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Last September, Vic Mackey of "The Shield" (10 tonight, FX) became the most decorated cop in basic cable history. That's when Michael Chiklis, who plays the bald, rogue Los Angeles cop with an FX attitude, was bestowed an Emmy Award for best actor in a drama.

Chiklis' victory over Kiefer Sutherland of "24," Peter Krause and Michael C. Hall of "Six Feet Under" and Martin Sheen of "The West Wing" was as shocking as anything in his series.

The series is back tonight for a second season, airing at the same time as ABC's "NYPD Blue," which is loaded with police stories that are much more credible than anything in "The Shield."

This isn't to say that "The Shield" isn't a decent, passionate series. Created by Shawn Ryan ("Nash Bridges"), it is as intensely involving as its lead character, gritty as it is often silly.

If you missed season one, Mackey is an in-shape and out-of-control Andy Sipowicz (Dennis Franz of "NYPD Blue"), described by a fellow cop as "Al Capone with a badge." He'll do anything to nab a suspect and protect his inner police circle on his anti-gang strike force -- including killing a fellow cop as he did early last season.

At the end of a 13-episode first season, Mackey helped topple an assistant police chief named Gilroy, who had been manipulating real estate values with accounting that resulted in police response times going down and led to a riot that ended with several cops being killed.

The chiseled Chiklis imbues Mackey with incredible intensity and anger that almost makes you forget how implausible it is for him to get away with practically everything he does on both sides of the border in pursuit of his idea of justice.

In this season's opening two episodes, Mackey has some personal and professional problems that make him even angrier than usual. His frightened wife has left him and taken their kids out of town, forcing Mackey to hire a very expensive private eye team to find his family.

He may kill cops, take kickbacks, cheat on his wife and plant evidence, but, like Tony Soprano, at least Mackey loves his family.

He can pay for the private eyes because he has drug money -- or at least he thinks he and his crew have the money. But when a Mexican drug family crosses the border to infiltrate the California gang scene and change it, his personal fortune is threatened. Not to mention his freedom.

Fortunately, the captain that didn't care for his act for most of last season, David Acevedo (Benito Martinez), is a bit compromised himself. Acevedo, who helped Mackey topple the assistant police chief, has political ambitions that won't be realized if Mackey's escapades are uncovered.

The captain's eagerness to get into bed with his loose cannon is only one "yeah, right" moment in the first two episodes, which have more of them than there are in a typical hour of Fox's hot drama, "24." It is easier to forgive "24" of its excesses because its 24-hour thrill isn't as grounded in reality as a police series and at its heart "24" is just an old-fashioned movie serial.

It is those "yeah, right" moments that prevent "The Shield" from being a classic police series like "NYPD Blue" or "Homicide."

Mackey does incredibly stupid and violent things in front of fellow cops at a time in which their actions are being investigated by a female civilian watchdog looking to nail him and his department.

In the second episode, the brightest cop in Mackey's precinct, Detective Claudette Wyms (also played by the strongest actress, CCH Pounder) is teamed with him because of some unusual circumstances. Naturally, she becomes suspicious and vows "to find the truth." We'll have to wait to see if those suspicions go anywhere.

Repeatedly, Mackey and his gang are fortunate that most fellow decent cops and law enforcement officials are charmed enough or foolish enough to look the other way when it appears Mackey's crew is going to be uncovered and all their sins are going to be revealed. A moment at the Mexican border tonight borders on the laugh-out ridiculous.

FX is getting the last laugh, with Chiklis and the show getting incredible reviews by fawning critics, many of whom have tired of the melodrama elements of "NYPD Blue" even though ABC has a stronger cast and is frequently more realistic and more compelling when dealing with police corruption. And is just as outrageous at times, too.

The most offensive words in the first two episodes of "The Shield" were uttered by a cop angry at Sipowicz on a recent "NYPD Blue" episode.

The occasionally raw language in "The Shield" isn't as shocking as the violence, with Mackey holding a drug dealer's face to an electric stove burner at one point in the second episode.

It is violent scenes like that that have given "The Shield" something in common with "NYPD Blue" in its early days: advertiser skittishness. Last season, some advertisers pulled out of "The Shield" despite its large cable audience and glowing reviews.

Chiklis' Emmy undoubtedly will make the series even more chic and may even drive ratings higher this season. But though "The Shield" is often as hard to look away from as a highway accident in the other lane, those who require their police shows be more plausible should stick with "NYPD Blue" on Tuesdays.

Rating: 3 stars out of 4


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