At the 2003 Golden Globe awards, the field for best actor in a drama series was brimming with talent: James Gandolfini, Martin Sheen, Peter Krause, Kiefer Sutherland, and a TV veteran who had never been nominated before — Michael Chiklis. Gandolfini seemed to be a lock for the win. The Sopranos was a huge hit and the success of the show centered largely on the talents of the man who played Tony Soprano.
Sarah Jessica Parker opened the envelope and the unthinkable happened: Chiklis won. The people sitting at home all had the same response…“Is that The Commish?”
Indeed it was. While the win was a feather in the cap for Michael Chiklis, it was also a validation of something else. For The Shield’s creator, Shawn Ryan, and for many of those in the television industry, the win was a signal flare exhibiting that the days of the black hat/white hat TV cops was a thing of the past.
When The Shield burst onto cable television back in 2002, there were still rules; lines in the imaginary sand that had been developed through years of formulaic cop and police procedural TV programs. The show centered on the Farmington, California Police District, and more specifically, the precinct know as “The Barn”: a semi-experimental police force led by newly minted Capt. David Aceveda. The Barn’s muscle, though, was The Strike Team, a group of four detectives who were called upon when doors needed to be knocked upon or kicked in.
The Strike Team, led by Detective Vic Mackey, did things their way and they would often blur, cross, and sometimes destroy the boundaries in which a police officer could operate. There were several key players in The Shield, like Detective Claudette Wyms, Detective Holland Wagenbach, Officer Dani Sofer, and many others. But the show belonged to Vic Mackey.
Never before had television audiences seen a police officer like Mackey. He was built like the side of a barn with a menacing bald head and a strut that, even far away, made you wonder if he was going to charge at you like a bull. He was brash, cocky, confident, smart, conniving, and above all else… bad.
It’s hard to say that Vic Mackey was even an anti-hero, as anti-heroes at least have redeemable qualities. That’s not to say that Mackey didn’t exhibit some fine police work at times. Mackey put away bad guys just as well as the best TV cops. He did have a family that he cared for, but with Mackey you got a general sense that his family was just a buoy that at the back of his mind he needed to help him validate all the evil things he had done.
And I do mean evil. In the very first episode, Mackey murders a detective and covers it up solely for the purposes of hiding his corruption.
For Mackey, it was all about his “retirement fund”. He and the Strike Team would rob drug dealers and give the stash to another street hustler in exchange for a percentage of profits. When the team came across an illegal Armenian money train, policing was not at the forefront of his thoughts; it was all about “How can we steal this thing?”.
What made Vic Mackey so dangerous and evil was his perception of qualification. He would use any wayward or precious thing in his life to qualify his use of illegal and deadly force. When he found out his son had autism, his sense of internal justification came from the steep price of the special schooling his child would need. When former friend and assistant chief Ben Gilroy threatened him with exposing his corruption, the justification came from needing money to get him out of the country.
A man who can qualify, justify, and negotiate with his own moral integrity to provide relief and protection from psychological persecution is a hazardous and venomous man.
Creator Shawn Ryan did give you those instances and slivers of righteousness with Mackey. When a hooker who was a criminal informant for him was shot and killed, you could feel the crushing anguish on his face. Any case involving an abused child, Mackey was usually the first in line to find and punish the perpetrator. It was easy to root for him in these moments, but in the grand scheme of things, they were just superficial blows to a black cloud that was too far gone into the night.
Much of the success of the character of Vic Mackey is owed to Michael Chiklis. To this day, I challenge you to find a TV cop that was more intense and conflicted than he. In moments of great crisis, you could feel the heat emanating from his steel blue eyes and in moments of agony — as in the scene when he comes home to find that his family has left him — his internal strife felt like a sucker punch to the stomach.
But make no bones about it: the first thing in Mackey’s life was Mackey. And in the end, that’s all he had. I’ll leave you with this scene that perfectly sums up the kind of police officer Det. Vic Mackey was: