By Gillian Flynn
Updated March 05, 2004 at 05:00 AM EST

Having a bastard as your central character is like having a snake for a pet — it’s really cool at first, but then you wonder whether you can DO much with it. As The Shield slithers into its third season, I worried: Can a series that opened with Det. Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis) murdering a fellow officer possibly find fresh angles three years in?

Ohhhh, yes. Season 2 ended with the crooked cop and his crooked Strike Team gazing at the pile of loot they’d stolen from the Armenian Mob. Now they’re aiming to lay low — which, this being ”The Shield,” ain’t likely. By the second episode, some of the cash — which, it turns out, has been marked — is already circulating.

The twisted, politicized station house in a fictional L.A. precinct is also offering up myriad intrigues. Capt. David Aceveda (Benito Martinez), elected to the city council last season, decides to tidy up his sullied legacy, and refuses to vacate his position — promised to Det. Claudette Wyms (CCH Pounder) — for another six months. The rivalry between Wyms and the slick Aceveda brewed all last season, and I hope — nay, demand — to see a showdown between these two soon.

”The Shield”’s writers have always enjoyed fingering around in fragile human alliances, and they’ve developed a real knack for small kick-in-the-heart moments. Nothing says more about the desperation of closeted Julien (Michael Jace) than when he shrugs off his old partner Danny (Catherine Dent) to jaw with his new macho buddies in blue. And while I’m still smarting from the letdown that was Lanie Kellis, the Mackey-hating civilian auditor who went nowhere last season, I’ll forgive the writers in light of their brilliant decision to put smug, needy Det. Dutch Wagenbach on the Armenian Mob case. Jay Karnes plays the guy with the awkwardness of Ducky and the lemony line readings of Paul Lynde, and I can’t wait to see his junior high egghead vibe matched against Mackey’s knee-jerk jockiness.

Ultimately, the reason ”The Shield” is one of the best police dramas going isn’t just its spiderweb plots, the claustrophobic you’re-stuck-with-us camera work, or its antihero, although Chiklis — who won a well-deserved Emmy two years back — is just as spooky and weirdly amiable as ever. It’s the fact that the program regularly yields even its main characters to baleful Fate: The series hits its most shocking point with the fifth episode, when one suffers a sick-making assault that’s bound to have disturbing ripples. It proves that while ”The Shield” is mining more of its subtleties, it still knows how to dredge up pure nightmare.