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When Fox’s FX cable channel was first made available nationwide in 1997, it was known for little more than showing reruns of Fox shows like Married with Children and The X-Files. That is at least up until 2002, when the fledgling station turned out what would be the first of several successful and critically acclaimed original programs, The Shield, and joined other channels such as HBO in offering more risqué programming than the broadcast networks dared to deliver. During its first season, The Shield went on to garner the most Emmy Award nominations for a basic cable series ever, and in doing so paved the way for future FX original programs like Nip/Tuck and Rescue Me.

Shield: Season Four, The
The Shield centres around an experimental police precinct located in the fictional Farmington District of Los Angeles known as ‘The Farm’ and the police officers who patrol the streets to bring down a seemingly insurmountable number of dealers, prostitutes, and murderers. The tip of the sword in this war on crime is the precinct’s Strike Team that targets the street gangs, Farmington’s number one source of all the wrong doings in the neighbourhood. Leading the Strike Team is Detective Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis), who, along with his partners, isn’t above breaking a few rules to get the job done or line his pockets.

Season four represents a departure from what many fans have come to expect from the show in a few respects, but everything that has made it an award winning hit in the past is still very much intact. As season opens, the Strike Team has been decimated by infighting and mistrust over the loss of a few million dollars that were stolen from an Armenian money train at the end of season two and budget cutbacks within the department. Although Detective Ronnie Gardocki (David Rees Snell) has chosen to stick it out with Vic even though they have basically been taken off the streets and relegated to minor crimes and surveillance, Detective Curtis ‘Lemonhead’ Lemansky (Kenneth Johnson) has left to work for Children’s Services and Detective Shane Vendrell (Walter Goggins) has left the precinct and hooked up with a new, wet behind the ears partner, Detective Marmando ‘Army’ Renta (Michael Pena), but remains tied to the district’s underbelly. With Captain David Aceveda (Benito Martinez) moving on to public office, the new officer-in-charge of the Farmington precinct, Captain Monica Rawling (Glenn Close), begins to implement her own policies and procedures in the department, including the start of a controversial property seizure program aimed at taking away anything purchased with illicit drug money and other criminal activities.

The one thing that separates The Shield from the more procedural cop shows currently on television is its focus on the characters, and the changes that take place to open this fourth season create new avenues for it to explore as tensions run high between all of the main characters as they head of in different directions and go about their own personal agendas, most of which often conflict with those around them and make this series of episodes even more character driven than the previous three seasons. As Vic tries to prove himself to his new captain in the hopes of moving on to more meaningful police work, Shane and Army come under the thumb of Farmington’s new drug-lord, Antwon Mitchell (Anthony Anderson), and when Captain Rawling and Vic set their sights on bringing the villain to justice, the two loose cannon cops are put in a potentially traitorous position that creates an undercurrent of mistrust between the previously close partners that propels the season.

Other plotlines that run throughout the season involve Aceveda’s struggle to come to terms with his demons that resulted from an unspeakable humiliation the previous season, and the property seizures implemented by the department that has the officers of Farmington and its citizens taking sides in an ever-growing civil rights debate concerning the policy. Each of these three, major storylines ultimately begin to intertwine with one another as the season progresses, and as they become part of one all involving plot, the characters that were once splintered apart are reined back in, though not necessarily for the better in every instance.

Shield: Season Four, The
Any series such as The Shield that relies on more character based storylines had better have actors that are up to the task, and this season the cast of the series once again proves to be one of the finest ensembles on television. In a much hyped casting coup, Glenn Close joins The Shield and quickly fits right in with the established cast, and in an Emmy nominated performance provides a character who, through her determination and integrity, earns respect among her subordinates, even the tough-nosed Mackey. As good as Close’s performance is, however, the acting turn that most will remember when they think of season four will be that of comedic actor Anthony Anderson as the untouchable architect of most of Farmington’s criminal enterprises. The role of Antwon Mitchell is a real turning point in the career of Anderson, and in a chilling performance he proves that there’s more to him than films such as My Baby’s Daddy and Malibu’s Most Wanted have allowed him to showcase. Episodes such as ‘Tar Baby’ let Anderson mine his untapped dramatic talents and show the real depths of his character's evil tendencies, and when Antwon is brought in for questioning during the season’s extended episode, ‘Back in the Hole’, Anderson more than holds his own against veterans Chiklis and Close.

Over the course of its first three seasons, The Shield has not only been the best police drama on television, but one of the best adult oriented programs on the dial period. Season four sustains that level of quality, and takes the show down a few different paths that are both unexpected and a change of pace for the series. The best thing overall about this latest season is that the regulars begin splintered apart and go their separate ways, becoming much more complex and interesting characters over the course of the thirteen episode story arc, and once everyone comes back together to close out the season, the characters and series are all the stronger for it heading forward. If you haven’t yet tuned in to the show, now is the time to get caught up before season five beings in early January, because if you aren’t watching The Shield then you’re missing out on real must-see-TV.

Fox Home Video presents the fourth season of The Shield in its originally televised, full-frame aspect ratio of 1.33:1 for its arrival on DVD, with the exception being the episode ‘Back in the Hole’, which is presented in an anamorphically enhanced transfer at its televised aspect ratio of 1.78:1. The series is shot in a documentary style, utilizing 16mm film and mostly handheld cameras for dramatic effect, so the video is often times intentionally grainy and unfocused. Whether or not you like how the The Shield is shot or formatted for television will definitely effect your opinion of the set’s video, but the transfer is very true to the original broadcast of the series and carries over the program’s slightly washed-out colour and rough around the edges look very well. Overall, the image is sharp and detailed based on the sometimes intentionally imperfect source material, black levels are fairly consistent, and the transfer is above average when held up to comparisons with other television programs available on the format, leaving little criticize about it presentation-wise and making it another excellent effort from the best company in television on DVD.

Shield: Season Four, The
The Shield comes to DVD with a Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround audio track in English with optional English and Spanish subtitles, and if the set has one area that needs improvement it’s here. That’s not to say that there is anything wrong with the audio, just that there isn’t anything about it that makes it stand out from the crowd. The sound is crisp and clear from all channels and levels are evenly mixed allowing dialogue to be easily understood, but the surround channels are never used to full effect and the audio is primarily focused on the front channels, which is somewhat of a disappointment. Overall, the audio for The Shield does its job, but unfortunately falls prey to the industry wide lack of attention to the audio portion of television on DVD sets where very few programs are given sound that rivals their theatrical counterparts.

The fourth season The Shield comes to DVD in a four-disc set armed with several special features to go along with the season’s thirteen episodes, such as audio commentary on select episodes, deleted scenes with optional commentary, and a behind-the-scenes featurette.

In total, eight of the thirteen episodes contain an audio commentary track with a different mixture of directors, writers, and actors contributing to each track, including series creator Shawn Ryan and actors Michael Chiklis, Glenn Close, Anthony Anderson, Catherine Dent, CCH Pounder and many, many others. Episodes containing commentary tracks include the season opener, ‘The Cure’, ‘Grave’, ‘Bang’, ‘Tar Baby’, ‘Cut Throat’, the extended episode, ‘Back in the Hole’, ‘A Thousand Deaths’, and the season finale, ‘Ain’t That a Shame’, and while the commentary tracks are of good quality and informative across the board, the only real drawback is that since many of the participants contribute on only one or two tracks throughout the season, more attention is placed on discussing the season and series as a whole rather than on the individual episodes.

Shield: Season Four, The
The standouts among the commentaries include the track on the episode ‘Bang’ in which actors Catherine Dent and Michael Jace discuss the ongoing, real world debate on police seizures, the pivotal episode ‘Tar Baby’, featuring Michael Chiklis and Anthony Anderson where Anderson’s crack at drama is discussed, and the extended episode ‘Back in the Hole’, which features Chiklis and Glenn Close. While the latter track is excellent with Close discussing her involvement on the series, the track would have been a knockout if it had included the episode’s other main acting contributor, Anthony Anderson.

The set also includes a sixty minute featurette, entitled ‘Under the Skin’, which gives a revealing look behind the making of the series’ fourth season. Many featurettes of this type give little to no real information or background on their subject and result in no more than a bunch of people patting each other on the back, but 'Under the Skin' is an excellent and informative piece. The featurette goes into great depths concerning the day-to-day production of the show and includes a wealth of behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with creator Shawn Ryan, actor/producer Michael Chiklis, series newcomers Glenn Close and Anthony Anderson, and many of the show’s other actors, writers, and directors. Filmed and edited much like the series itself, the piece stands out from the crowd of other such behind-the-scenes featurettes with its inventive camerawork and spontaneous, off-the-cuff interviews about what it takes to create and maintain a quality and hard-hitting police drama.

Rounding out the special features are no less than forty-two deleted scenes with optional commentary spread across the set’s four-disc set, and unlike many cuts made to theatrical films to quicken pacing or remove redundant, unimportant scenes, the scenes cut from The Shield were primarily made so that the show could be edited down to the approximately forty-five minute, standard broadcast television running time and are definitely worth a look.

As far as the set’s packaging goes, The Shield comes in what has thankfully been slowly becoming the norm for television on DVD—a set of four, THINpak DVD cases with an outer sleeve that serve to protect the discs contained within much better than any foldout, digipak ever could.

Overall, Fox has delivered a great set of extras for this fourth season of The Shield, and fans of the show shouldn’t put the package down feeling disappointed by any lack of quantity or quality when it comes to the supplements included.

Shield: Season Four, The
There are only a handful of television programs that I take the time out to watch, and The Shield is high on that very short list. Besides the second season and its Armenian money train storyline, this fourth season of FX’s oldest and best dramatic series is the best yet. Glenn Close puts her stamp on the show and the series regulars once again prove to be one of the best ensembles on television, but surprisingly it’s Anthony Anderson that steals the show with his cold and villainous portrayal of this season’s heavy, Antwon Mitchell. The four-disc set from Fox Home Video maintains their reputation as the best in the business when it comes to television on DVD with both a good video transfer and audio track to go along with special features that set themselves apart from the others along the line-up wall. Overall, while viewing the previous seasons is a must for those just getting turned on to the best police drama currently on television, those already acquainted with the series should definitely go ahead and pick up this set, if for no other reason than to get a refresher before the series’ fifth season begins airing on FX in January.