TV's two most important antiheroes return this week.
One's the violent leader of a criminal organization who's always one step ahead of the law. The other is Tony Soprano.
James Gandolfini is back in fine form as the final season of "The Sopranos" begins (9 p.m. Sunday, HBO). But Michael Chiklis' dirty cop Vic Mackey is more vicious than ever as "The Shield" gets under way (10 p.m. Tuesday, FX), and he shouldn't be overlooked.
As some of my favorite wrestlers would put it, they're like twin brothers from different mothers. And both have changed the face of TV.
The public fell hard and fast for Tony Soprano, proving that no matter how evil his actions or unhealthy his behavior, viewers will embrace any main character if he's compelling enough.
That influence can be felt across HBO and Showtime, from "Deadwood's" mesmerizing whore-runner Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) to "Dexter's" serial-killing title character (Michael C. Hall) and even "The Tudors' " hot-tempered Henry VIII (Jonathan Rhys Meyers).
But more importantly, Tony Soprano made Vic Mackey possible. That Mackey was able to match the mobster step by brutal step was impressive. That he was able to do it on basic cable was downright groundbreaking.
The difference is subtle, but important. Viewers must willfully seek out HBO and pay a premium for it. And with that comes the understanding that the channel provides adult fare: raw language, some nudity and extreme violence.
FX, on the other hand, comes bundled with dozens of "safe" channels with no picking and choosing.
Say you signed up for cable because you like history specials, "The Andy Griffith Show" reruns and the occasional cooking show. Then one day you stumble upon "The Shield," and before you can say, "Honey, is that the guy from 'The Commish'?," Mackey's cursing a blue streak, beating a pedophile with a phone book and shooting a fellow cop in the head.
The pioneering Mackey didn't simply open the door for other high-profile series, he kicked it off its hinges, splintered the frame and dragged viewers kicking and screaming from the safety of network dramas, over broken glass and used needles, and into the gritty back alley of basic cable. And then he kicked them in the groin.
Before "The Shield," original basic cable dramas looked like USA's "Pacific Blue," which followed dull-but-hot bicycle cops on beach patrol, and TNT's "Thunder in Paradise," which starred Hulk Hogan and a really fast boat.
But after "The Shield's" unprecedented success -- Chiklis won an Emmy in 2002, and he and the series both won Golden Globes in 2003; all basic cable firsts -- the landscape changed.
Now, you've got the rest of FX's stellar dramatic lineup: "Rescue Me," "Nip/Tuck" and "The Riches," with a legal drama starring Glenn Close in the works.
Close, a five-time Oscar nominee, already spent a season on "The Shield." Forest Whitaker followed her the next year for all of last season and part of this one, bookending his Oscar-and-everything-else-winning role in "The Last King of Scotland."
Not to be outdone, "Rescue Me's" most recent season boasted three Oscar winners. Granted, two of them were Marisa Tomei and Tatum O'Neal, but it's still an achievement. The third, though, was Susan Sarandon, and that gave the series a whole new level of credibility.
Clearly inspired by the success of FX is the slate of TNT originals, led by "The Closer." The crime drama, which won a Golden Globe for Kyra Sedgwick, is about to be joined by Treat Williams as a transplant surgeon in "Heartland" and Oscar-winner Holly Hunter as a detective who talks to her guardian angel in "Saving Grace."
Had "The Shield" not broken so many boundaries, Close and Hunter wouldn't have been caught dead watching a basic cable series, let alone starring in one. Those roles would have gone to Nancy McKeon and Yasmine Bleeth, and even that would have been a big deal.
Coincidentally -- or not; I'm going with not -- one of Hunter's "Saving Grace" co-stars is Kenneth Johnson. He's best known as "The Shield's" Detective Curtis Lemansky, whose murder fuels this new batch of episodes.
That Mackey's got his hands in everything.
Reality roundup: "The Apprentice" (10 p.m. Sunday, KVBC-TV, Channel 3) and "Pussycat Dolls Present: The Search for the Next Doll" (9 p.m. Tuesday, KVCW-TV, Channel 33) come to the Strip for this week's episodes. And the made-in-Vegas "The Ultimate Fighter 5" debuts (10 p.m. Thursday, Spike TV).
Christopher Lawrence's Life on the Couch column appears on Mondays. E-mail him at email@example.com.