"Good cop and bad cop left for the day, I'm a different kinda cop. "
Pilot episodes are probably the most important episode in any television series, they set the tone and pace of the show while also letting the audience (and network) decide if this particular show is for them. As such most pilot episodes attempt to come out swinging with a couple of huge blows that's going to make the people watching go "Wow, I can't believe I just saw that. What's next?"
Without some kind of hook in this day and age it's quite probable that the average viewer will forget about a series and not return to watching it. So many pilot episodes include highly charged and memorable incidents that often attempt to be unique in an effort to crystallise themselves in the memory of the viewers. Some great examples of this include Six Feet Under's brutal car accident involving Nathan Sr; BSG's nuking of civilisation (in a mini-series sure, but still), Rescue Me's ghosts and West Wing's revelation of the identity of Martin Sheen as the president. The objective is to create talking points that will keep people going until the following week's episode.
Pilot is one of the most extreme examples of this concept as right from the gate The Shield sits down and tells you exactly what kind of a show it's going to be. It's a hard hitting show that isn't afraid to deal with unpleasant crimes and police brutality. Pilot sets the style, tone and pacing for the entire series and lets you know exactly what you're going to be seeing from the show in the future. Personally I think this is a great construct, if you don't enjoy the pilot episode then it's clear you won't enjoy the rest of the show - it's a fantastic sampler of the coming storm the show provides.
There are a few fantastic decisions that were made during the creation of Pilot the most significant of which was the casting choices. Looking past the core cast it's the role of Terry Crowley that was the real stroke of genius. Reed Diamond was a relatively well known face linked to procedurals at the time due to his involvement in Homicide: Life on the Street and it's clear that it worked because Reed's role as Terry (despite appearing in just three episodes) is iconic and has become one of his best known roles on television - an impressive feat considering the low episode count, but Terry is that important to the series.
Add to Reed's "stunt casting" the decision to try and frame Terry as a lead role, including putting Reed's name into the opening credits and the way the plot attempts to promote him as one of several leads in an ensemble piece and you end up with a show that does it's absolute best to set up Terry as an important character in order to make his subsequent murder by Vic at the climax of the episode as surprising as possible. Reed was even heavily featured in the adverts for the show before the pilot's airing.
There is one thing that has to be made clear here, the reason we don't see anyone plotting to murder Terry in advance isn't a case of misdirection by the writing, it's because Vic doesn't plan to shoot Terry when he heads into Two Time's apartment - things just fall into his hands and he takes an opportunity to eliminate Terry because he knows Terry's snitching on him and his team. Terry's murder is the 'original sin' of the series (and Vic) but it's not a planned thing and though it doesn't seem like it as time passes, Vic's actions do actually prey on him - it just takes a long time for it to surface.
Pilot isn't perfect, it's an exceptionally dense episode with a lot going on and possibly too many characters to follow; There's Acevada, Vic and the Strike Team (Lem and Ronnie take a back role at this point, which is important because they're also the pair not involved in Terry's murder - but Shane is more active in the episode and he's the only witness to Vic's actions at the end), Claudette & Dutch and Danny & Julien - that's four separate story lines which only interweave at on occasion when the characters meet up.
The best intertwining is between Vic and Claudette/Dutch - where Dutch's interviewing techniques come up short and Acevada makes the call to allow Vic to torture a suspected paedophile. The addition of torture, paedophilia and police brutality make it clear to the viewer that this show is going to go to some dark places, but it can also make it seem like the show is trying to hard to shock. In some ways, Pilot is trying too hard Shawn Ryan and company wanted to really shock and surprise viewers in a similar way to the method Six Feet Under used before (Six Feet was one of the first shows to really bring death into the equation outside of procedurals, and they went for it in a big way). So it is more than possible some people would look at this episode and think "it's just a shock jock video nasty type show" before passing on it, and if they're thinking that then the show probably isn't for them, but for the people who stick with it and move on there's a wealth of subtlety and psychological insight of the darkness in the human condition to be gained over the passing seasons.
There is another point where I do feel that Pilot comes up a little short, and it's only with the hindsight of seven seasons. Pilot attempts to do too much and it's not until you watch the later episode Co-Pilot (an episode I'll certainly write about later on) do you realise where The Shield could have benefited from a slower burn at the start. In short, with hindsight I think the first season of The Shield would have been better served if Terry had been established and followed as one of the principle leads for at least half a season, perhaps ending the first season with the events of the pilot episode. Now I do know this would have shocked many viewers even more than Pilot did, and it could have actually turned away far more people, but in the overview of the entire series it would have worked a lot better. As it is these characters explode onto the scene with Terry's blood on their hands and we have little to go with, as time passes we do come to know (and even love) the characters, but initially there's a real disconnect that doesn't quite go away.
At this point in the show as well very few characters are painted in apart from the broad strokes. We have Acevada as the politically ambitious police captain, Dutch as the shrewd but over confident detective who's the target of the stations bully (Vic), Claudette as Dutch's world weary, jaded and cynical partner and Vic as the corrupt cop straight out of the stone ages of policing. Everyone else has very little depth (and even those four aren't exactly rounded out); Danny and Julien are involved in little more than light relief (their case involving the tyres slashed by Lamar works quite well as a balance to Dutch and Claudette's dark investigation).
Vic does have considerably more characterisation than the other members of the cast during this episode; he's already portrayed as a somewhat complex character, while bringing in Lonnie for questioning over the murder of his partner he shows concern about the children left loose in a drug den and right after fleecing the pimp Dimitri he ends up handing Connie (a hooker) a fair bit of money so she doesn't have to work tonight (and for her son). Vic's concern about Connie is a constant thing in the early part of the show.
There is also some strong symbolism present in the episode; Acevada's speech about cleaning up the town contrasts deeply with the Strike Team's actions on the street. Vic's first act in the show is to beat a perp for running and the rest of the episode does have strong ties with the plotting of the film Serpico (with an alternative outcome for the Serpico-like figure of Terry). The other major symbolic object of note is the men's room toilet - it's blocked and remains blocked for most of the series. I'm not 100% on what this stands for, but the only period where it is unblocked is during the fourth season (when Monica Rawlings is in charge and things look like they're going to get a lot better in Farmington). I'd hazard a guess that it is to do with the arrested development of the male characters in the show and their tendency to remain 'blocked' at a more primal state, but it also could be a reference to The Strike Team and how The Barn is unable to get rid of it's unsightly "waste".
When you take the whole episode into context there are flaws to it, but as an opening to the series it's close to perfect. It's completely faithful to the way the rest of the show would unfold and it sets up the incredible feat of a seven season story line that does pay off in full (in the most spectacular and emotionally draining fashion). There's no other show that manages to have the concepts and constructs of it's pilot episode remain relevant for seven seasons and still echo across the final few episodes. So Pilot is one of the most important episodes in the series, and it's actually more important than most other shows' pilot episodes are. There's no doubt that Pilot is one of the greatest pilot episodes in television history and it's something that any television aficionado should watch - it's a great appetiser for the rest of the series.
Ponyboy Harris (the man selling VCRs) is none other than Max Perlich a Homicide alumni (like the director of this episode Clark Johnson), it's a bit of a blink and you'll miss it cameo role. Sadly he doesn't reprise it.
You can purchase the T-Shirt worn by Vic at the BBQ online, I have a pair of them (one blue, one black) it's a nice design.
It's quite possible that Acevada is responsible for the dog crap in Dutch's desk, not Vic.
Homicide's influence on the show extends quite pervasively, not only is Clark Johnson the director of this episode (and Max's appearance) but Shawn Ryan himself has credited Homicide as one of the key inspirations behind the show.
Claudette is quite accepting of Vic's ways - at least initially, but seeing him act on the interogation room camera with Dr Grady is the start of what becomes a major part of the series.