Dramatic License

Television has changed a lot since I was a kid. (Insert “duh” here.) And I’m not just talking about the 7 VHF stations and 1 UHF  station I grew up watching in L.A. on a Zenith color console. (Which was a big improvement over the 4 black and white stations in my hometown of Detroit.)

No, I mean the shows themselves. In the 60s and early 70s, most TV dramas were self-contained. Each week, they introduced a dramatic problem and neatly wrapped it up in an hour, minus 12 minutes for words from our sponsors. (Commercials have changed a lot, too. But that’s a subject for a future blog. Remind me I said that.)

There were exceptions to the rule, such as “The Fugitive,” in which wrongly-convicted escaped con Dr. Richard Kimble (played by David Janssen) spent the entire series trying to track down the mysterious one-armed man who murdered his wife. The final episode may have been the top-rated show of its day, not to be supplanted until the final episode of “Mash.” But most programs were like “The Streets of San Francisco” (featuring a young Michael Douglas and an old Karl Malden), with its formulaic 4 parts and epilogue that   did little to challenge the viewer.

This began to change in 1976 with the advent of the “mini-series.” The first one I became aware of was “Rich Man, Poor Man,” based on the Irwin Shaw best-seller, followed in short order by “Captains and the Kings,” and the blockbuster “Roots.” These were truly television events, with viewer shares unequaled in today’s ratings world except for the Super Bowl.

By 1981, the mini-series mentality had begun to pervade network television, with the arrival of Steven Bochco’s “Hill Street Blues” and his follow-up series, “L.A. Law,” both of which carried major story arcs throughout their seasons (and sometimes for the entire life of the series).

When I think back on my all-time favorite shows, I realize that most of them owe a debt of gratitude to these earlier

series. “Sopranos,” “Six Feet Under,” the much-lamented “Deadwood” (euthanized while still in its prime because creator David Milch just had to get “John From Cincinnati” out of his system), “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad,” and “Justified” (the latter three very much alive and well) all represent high points in TV drama. Coincidentally, or not, none of them ever set foot on network television. Cable, particularly HBO, Showtime, FX and AMC, is a superior breeding ground for intelligent, engaging programming.

While every one of these series deserves its own blog post (remind me I said that), I’ve saved the best for last: “The Shield,”   especially Season 5, which I believe is the finest individual season in the history of television. From the very first minutes of the pilot episode, when we witness Det. Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis) gun down his own man in cold blood during a gang bust, you knew this was going to be a different kind of show. That incident established Vic as a very bad man, playing both sides of the law, willing to do anything to save his own skin. And yet, more often than not, I found myself rooting for him. Which means I’m a sociopath. Or the writers are brilliant. Or both. (Hey, I rooted for Tony Soprano, too. Creator David Kelly explained once that, in a story where everyone’s bad, you relate to the guy who’s least bad.)

But that doesn’t explain Mackey. Plenty of the show’s characters, while complex, could be characterized as good guys and gals. Not Vic. And in Season 5, when the writers brought in Forest Whitaker as an Internal Affairs Lt. with a Javert-like vendetta, you’d think  I’d be pulling for him to bring down Mackey once and for all. But it’s fascinating how quickly Whitaker, as Jon Kavanaugh, goes   from playing cat-and-mouse games with Mackey to planting evidence, bullying witnesses and even making choices that cause him to lose his own wife. At the end, Kavanaugh has crossed over to the dark side, so much so that he and Vic have become one and the  same. The writers do such an expert job of ratcheting up the tension that Kavanaugh’s Capt. Queeg-style breakdown comes as a relief. Maybe you want someone, sometime, to nail Mackey. But not this guy.

The only downside is that the series, for me, peaked then and there. While still way above average, it never recaptured that special, perhaps once-in-a-lifetime, chemistry (despite a nifty series-ending scene dripping with irony and closure). Nevertheless, “The Shield” is my gold standard for what TV drama can and should be. (And thanks to my friend Wolfgang Muchow, who recommended it to me in the first place.)