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Crashing the boys’ club

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.

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“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.

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“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.

“Everyone has sort of gone to corners in season four,” said Pounder. “The irony is that Vic, in all this, has to quietly manipulate his new situation. And Monica Rawling, as fabulous as she is as a captain with a reputation, has never met a Vic Mackey. So it’s going to be very interesting how he works with her ... and whether she becomes corrupted by default or not.”

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Meeting his match?

In the series’ history, no one has come close to minimizing the rogue force of nature that is Vic. Not the overly ambitious David Aceveda. Not the corrupt former assistant police chief who tried to blackmail Vic and instead was ousted to Mexico, where he later drank himself to death. And not the reserved and tenacious Claudette, who uncovered some of Vic’s misdeeds and was slated to be his new captain until prosecutors and fellow cops turned against her when she reopened dozens of cases because the public defender who handled them was high on drugs.

“Michael is a huge presence so you have to get somebody of equal weight,” Dent said. “How many female officers could you name that you could put in a boxing ring with Vic Mackey and think, ‘Oh, that’s a good match?’ With most women, you would think, ‘He’s going to slaughter her.’ ”

Not Monica Rawling, and definitely not Glenn Close.

With six episodes in the can, Close said she loves every moment that Monica gets to tell Vic what to do. “Last week I told Chiklis, ‘Where else on television does a guy as testosterone-laden as you take orders from a woman my age?’ Nowhere, and I’m so happy,” she said and laughed.

“Monica is a tough cookie,” Chiklis said. “That’s been a notoriously men’s world, and it’s difficult for women to be authority figures in that context and among the rank and file and hold a captaincy as a woman, whether it’s the military or the police. She has a presence and a cool and an overwhelming persona to handle it. And that’s Glenn.”

Close, whom Chiklis refers to as a “national treasure,” has never played a policewoman. The closest she came was in her 1995 Emmy-winning role as an Army colonel in the NBC made-for-television drama “Serving in Silence.”

To prepare for her first television series, Close consulted NYPD Deputy Inspector Theresa Shortell, the only female precinct commander in New York City. From Shortell Close learned that “the hardest thing was being a woman and not letting it matter.” Shortell told Close to allow Monica to be protected by the men who serve her “in certain situations because to expect anything otherwise is against nature.”

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“In the first couple of shows you feel the cliche thing of ‘I’m a woman, I have to compensate somehow,’ ” Close said. “And then I realized that she was here because she was good and just own the fact that I’m the commander and if I want them to do something, and they don’t do it, there are consequences. Own the fact that this character has integrity, has worked her way up and has come into this situation with zero tolerance.”

It’s a lesson Pounder learned on her own as she portrayed one of the few officers who has stood up to Vic. Most of the time Claudette doesn’t even have to speak to make a point: Her eyes do most of her talking.

“I accept the fact that I am a woman and that this is my job and once I accepted that, as opposed to trying to be physically bigger, more intimidating and louder, the power came from extreme confidence,” she said. “Napoleon can conquer nations, it has nothing to do with his stature. It has to do with his inner sense of how huge he is. Even Vic Mackey is not a big man, and that always rather surprises people. Once you accept your authority, you don’t have to worry so much about being big.”

Without being direct or obvious, the show’s writers depict how tough it can be to be a woman in a workforce where machismo and physicality are still important aspects of gaining respect, said John Landgraf, FX’s president of entertainment.

“You’ve seen what a tremendous challenge it is for [Danny] to be taken seriously, how she’s made mistakes and overreached and even gotten her career completely off track in the struggle to figure out how to be respected and how to be who she is. It’s a different level of struggle for Claudette because she’s as intelligent and as capable of leadership as anyone in the series. Claudette has to deal with her femininity, but she doesn’t have to struggle with her sexuality. And I think for a younger woman, there’s that whole other element of being around these macho, rapacious people, having to struggle against youth and femininity all at the same time.”

Wronged by doing right

If there is a heart beating at the center of “The Shield,” it belongs to Claudette, a twice-divorced mother of two adult women whose biggest defect is closely linked to her virtue. Pounder helped the writers create Claudette, who was originally written as a male character.

“I wanted her to be abrupt because I felt that would be perfect for a woman in a predominantly male setting, that you had to get the impression that she had gone through all that woman stuff and had arrived and you couldn’t mess with her,” Pounder said. “I didn’t want her to curse like the rest of the guys, and when she did curse, I wanted the whole world to stop. And yet she has a tremendous flaw. In her righteousness and wanting to get things done right, that very thing makes her blindsided sometimes, and this is why she’s in the hole that she’s in. She’s not playing the politics that is required.”

As a result of Claudette’s persistent investigation, which led to 17 overturned convictions and 40 appeals, she and her partner, Det. Dutch Wagenbach (Jay Karnes), are in the doghouse. Last year, Claudette wore power suits and her braids in a bun as the pair solved the murders and rapes of several elderly women. Now, since their piece of the action involves taking down a guy who has three marijuana plants in his backyard, Claudette’s hair is loose and she’s dressing in sports clothes. And she has a serious boyfriend.

By contrast, Danny and her partner, officer Julien Lowe (Michael Jace), are back in good graces as Monica assigns them to her new gang task force. But the two officers go head to head over their captain’s new policy, which Danny views as necessary and Julien, who is African American, sees as discriminatory toward the community in which he was raised. It’s not the first time race has entered their story line. In the second season, Danny “racially profiled” and killed a Muslim man.

“It’s great as an actor to be challenged that way because, imagine as a cop, you’re driving around, and of course you’re talking to your partner about people looking suspicious,” Dent said. “Well, why do they look suspicious? Because they’re driving while black or they’re Muslim? I found these things hard to stomach because I don’t like that. But it’s a strong reality of our culture, and exploring racial issues in L.A. and the relationship between the cops and the people they work with and the struggle with that is a fascinating topic that most television shows are not addressing.”

In the back story they’ve built for Monica, she oversaw the police department’s domestic abuse unit before moving to Farmington and views her new policy as a form of “tough love.” “The forfeiture program is very radical and hasn’t always worked in a lot of places and it’s gotten corrupt, like a lot of other things,” Close said. “But I think it’s a very sincere belief that Monica thinks you can’t make it better until you make it worse for a while.”

The question of the season then becomes: Can Monica inspire Vic to become a better man?

“If you have a morally compromised character like Tony Soprano or Vic Mackey, I think without the hope and possibility of redemption, they kind of get boring after a while,” Landgraf said. “With Mackey, Monica Rawling offers up the possibility of redemption because she is a good cop, because she has a big plan and she gives him a chance to be a good cop again. This creates an incredibly poignant opportunity for Mackey. Maybe he can be the great cop he might have been had he not gone the wrong way. That makes the character vulnerable again, where you can see what his hopes and dreams might have been and what his dreams still might be.”

Contact Maria Elena Fernandez at Calendar.letters@latimes.com.


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