The Shield and Sopranos Are Back

April Is the Cruelest Month on TV

By: - Apr 04, 2007

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        Baddabaddabing. The old Ultra Vi is back on TV with the return last night of the popular cop show "The Shield" on FX and the swan song of  "The Sopranos" the last of the gang of hoods from Joisey, in the Waste Removal business, just nine precious episodes, set to launch this Sunday on HBO.

          Of course this is gratuitous violence with a twist. These cops and robbers have problems on and off the job. These are thugs, killers, and corrupt cops with pangs of conscience and agita. What made Tony Soprano unique among the Mafiosi were his intermittent blackouts, connected to his hag of a mother, Julia (Nancy Marchand), and her constant verbal abuse, which drove him to the couch of the shrink, Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco). During a bit of classic transference Tony came on to her. And she in turn off loads to her shrink Dr. Elliott Kupfergerg (Peter Bogdanovich) who in turn gets shrunk by and so it goes. Which is certainly a contemporary twist to the ancient theme of Crime and Punishment.

           What gives these television series credibility and gravitas as dramas is the back story that plays through all the murder, betrayal, greed and mayhem. There are episodes when the protagonists struggle with their demons in a manner that draws us in and inspires rapport and compassion for their humanistic conundrums. Then there are episodes that repulse us with graphic depictions of slaughter. We see the sensitive and conflicted Tony (James Gandolfini), for example, in the bathroom with his psycho understudy, Christopher (Michael Imperioli), hacking up a body for disposal. But in better moments these incidents can take on a poetic pathos when, for example, the Rat, Big Pussy (Vincent Pastore), about to be offed by a troika of hoods, begs, "Please not in the face." It is evocative of Saint Peter pleading with his executioners to be crucified upside down.

         The action began with a bang last night with Vic (Michael Chiklis) and his Strike Force, minus Lem, murdered at the climax of last season, by the gonzo Shane, back in the barn. The good cop trying to keep order, while flip flopping between conscience and political expedience, is well played by the wonderful and expressive CCH Pounder. She is one of several outstanding African American actors including the masterful Forest Whitiaker, as Kavanaugh, the investigator determined to nab Vic and his sidekicks for murder and corruption.

           The small screen sizzled when Chiklis and Whitaker face off. Just who will prevail in this war of wills between the smoldering Vic, all raw energy and raging testosterone, and the subtle, shifty, clever, patient and calculating Kavanaugh? Whitaker has very strange eyes with one focused on the person with whom he interacts and the other that glances past and into some unknown conceptual zone. This gives his a glancing, oblique and complex delivery from which he has forged a series of superb characters and performances. It won him an Oscar for his performance this year in "Last King of Scotland." He rendered the African dictator and engineer of genocide against his own people, Idi Amin, with the intensity and complexity of Macbeth with a dash of Hamlet. Chiklis is his match, blow for blow, but we haven't seen him in other roles such as those which demonstrate the depth and diversity of Whitaker. But in this part Chiklis is spot on. Particularly when he reveals his softer and more human side dealing with family issues and his ragtag crew or the human refuse subverted as confidential informers.

            Somehow Vic always seems to patch it together even though he commands at best a leaky ship. How to keep the pathological killer and self absorbed Shane on the leash. Often in close-ups of Shane (Walton Goggins) it seems that nobody is home behind his shifty duplicitous eyes.

               There are a lot of back story and plot twists in The Shield but not so convoluted that they push us away from the main thread of action. By comparison, in the past couple of seasons, many fans felt that Sopranos got too artsy and uppity. There were episodes that passed through us like water in a sieve. That happens less in The Shield. For example the wonderful character, Dutch, the nerdy, quirky, smart, good cop played by the ever inventive Jay Karnes. He is constantly being mocked and played for the fool by the other tougher, macho cops. But more often than not, when thrown off the trail by Vic's deceptions, Dutch sorts through and finds the decisive clues to break a case.

            So here we go again as Vic is determined to find the killer who blew up Lem (Kenneth Johnson) the big mug nailed by Kavanaugh and a risk to roll against the Strike Team. While Vic vows to get the cop killer, for now chasing after a drug kingpin as the likely suspect, we know that his slippery partner Shane is the culprit. So the plot line is well established for the season. The popular show is slated to return next year for its final run. Meanwhile we await the wake for Sopranos that begins on Sunday. Send flowers.