The Shield: Season 3

The Shield is one of the two brutally honest and underrated cop dramas currently devouring the world of cable, but like The Wire, three seasons of The Shield have resulted in a loyal but small following without it being allowed into the more exclusive club occupied by The Sopranos or Six Feet Under. Blame grey-area cop Vic Mackey (a role for which Michael Chiklis won an Emmy in its first season) for being a rather unappealing — if wonderfully compelling — protagonist. Blame the intricate politics at Farmington police station in Los Angeles, where battles rage as much internally as on the streets: battles for power, for turf, for revenge and for more sinister motives. The ensemble cast — from ambitious captain David Aceveda (Benito Martinez) to wimpy/wily detective Dutch Wagenbach (Jay Karnes) to fly-right do-gooder captain-to-be Claudette Wims (CCH Pounder) — circles around Vic Mackey's strike team, a gang-oriented, under-the-radar team of toughs who cross lines more than they defend them. Entering season three, the show throws very little in the way of a lifeline to new viewers: it's keep pace or go home when it comes to this amped-up drama that doesn't spoon-feed even its loyal viewers. But after pushing the boundaries to the bloody and brutal limit in season two, season three finds a more dynamic, and welcome, tone. Having pulled off a heist of Armenian mob money last year, the strike team is lying low, playing by the rules and not calling attention to themselves. The relative calm serves the show well at this point in its evolution — another season like the second would push the boundaries of believability beyond the breaking point, and the strike team's likeability along with it. Calming things down provides the necessary contrast when tensions rise again, as they inevitably do: between Claudette and Aceveda, at home with Vic Mackey, and within the strike team itself. In terms of DVD extras, The Shield isn't about fancy frills, but there are a handful of deleted scenes from almost every episode, which demonstrates just how ambitious and tightly managed the show is. There is one beautifully revealing feature: "Breaking Episode #315," which chronicles from inception to wrap the construction of the season's final episode. Its intimate look within the show's writers room, in particular, actually shows occasional restraint on a show that doesn't seem to have much. Turns out it's not evil — it's just written that way. Plus: Select episode commentaries. (FX/Fox)