By Ken Tucker
Updated March 30, 2007 at 04:00 AM EDT
Michael Chiklis, The Shield
Credit: Prashant Gupta

When it premiered in 2002, so much of The Shield was about its surface, its look: the way Michael Chiklis’ bald head gleamed like a police badge as rogue cop Vic Mackey; the way creator Shawn Ryan commanded that the cameras jiggle and jostle alongside the protagonists as they chased drug dealers and killers; the way Los Angeles’ white heat beat down equally upon the darkly plotting heroes and villains.

But as it evolved, The Shield, now in its sixth season, became a show about interiors. We’re taken inside the bedeviled minds of the often lawless Mackey and his partners, who hole up in the dank ”Barn,” that clubhouse within the station house. The mind games that now dominate The Shield are every bit as exciting as the suspect-slamming interrogations that initially made Mackey famous as an Andy Sipowicz 2.0 — a scowling cynic with more muscles and fewer morals.

New Shield viewers will have no trouble following the way Mackey’s career and family became threatened, during last season’s cliff-hanger, by the unhinged vengeance of a rabid Internal Affairs officer. He’s played with virtuosic tonal shifts by Forest Whitaker, whose investigation circuitously resulted in one Barn-stormer, Shane (Walton Goggins), killing another, Lem (Kenneth Johnson).

I won’t say how this plays out — the pleasures of the storytelling here are too good to divulge — but when Whitaker’s Kavanaugh utters the paradoxical line ”I framed a guilty man,” the hair on your neck may stand up as straight as it did on mine. And note The Shield‘s now-total mastery of making every member of its large cast of characters mesh and resonate. Unlike so many multiplotted TV shows, The Shield rarely drops a costar for weeks on end before circling back.

No woman on a cop show, for example, has ever been as vividly delineated as CCH Pounder’s newly promoted Capt. Claudette Wyms, who’s under pressure from the old-boy network to improve her closed-case numbers. No hapless-jerk supporting player has ever shown as many sides to his character as Jay Karnes’ Dutch Wagenbach. And no hotdogging man of action has shown more varying degrees of soul-shredding guilt than Goggins’ Shane.

As for Vic — well, he is more doomed than ever, because from the start of this series, the fundamental struggle has not been one of cop versus criminal or even good versus bad, but whether he has a soul versus a blackened cinder. When Kavanaugh says to Mackey in next week’s episode, ”You corrupted everything around you,” he articulates a truth we’ve suspected for a long time. How Mackey comes to terms with that judgment is what gives this series its soul.

The Shield

  • TV Show
  • 7
  • Shawn Ryan
  • FX