining, funny, and exciting, in a way a lot of prestige television does not, but it never seemed to care what anybody thought about the creators themselves. It is not a show that tries to win you over with its good taste or its righteous politics. It isn’t trying to impress anybody and it’s not afraid of being enjoyed in the wrong way. I’ve always felt one of the defining traits of art (at least of popular mainstream American art) following 9-11 was a desire to be apolitical. To prioritize national unity over anything petty or divisive. The Shield both reflects and refutes this attitude. In it’s unwillingness to ever allow itself to become polemic. And because of course your show about police, and torture, and crime, and corruption, and race, is political. But the desire to explore these themes without lecturing the audience allows it to evolve alongside that audience.
* The show never feels like the writers were writing to a point; it always feels like they wrote the inevitable consequences of the actions the characters took. By prioritizing the storytelling, the sequence of action and consequence, over teaching its characters or its audience moral lessons, The Shield actually makes any lessons it has to teach land that much harder. (And as with the best drama, those lessons tend to be “Your actions have consequences and you are responsible for them.”)
* One of the rules of The Shield is that people just aren’t going to do what you expect, and often that will fuck up your whole day, even your life. (The other version of this “Things aren’t going to go exactly like you want them to sometimes.”)
* The Shield’s characters are not moral exemplars, they’re not likable and not meant to be, but dammit, they earn our respect. That’s what I mean by large characters: you can never look down on them.
* The way the conversation around television these days underlines a divide between “character-based” and “plot-based,” with the implication that the latter is “lesser,” and failing to understand it’s an unnecessary distinction. This ties into my frequent complains about how often modern prestige drama is just about characters who Have Feelings and Have Psychology: The Shield is “plot-based” because its characters actually take action, but that plot only matters because the characters matter, because they’re so boldly drawn, so strongly written and performed, and so strongly human, even if we don’t get the meticulous backstory and psychological portraits we might get from other shows.
* the power of The Shield is that it allows you to accept what is worst in you. Tragedy functions on an arc of knowing, from a single act, through its consequences, to the acknowledgement of them. It’s a demonstration of the Socratic rule know thyself, where the modern rule might be called fix thyself. The Shield, through showing its characters actions and their consequences and really nothing else, generates empathy for everyone, and in doing so generated empathy for all parts of me. I do think that storytelling makes us better people, and by that I don’t mean a nicer person or a more progressive person. Storytelling, like language itself, increases the scope of our world.
* It was very easy to say I didn’t want to be like Vic and Shane based solely on the first episode; it was impossible to say that based on “Family Meeting”. Every decision they made, Good or Bad, brought them to where they were at the end; I can see how decisions I thought were wrong or moronic at the time were the only right decision I could have made with the information I had at the time.
* The Shield taught me a lot of what I now know about choices and consequences. Often, now, I find myself thinking, You can do that, but you have to take everything that comes after. There is no clean way to live in the world, and The Shield emphasizes that. It isn’t just that you can’t shoot a cop in the face and get away with it, it’s that Claudette has to understand that when she exposes the problems in the DA’s office, she’s buying all those overturned convictions, too.
* TV is so much slower now, especially Marvel Netflix series, and I desperately want action, decision, consequence, not ideology or super long analogies-as-dialogue. (I slowly turned on the Fargo series as a direct result.) …I want to get back to plot and action as soon as possible.
* The Shield was the perfect thing to watch at a point in my life where I’d become more masculine, more internal and interested in alternative points of view, different kinds of moralities. It influenced my philosophies on these aspects while confirming some of them at the same time. The Shield is oddly perfect for autistics–it code switches constantly and contains a universal empathy and morality all at once.
* Commentary: The Shield’s characters all have a moral agency, whereas Breaking Bad’s characters all exist as followers or enemies of Walter. The Shield is a story of moralities in conflict, not a story of a bad man who brings everyone down.
* Comment: When someone takes power from you, you take it back from them; considerations of your duty as a cop (the modern principles of suspects’ rights and the limits of your power) do not apply here. And if you battle with monsters, you’re gonna end up at least a little bit of a monster. The Shield plays by some old moralities to match its old style of storytelling and goals for the audience. Drama is an older form of storytelling than the novel, and empathy is older than analysis. One of the ways The Shield goes for empathy over analysis is these larger moral points are never emphasized, never reflected on; they’re presented to us, and then we move on to the next beat of the plot.
* Comment: The Shield doesn’t just throw the consequences of moral ambiguity in our faces, it also throws the consequences of empathy in our faces.