Brute Force


The Shield, “Pay in Pain” (1.07).

The Shield (2002-8), created by Shawn Ryan, emerged from a line of crime dramas that includes Hill Street Blues (1981-87), a show that revitalised genre conventions and was pivotal in the narrative redefinition of television series in the late 1980s. The two series in this line that are stylistically closer to The Shield are perhaps Homicide: Life on the Streets (1993-99) and NYPD Blue (1993-2005). They did not shy away from depicting violence, using slang, and employing shaky camerawork. They opted for a raw realism in the portrayal of police work and its environment.

How does The Shield fit into this genealogy of the gritty police television drama? There are differences between this series and the ones sketchily described above that should not be overlooked. The realism precluded by Homicide: Life on the Streets and NYPD Blue seems to simply present reality instead of re-presenting it. But this kind of realism is founded on a constructed sense of reality and of its experience. As Colin MacCabe has argued regarding other cinematic works of fiction, scenes are believed to be real because they conform to a group of norms related to content, form, and ideology.

Some members of the production crew of NYPD Blue also worked on The Shield, so they can be more easily compared. The latter makes use of the tense presence of bodies — their energy and strength determine visual dynamics, in particular in multiple scenes of verbal and physical confrontation. In the previous show, the camera provided an external look and, even though the camera regularly shook, the eye level matches and shots/reverse shots were usually maintained. In The Shield, the camera seems almost merged with the world that is filming. It moves more freely, adopting low angles, underlying the tension. The dense and grainy photography works in tandem with the abrupt cuts, with (fleeting) images and (phantom) sounds often separated to be united at infrequent or irregular intervals.

The realism of The Shield does not say “this is how it really is”. Its statements of believability depend on exaggeration for dramatic effect. This is not a simple surface or naturalist verisimilitude. What is more distinctive about this rough show is its facticity, the concrete condition of being and acting in the streets of Los Angeles. The show engenders a sense of real existence of its characters by the weight of their gestures, the power of their movements, the assertiveness of their language. Police brutality is conveyed through a textured forcefulness.