TV UK, 10 October

The Shield's cops don't let the law get in their way.

Dolan Cummings

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When Mike Kellerman first appeared in Homicide, Lieutenant Giardello had to tell him off for wearing jeans. ‘This is Homicide, Kellerman. We wear pants, slacks, chinos. Not jeans.’

Contemporary American cop shows have made us familiar with the coat-and-tie detective. Often laconic and sometimes a little maverick, but generally polite to old ladies and always methodical in investigations, he wears pants. Whether they come with a sharp suit (Curtis in Law and Order), or a sports jacket (Sipowicz in NYPD Blue), those pants are what separate the cops from the bad guys. Even Dirty Harry wore a coat and tie.

In The Shield (Channel 5, Sundays at 10pm), Vic Mackey and his special ‘Strike Team’ wear jeans and t-shirts, and tend not to call members of the public Sir and Ma’am. Instead, Mackey charges around Los Angeles beating people up, running his own drug dealers and generally erring on the ‘order’ side of law and order. Episode one: take a missing girl, a paedophile in custody and a thick phone book – it’s like a Jungian archetype for violent cops.

For anybody who missed the opening episodes, here is the deal. Mackey clashed with the ambitious and besuited Captain Aceveda, who sees a clampdown on dirty cops as his passport into politics. Aceveda asked an ambitious detective (funnily enough played by the same actor who played Kellerman in Homicide) to gather evidence against Mackey. Mackey shot him.

Murdering a cop is a bit different from roughing up the odd suspect and taking the occasional bung, but so far Mackey is taking it in his stride (though his number two is a little sqeamish). The trouble is that Mackey’s approach works. He isn’t just lazy or unscrupulous: he believes in what he does. Anyone who knows about drugs policing knows that the most effective way to keep things under control is to back one dealer against the others. Mackey is a good police, who won’t let the law get in his way.

The system falters next Sunday when Mackey’s dealer gets involved in a feud between two rappers, and he is forced to make the peace in typically unconventional fashion. So far, the one-off cases in each episode haven’t matched up to the drama of the central story, but Aceveda is still on Mackey’s back, and may yet make him regret his amigo jibes – Aceveda is captain only because the city needed a Latino captain, and the tension between the two men is racially charged.

The political dimension as much as the violence gives The Shield a novel appeal. There is a sense of unravelling that is closer to 24 than the long-running cop shows, and since the main characters are obviously flawed from the start, the moral dynamic is different too. I still don’t know which villain I prefer.

Speaking of violent dramas, the BBC got lucky last Sunday with its first nationally televised Old Firm game, which had six goals, seven yellow cards and a tunnel bust-up. The Glasgow derby is a football phenomenon, even if English Premiership connoisseurs turn up their noses at the eccentric tactics and enigmatic performances. The BBC introduced the game with a bizarre poem about the rivalry between Rangers and Celtic and its sectarian overtones. But the pictures of the crowd told viewers everything they needed to know.

If that filthy cheat Chris Sutton had been given a yellow card instead of a free kick for his Vic Mackey-like foul on Maurice Ross, Rangers would have come away with all three points. But then the Old Firm game is not a coat-and-tie fixture.

Dolan Cummings is publications editor at the Institute of Ideas, and editor of Culture Wars. He is also the editor of Reality TV: How Real Is Real?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

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