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‘I do feel like the end is coming’

Times Staff Writer

After a wait of what seemed like forever to its die-hard fans, the series that is widely considered one of television’s best dramatic series, anchored by the small screen’s most explosive antihero, returns this week.

Welcome back, “The Shield.”

While much buzz in recent weeks has revolved around HBO’s highly acclaimed “The Sopranos” and its final season, which starts Sunday, FX’s “The Shield,” which has continually drawn at least as many critical accolades, is reaching its own milestone tonight -- the launch of its penultimate season.

With its multidimensional, flawed characters and gritty realism, “The Shield” revolutionized the TV cop genre, established FX as a top cable network, and swung open the doors of basic cable as a viable forum for quality original fare instead of rehashed network reruns.

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While still basking in the creative glow of last season, which featured Oscar-winning actor Forest Whitaker as an obsessed internal affairs investigator locked in a deadly cat-and-mouse game with Det. Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis), the network, the cast and creator Shawn Ryan are increasingly caught up in the bittersweetness of preparing for the final season. Those episodes start filming in June for broadcast next year.

“Right now, I’m just trying to live in the moment, but I do feel like the end is coming,” said Chiklis, who won an Emmy for outstanding lead actor in a drama in the show’s first season. “The wonderful upside is that I have such an acute appreciation for the whole thing. It’s a downer, but I want to bring everything we’ve brought from Day One into this and enjoy every second.”

Moving toward the series end, Ryan recently went back to the beginning, screening every episode in his determination to tie up all loose ends, exploit story possibilities and bring a strong conclusion to the show: “We’ve done a very good job this season, and we want to make sure we nail the final season. We want to surprise people and still be satisfying as to how we end the story. I do feel pressure, and I sweat about it plenty, but I have faith that eventually we will get to where we need to be.”

Since its premiere in 2002, “The Shield,” about a beleaguered police station and its renegade Strike Team unit, has been a critical darling, punctuated with brutal violence, blunt language and unsentimental emotion. At the center of the action was Mackey, a dedicated cop undermined by his dark, brutal tendencies. The series pilot -- in which Mackey murders an undercover colleague spying on him -- still stands as one of the most shocking episodes in television’s recent history.

The show has reinvented the career of Chiklis, who had been known as the rotund, likable star of “The Commish” and the short-lived NBC sitcom “Daddio” (the actor will next reprise his role as The Thing in this summer’s sequel to “The Fantastic Four”). And it gave plum roles to its ensemble, which includes CCH Pounder, Walton Goggins, Benito Martinez, Jay Karnes, Michael Jace, Catherine Dent and Kenny Johnson. In addition to Whitaker, film star Glenn Close also appeared on multiple episodes.

Despite the stream of high praise, “The Shield” has, at times, been in the shadow of “The Sopranos,” which also has a charismatic, murderous antihero in Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) at its core. Cast members and writers for “The Sopranos” have won several Golden Globe and Emmy awards, including a statuette in 2004 for outstanding drama series.

Chiklis and FX President John Landgraf also give the highest praise to “The Sopranos” but feel that “The Shield” is underappreciated, particularly by the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, which awards the Emmys. The drama has not scored a major award since Chiklis’ early win.

Said Landgraf, “ ‘The Sopranos’ is the progenitor of the antihero genre, and it really does deserve its place in TV history. But it’s unfortunate that ‘The Shield’ has never been nominated for best series. It’s clear it deserves it.”

Chiklis said the snubs may be because of the series’ hot beginning: “We broke out in such an extraordinary way, I feel like we were a victim of our own success. We won so many awards, I think there was a tendency to think, ‘Well, they got theirs.’ Critically, I couldn’t be more satisfied. But I can’t help but feel that Shawn should have won an Emmy and that so many of my fellow cast members should have won Emmys and Golden Globes.”

Ryan said of the comparison: “ ‘The Sopranos’ deserves to be up on a pedestal. It broke ground, and I don’t think the powers at FX would have picked up ‘The Shield’ without the success of ‘The Sopranos.’ But they’re very different shows. ‘The Sopranos’ is very much like a film, while ‘The Shield’ has always embraced being a TV show.”

Whitaker returns for this season’s first few episodes, but much of the new season will deal with Mackey’s all-consuming drive to find the killer of fellow Strike Team member Curtis “Lemonhead” Lemansky (Johnson), unaware that his best friend, Det. Shane Vendrell (Goggins), is responsible. The death of “Lem” broke the hearts of devoted “Shield” fans, as well as Landgraf, who called the sensitive detective “the show’s beating heart.”

The sadness over the character’s demise is reflective of the emotion surrounding the show’s final days. “I don’t know anyone on this show who is in a rush to get to the end,” Ryan said. “But everyone is invested in ending strongly, and we’re going to make the best of it.”

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greg.braxton@latimes.com

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‘The Shield’

Where: FX

When: 10 tonight

Rating: TV-MA LVS (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17 with advisories for coarse language, violence and sex)


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