A different kind of cop

Television - Andrew Billen on why he likes nightmarish policemen despite misgivings

Years ago, I watched a cinema trailer for a coming attraction, a vigilante movie called Maniac Cop 2. "Who the hell is Maniac Cop?" asked someone behind me, to which her date replied: "Do you really give a fuck?" He neatly articulated my feelings. Dirty Harry was as dirty as I wanted a cop to get.

Well, a maniac cop now has his own prime-time American TV drama series. If you thought NYPD Blue's Andy Sipowicz sometimes overstepped the mark ("This is America: I'd beat you up if you were black or white"), wait till you see Detective Vic Mackey in The Shield. Or perhaps you already have. The pilot episode - actually the American pilot stitched together with the first of the series proper - was aired on Channel 5 on Sunday 29 September (10pm).

In the final minute of its first half, it broke treacherous new ground. A policeman took the opportunity of a muddled drug raid to shoot dead a fellow officer. The victim was not even a bent cop. The victim was the good guy investigating a bent cop. And the bent cop was Mackey, The Shield's hero. It was a shock because it was a surprise, a shock because the sequence looked and sounded like a music video and a shock because the plotting offended justice.

The second half did so again, for it showed Mackey getting away with the murder. The man most keenly on his case was the station captain, David Aceveda, a career policeman and pen-pusher who not unreasonably concluded that Mackey was not a law-enforcement officer but "Al Calpone with a badge". It was he who ordered the young detective to spy on Mackey. Aceveda's surviving ally is Holland "Dutch" Wagenbach. A detective of the modern school, he uses psychology to extract confessions from suspects and despises Mackey's alternative method, which is to beat them. ("Good cop/bad cop left for the day," Mackey tells an educated paedophile whom Dutch has failed to break. "I'm a different kind of cop.") In another series, Dutch would be a hero - he looks a bit like Fox Mulder - but in the raucous context of this machismo-driven cop shop, he's a nerd.

Mackey is the one with allies - high-ups in the justice department, his frat-pack team, a young female detective with whom he has had an affair and a forty-something woman cop with a morbid fear of her own birthdays who believes that Mackey's venality is the price for preserving order on the streets.

Thus he gets away with it and the police internal investigation comes to nothing. Much of the pleasure of the final hour, however, is seeing him sweat, observing how what is left of his conscience plays on him and admiring the bravado of his rationalisations: "Did I enjoy this? No. Did it need to be done? You're damn right it did!" Mackey figures his best defence is self-recrimination and his initial, moist-eyed cry of "I'm responsible" - by which he means only that he led a raid that ended in a shoot-out - should, you think, win him an Emmy.

The actor who plays him, Michael Chiklis, did just that, just last month. A genial puffball in the soft, early Nineties police show The Commish and the cuddlesome star of a cancelled sitcom called Daddio, Chiklis shows his range in The Shield. His hair shaved, his nipples erect beneath a taut T-shirt and his blue eyes bulging at his enemies, Mackey is all the more terrifying for his apparently contented family life at home. As a creation, he would not have been possible had Tony Soprano not been invented first, but he lacks the mafioso's charm. We are not convinced of his inner decency.

My quibble with the opening episodes is that the structure delineated too obviously the different brands of cop in the station. The dialogue is often a delight, but the camerawork, editing and soundtrack are inappropriately cool. At times, the show gets silly, as when Mackey's gang literally leaves its calling card at a crime scene: "The Strike Team Was Here".

The excesses are all the more regrettable because of the drama's geographic and political realism. This is a truly multi- ethnic LA, both in the shades of pigmentation in the police station and the variety of street gangs outside it. It is an LA where the police have earned their mistrust; where, when a young black man is arrested, his neighbour takes out her video camera to record the event in case it turns into a rerun of Rodney King. The provisional name for the series was Rampart, after a scandal in 1997 in which the anti-gang unit of the LAPD's rampart division was accused of planting evidence, perjury and murder.

The Shield's creator, Shawn Ryan, has said: "The interesting question to me was: 'What do we allow our officers to do to make us safer? How many rights of criminals are we willing to give up to ensure our safety?'"

Forgive me, but I don't thing that it was this question that interested him. Mackey is a thug on the take, not Dixon of Dock Green meets The Enforcer. He's a different type of cop, all right, a maniac cop, and it is his deranged soul that fascinates our writer. At a time when forensic procedure has come to dominate the most successful American crime shows, spawning in the US multiple spin-offs from Law and Order and CSI, The Shield, despite its sensationalist, over-schematic premise, pushes character back into the limelight. It works.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the Times