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Crashing the boys' club

'The Shield' tosses kerosene on its already-smoldering racial and ethical fires. All it takes is a woman in charge.

March 13, 2005|Maria Elena Fernandez | Times Staff Writer

To justify a rookie's killing of a dog to the assistant police chief, Det. Vic Mackey points to a gun he placed near the animal's paw and explains, "The dog was reaching. It was kill or be killed."

Vic's new captain, whom none of the officers has met, appears unannounced and, without missing a beat, chimes in, "Oh, come on, Ray, the dog had a piece, and he was going to use it." The captain leaves the scene, and patrol officer Danny Sofer asks what everyone is thinking: "Who was that?"

That is Capt. Monica Rawling, who's taking control of the precinct on "The Shield." The fourth season of television's most viciously masculine drama begins Tuesday with Glenn Close joining the cast as a no-nonsense but compassionate police captain, a woman brought in not to boost ratings or fulfill phony gender quotas -- but in an effort to stay true to the show's hard-core and merciless reality.

Monica arrives at the Barn, as the precinct is nicknamed, with a controversial property seizures and asset forfeitures policy that galvanizes and polarizes her police station and the predominantly minority community it serves, as racial tensions take center stage.

"It was always interesting to me that one of the people you would hear talking about the U.S. policy in Iraq was Condoleezza Rice, who is such a pleasant person to look at and listen to," creator Shawn Ryan said. "She was somebody you root for and you want to like her, and you intend to go with her a little more than Donald Rumsfeld. I thought it would be more interesting for the show if a woman who is tough but has a softer side and a very likable side put a softer face on these controversial issues."

In the post-"NYPD Blue" TV landscape, it's a move that demonstrates why FX's first original dramatic series continues to pave the way for a new generation of cop shows. The cops of "The Shield" increasingly feel like the police officers you would encounter on a real metropolitan police force, and not just because they curse like crazy and see and do things no censor would allow on a network cop show. "The Shield" is a pioneer largely because, like HBO's "The Wire" -- which centers on Baltimore's inner-city drug scene and depicts the lives of junkies, dealers, cops and politicians -- it focuses less on good and evil and more on what lies in between.

Now, the show will grapple with the questions posed by a swift injection of female authority into its boys' club. With the addition of Monica, whose law-enforcement philosophy is "I believe in offering people a hand, even if they slap it away," the new season is about shutting the door to that boys' club and attempting to subdue Vic.

Capt. David Aceveda (Benito Martinez), who always favored politics over policing, has been elected to the City Council. Vic's all-male, dirty undercover unit, the Strike Team, has been disbanded. And men are no longer allowed to use the ladies' bathroom.

"I guess Vic is going to have to get in touch with his feminine energy in a hurry," joked the Emmy- and Golden Globe-winning Michael Chiklis, who plays Vic.

A woman may be in charge, but estrogen is still in short supply. Only two other female officers work at the Barn: Claudette Wyms (CCH Pounder), a methodical African American homicide detective ostracized for her righteous convictions; and Danny Sofer (Catherine Dent), an up-and-coming patrol officer who has to prove herself again, after having taken the fall for the dirty cops who work with her.

"Early on, this was a very testosterone-driven show, filled with a lot of men, very amped-up boys," Chiklis said. "It must have been very difficult for Catherine and CC to come onto the set and be the only ladies in that kind of context. But God bless them. They really have always held their own and done great work with dignity. Especially in a crowd of boys like this, it gets kind of salty."

The ladies can handle it. Claudette and Danny are as capable of helping a Korean grandfather whose feet have been nailed to the floor, pulling a condom filled with drugs out of a woman's private parts, or fatally shooting a man in the line of duty as they are of tenderness, warmth and humor.

"It's a tough world," said Dent.

"We have two female writers, the rest are men. All the producers are men. All the leads, except CC, are men. Danny's struggles in the Barn mirror mine on the show," Dent said of the graphic condom scene. But at the end of the day, she said, "Danny had to do her job with the cops and Catherine had to do her job with the actors and they both hated it."

As a veteran cop who once patrolled the streets she now commands, the Monica character is a brilliant and bold officer who has no idea that with Vic she's inherited a killer cop who has actually killed a cop and one who enlisted his own Strike Team to help him steal millions of dollars from the Armenian mob.

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