The cop show so different it tells you it's different about a dozen times every episode just in case you don't notice it's different, The Shield is back for a second season of belligerent chest-thumping. Last season, Michael Chiklis stunned the public and his industry colleagues by buffing everything from his skull to his pectorals in a successful effort to de-schlump-start his career after ''The Commish'' and the sitcom ''Daddio.'' Having pumped up the visibility of his cable network, FX, and scored an Emmy for saying lines like ''I'm a different kind of cop'' with a big angry-bear face, Chiklis spends this week's season premiere emoting strenuously. He's trying to track down his wife and three kids, who left him to get away from the danger that his shady dealings with drug runners literally brought home in ''The Shield'''s freshman cliff-hanger.
You'd think a canny cop like Chiklis' Det. Vic Mackey would realize that when you skim money from bad guys in the course of arresting them, your police superiors are eventually going to add up the numbers, and that the creeps you're exploiting might pose a danger to your nearest and dearest. But for an excitingly directed, beautifully cast series, ''The Shield'' seems to think that its core premise (Mackey: a hero who does brutal, illegal things) is so intrinsically engrossing, we're not going to notice how recklessly dumb his actions are.
The new season finds Detective Mackey and his Strike Team of loyal goons taking on a Mexican drug cartel that crosses the border into L.A. to unite two rival Latino gangs for increased power. True to Mackey's character, of course, are his mixed motives -- he and his crew bought drugs from these lowlifes, the shipment was tainted, and so his attack is equal parts justice and revenge. There are many scenes of Chiklis in a muscle T, bullying and outwitting blank-eyed punk villains -- the viewer is meant to think ''Whatta man!''
Actually, the series has always done better by its women. CCH Pounder has a growing role as Det. Claudette Wyms, and this marvelous actress, who's never entered a scene she couldn't steal with a piercing glance and quiet firmness, gets a real showcase in the second episode, when she starts piecing together the endless elements of Mackey's corruption. Catherine Dent is also impressive as beat cop Danny Sofer, more by the confident way she carries herself than from the subplots she's handed, such as the unpleasant task of going to bed with Mackey. This leads to the following exchange:
Mackey: ''We won't let it turn into a thing.''
Danny: ''Good, because I don't mind a thing -- I just don't want a THING, y'know what I mean?''
Yeah, Danny -- you mean the scriptwriters have been studying their David Mamet plays and ''NYPD Blue'' scripts too slavishly.
Another strong actress has now joined the series: Lucinda Jenney (''Thirteen Days,'' ''crazy/beautiful'') plays a civilian auditor assigned to ferret out police wrongdoing in the station house (called ''the Barn,'' I guess either because Mackey's such a stud or because the other cops are such clucking chickens). Polite, easier with a smile than any of these other hard-boiled eggs, Jenney's Lanie Kellis is also clearly the person who's going to be Mackey's most formidable foe to date.
Last year, ''The Shield'''s pilot grabbed attention in the press and among FX's core ''Son of the Beach'' audience when Mackey murdered a fellow cop who could have ratted on him. This season's second episode contains a squirmy scene in which Mackey holds a naughty man's face against the red-hot coils of a stovetop. Rather than seeming like the logical climax to a harrowing manhunt, the scene comes off as an abrupt but contrived display of shock tactics -- a way to maintain media-buzz momentum.
For all its good actors -- including Walton Goggins as the spiky-haired, perennially peeved Mackey underling Shane Vendrell (I think his squinting, mouth-breathing intensity actually makes him more effective than the star) -- ''The Shield'' allows action scenes like the stovetop shoving to get in the way of absorbing storytelling. The show's self-conscious amorality and halfhearted gestures toward emotion (Mackey's anguish over his on-the-lam family is the least convincingly worked-out part of the new season) reduces moral ambiguity to a thug with a badge doing things we don't expect to see on basic cable. It's a business strategy, one that's paying off for everyone involved in ''The Shield.'' There's no denying it's well executed -- and different! -- but that doesn't mean that like its hero, ''The Shield'''s bald-faced, wrinkled-nose cynicism doesn't stink up the drama.