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Picks and Pans Review: The Shield

updated 01/13/2003 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/13/2003 01:00AM

FX (Tuesdays, 10 p.m. ET)

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If you come to The Shield just for a look at the bravura acting of 2002 Emmy winner Michael Chiklis, you'll stay to appreciate a daring police drama whose growing moral complexity redeems its occasional excesses.

As the second season opens Jan. 7, Los Angeles detective Vic Mackey (Chiklis) is still brutal, corrupt and arrogant, not to mention intellectually dishonest. "We're middlemen keeping the peace, not drug dealers," he insists to Shane Vendrell (Walton Goggins), his chief henchman in a crew of cops operating on both sides of the law. Mackey's ambitious supervisor, Capt. David Aceveda (Benito Martinez), would have spat on such a rationalization in the 'series' early days. Now Aceveda fears a precinct scandal would jeopardize his political future, so he offers to cover up Mackey's misdeeds. "This doesn't mean I like you," the captain says, as if the disclaimer somehow keeps him clean.

Mackey is every bit as frightening as before—brace yourself for his horrific act of violence at the end of the second episode—but the cock of the walk is starting to run scared. His wife and kids have left him. A sinister new drug lord (Danny Pino) is upsetting the balance of power on the streets. And it's getting harder to deflect Claudette Wyms (played with steely conviction by CCH Pounder), the only one of Mackey's fellow cops who may be tenacious enough to expose him. When Mackey's insecurity rises so does his rage, and Chiklis makes the blowups a sight to behold.

BOTTOM LINE: Red-hot drama

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