Prior to the 2002 première of The Shield on FX, original programming on basic-cable channels was largely limited to bland procedurals and adventure shows, not unlike what bored TV watchers could find on UHF on a Saturday afternoon. The Shield was a game-changer, proving that fans of great TV didn't need to subscribe to HBO to see an adult drama dealing with mature themes. Over the past seven years, The Shield has told one long story, about corrupt LAPD detective Vic Mackey (played by Michael Chiklis), and his efforts to uphold the law while scrambling to protect his "Strike Team" from being held accountable for their methods. Throughout its entire run, The Shield has been helmed by Shawn Ryan, who came to FX after working as a producer on Angel and a writer on Nash Bridges—two shows that bear little relation in style or tone to the series that now joins Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blues, Homicide: Life On The Street, and The Wire on the shortlist of TV's greatest cop shows. As The Shield prepares to air its final episode (on Tuesday, November 25), Ryan spoke with The A.V. Club about his future plans (beyond his current job executive-producing The Unit for CBS), the legacy of The Shield, and why Nash Bridges was a great place for fledgling TV auteurs to work.
The A.V. Club: How have you been feeling throughout this final season?
Shawn Ryan: Mainly it's been fun to have people finally see these episodes. We finished working on them back in May. We filmed them at the end of last year, but with the writers' strike, it took five months to come back and edit them. So they've been in our heads for a while, and it's nice to finally be able to share them.
AVC: You weren't actually on the set when the finale was shot, right? Because you were on the picket lines?
SR: Yes, but my presence would've been mostly ceremonial anyway. I don't tend to spend a lot of time on the set while we're filming, because I focus on the writing and editing and everything else. So it was more just a tough thing not to be able to share that moment with the cast and crew. It didn't affect the quality of what got filmed.
AVC: Did you have any kind of wrap party later on?
SR: Not exactly. There was a get-together, but it was still during the strike, which kind of muted things. We're having one for the finale, though. The night the finale airs, we're gonna watch it in Los Angeles the same time it's premièring on the East Coast. That's our big sort of farewell party.
AVC: Have you had the ending of The Shield in mind from the start, or did that develop as you went along?
SR: Over the years, yeah. It wasn't until I started getting into seasons three and four that I thought about how I wanted it all to end. I had a couple of big notions, but the show has always been a collaborative effort, so I took my ideas to the writers, with all of us sitting in a group. We had like three months' time before we began filming season seven, so we all sat down and worked it out. By the time we started filming the first episode of the final season, we had a pretty good idea where we were gonna go. Then we figured some other things out along the way, as we were filming. So it was a process. It evolved. But I always think it's better to take your time and go through a lot of ideas—and dismiss a lot of ideas—before figuring out where to land. It's a good way to care for your audience, too. If you spend hours and hours and days and weeks coming up with the ending, then there's a chance the fans won't figure it out on their own.
AVC: One impressive thing about this season is how often events and characters from previous seasons have come back and affected the plot.
SR: We've tried to be consistent, and we were always looking back at what we'd done with other episodes: what had been resolved, and what characters we thought were worth bringing back. Knowing that this was going to be the end really helped us bring certain things full circle—in a fun way, I think. And we really did put a lot of time and effort into studying past episodes and thinking of how we might be able to use certain characters or threads to propel the story forward.
AVC: Here's a prime example: The episode where Vic challenges Aceveda's manhood, and Aceveda responds by punching out Pezuela. Even though it's never directly stated, to some extent, his action appears to be motivated by his rape from several seasons back.
SR: The gift that keeps on giving, huh? That plot twist really propelled a lot of stories forward for Aceveda over the years. Having been a victim of that, then feeling kind of impotent, of course he gets enraged and lashes out, to grab that masculinity back.
AVC: Are there any storylines or characters you never got to do as much with as you would've liked?
SR: In the end of season six, we had Franka Potente play a role for us that she was really great in. We had a couple ideas of how to bring her back in season seven. We had a story arc that would have involved her in the first seven or eight episodes of the season, with the Armenians and everything. But she was unavailable. She was in the jungles filming Che with Steven Soderbergh and could not make it out, though she wanted to. So we had a lot of ideas there that I think would have been fun, and she's just such a fantastic actress that it would've been great to get her back in front of our cameras. But we found a way around it. You can't spend too much time worrying about regret and what could've been. TV is just such a fast-moving medium that you do what you can do, and what you can't do, you don't worry about too much.
AVC: When you're dealing with a tightly serialized drama like The Shield, is it appropriate to think of it as being like a long feature film, or a novel? Or is it still ultimately TV?
SR: There are story-room sessions where you think about the big picture, like a novel, but once you have certain things in place, you have to treat each episode like an hour of TV, and think that maybe this will be the only episode that anyone will ever watch. You want to have some sort of beginning, middle, and end to the episode, even if you have storylines that are carrying over. You still want it to feel like a cohesive hour of entertainment. And you can't think about both at the same time. We'd have story meetings where we'd sit around and talk about the big picture, and a lot of meetings where we'd sit around and think about what we were going to do for one particular episode: "What's the arc for this character in this episode?" And so on. That's how we dealt with it.
AVC: Yet when the last episode airs, fans will have seen one of the rare TV series that has a beginning, a middle, and an end.
SR: Yeah, and that wasn't always intentional, because when you start a TV show, you're not necessarily thinking, "Are we setting up what we need for season seven?" You're just trying to stay on the air, and you try to learn your job as you go, and do what you can. But we've been able to plan for a couple years toward an ending, and that has helped us make things come back around. So I do think that people who watched the series from the very beginning, or watched the episodes in a short time frame—on DVD or online, for instance—will think The Shield feels novelistic, in the sense that it's cohesive. We tried really hard to be consistent and have things make sense from one season to another.
AVC: From a financial point of view, is a show like The Shield likely to have a long afterlife? Or does the fact that it's so serialized limit its ability to get replays?
SR: I think with some formats, that hurts, and with others, it helps. I know for a fact that The Shield sells very well on DVD. I think it's the kind of show that people really love watching on DVD, and going through three or four episodes a night, and going through a whole season in two or three nights. I've heard a lot of people who talk about how they enjoy watching it that way. I think the format of the show really helps its DVD possibilities. It was sold in syndication to Spike, and has had minimal repeat numbers there. So it may not be the kind of show with long-term syndication potential. It is a show that has tended to do well overseas, however. It just depends. There's certainly a market for the CSIs and Without A Traces that are closed stories and easily digestible in a given night. And those shows ultimately are probably more profitable than ours. But a show like The Shield has done very well in terms of increasing the value of FX as a network, in the ratings, and selling DVDs, and overseas. I don't hear anyone who's financially involved with the show complaining.
AVC: It was stirring earlier this year when FX president John Landgraf gave a speech—
SR: —talking about the place of The Shield in the history of cable? Yeah, I heard that, and it was very touching. It's great to have such a fantastic advocate. You hear all the time about writers complaining about their networks or complaining about the "suits." The reality is that John has been a consistent champion of the show, both creatively and economically. I could not ask for a better partner to work with. I think the comment he gave that day shows the affection he has for the show.
AVC: Have you been disappointed by the lack of awards attention from the Emmys and the Golden Globes?
SR: I think if we'd never won anything, I probably would be. But we did win some things early. Michael Chiklis won the Emmy for Best Actor, and [pilot director] Clark Johnson and I both got nominated that year, even though we didn't win. The show won a Golden Globe for Best Drama. I have a Golden Globe sitting at my house, I have an AFI Award, I have a Peabody Award… When you win a few things, your attitude toward that stuff just becomes a little more Zen-like. My attitude at this point is that I feel pretty good about the creative aspects of the show, and if someone were to nominate us or give us an award for something, I'd show up and be very grateful. But if they don't, it doesn't chip away at my view of what we've done. Also, bear in mind that we're living in a golden age of television in a lot of ways, with a lot of great shows that appeal to a lot of people. I can't sit here and say that The Shield is any more deserving than Friday Night Lights, Battlestar Galactica, The Wire, Mad Men, or any of those shows. It's just a really wonderful time to watch television. So the awards are… If they come, it's great. But if not, it's all right. And because we won a few early, it's easier to feel that way, I guess.
AVC: Do you watch a lot of TV, just as a fan?
SR: I do. I watch far too much. I was never that kid who grew up in New York and was always at the arthouse watching important films. I was the kid who grew up in the Midwest where there weren't any art films, and I watched TV. And that was really the medium that affected me and that I fell in love with. To this day, nothing makes me happier than finding a TV show I really love.
AVC: What shows do you love right now?
SR: Big fan of Lost.
AVC: Some old friends of yours work on Lost.
SR: Yeah, a couple. Carlton Cuse was my first full-time boss in this business on Nash Bridges, and I learned a lot from him. And Damon Lindelof was the guy Carlton hired to replace me after I left Nash Bridges. So I've got to give Carlton credit for having a good eye for talent. [Laughs.] Also, I was a little late to the game, but just this last year on DVD, I've watched Battlestar Galactica, and I'm really in love with that show. It took me a while to come to it, because like The Shield, it's such a big time commitment, in that you really should watch all the episodes in a row. I'd missed the first season, so I didn't want to watch season two or three without going back. But I finally did, and I'm really glad I did, because that show is so impressive.
On the comedy side, I'm a big fan of The Office. And because a friend of mine co-created it, I've been watching The Big Bang Theory. I'm not sure that I would've watched it without knowing my friend, but now that I have, I really love it. I just think it's a really smart, well-written, great show in a genre that's kind of under attack these days. Bill Prady, who I know, and Chuck Lorre, who I know—the two of them co-created it. I think they do a great job with that show and those characters. There are some really great, distinctive characters on that show that are fun to watch.
AVC: The Big Bang Theory doesn't have a lot of critical cred, but it's very entertaining.
SR: No, it doesn't. And it is. I've also been watching How I Met My Mother recently. I like that show. You see I like to watch a lot of comedies.
AVC: So what's the secret of Nash Bridges? How is it that the creative forces behind Lost and The Shield both started on Nash Bridges? Is there a certain similarity in just writing for TV—any TV—or what?
SR: Well, each show is different. What I will say about Nash that applies to Lost and The Shield is that Nash was extremely well-run. People just watching the show wouldn't always know it from what they were seeing onscreen, but Carlton's a really smart guy. You have to have a lot of luck in TV. I actually thought we had a very good writing staff, and I was proud of a lot of the scripts we wrote for Nash. But there were certain things in play that sort of, in my opinion, prevented our scripts from reaching their full potential onscreen. It was also a genre that was petering out—that sort of buddy-cop, private-eye sort of genre. But we had a real talented, professional staff, and I look back at when I started on that job in 1997, and every person who I worked with then is still working in TV. So even though it wasn't the most highly regarded show critically, it was like a writer's boot camp for me. I just learned so much, and Carlton Cuse and John Wirth, who were my bosses, were consummate professionals. And so when we all got the opportunity to do something in different genres—and maybe to do something more critically praised—we were all ready. Even though you wouldn't think of Nash Bridges as a Petri dish out of which these things would grow, it really was.
AVC: Have you made a similar effort with The Shield to nurture your staff? Shield writer Kurt Sutter created Sons Of Anarchy, and that's certainly doing well.
SR: Yeah, I definitely have. It helps if you initially select really talented people so you can take some credit afterward, even when they probably would've succeeded without you. Kurt obviously has done well with Sons Of Anarchy. That's been picked up for a second season. Glen Mazzara, who was a big help for us on The Shield, is writing Crash for Starz. Liz Craft and Sarah Fain had a show on last year, Women's Murder Club. Adam Fierro and Chuck Eglee are over working at Dexter right now. So, yeah—I'm really proud that The Shield turned out to be a good Petri dish for that group of writers, and that they're all doing pretty well right now. It's pretty cool, I think.
AVC: Is the show-runner community generally collegial? Do you even have time to socialize?
SR: Yeah. There's a whole secret society. [Laughs.] We drink the blood of TV executives' children. You know, it's a tough job, and yet it's one that I think most of us love to do. But there are a lot of pressures and responsibilities that most people wouldn't understand, so when you get the chance to talk with someone else who does the same thing as you, you can't help but connect with them a little bit. And I'd say this, also: A lot of bad things came out of the strike, and a lot of people got hurt. It was a tough thing for writers, and it was a tough thing for the companies. But one of the good things that came out of it was that the show-runner community really banded together, and those of us who usually are too busy to see each other got to spend three months together, and got to know each other and to really talk through the issues, and talk about what our role in the work stoppage was, and what responsibility we had to the other writers of our shows. And I became close with a lot of people that I didn't even really know beforehand. David Goodman over at Family Guy, Matt Weiner at Mad Men, Steve Levitan at Back To You… a lot of these guys, I didn't know, and I now know very well. I'd say the show-running community is tighter than it's ever been.
AVC: Besides The Unit, what's next for you?
SR: I have a development executive, Marney Hochman Nash, who used to work at Fox TV Studios as my executive on The Shield. She was the person who oversaw The Shield for the studio, and I've hired her away from them. We're trying to develop a number of things. We were able to sell four projects this year to four different networks. A very wide range of things. The one that's probably closest in tone to The Shield is a period cop-drama piece that James Ellroy is writing, and that I'm going to produce with him for A&E.; That one focuses on a group of police officers and district attorneys involved in the Hillside Strangler investigations in 1977 Los Angeles—a classic James Ellroy mix of historical fact and character fiction that I have high hopes for. I'm doing another project for FX that's being written by Ted Griffin, who did a freelance episode for us on The Shield—which is how I got to know him—but is more famously known for writing Ocean's Eleven and co-writing Matchstick Men. We're taking a crack at a new 21st-century take on the private-eye genre. And then I've got a thing at CBS based on a book this writer Richard Murphy wrote, called Confessions Of A Contractor. He spent 12 years working as a contractor in Los Angeles, and wrote this really wonderful, fun, soapy book, a fictional account of those experiences. We sold that to CBS, and he's writing the script. And then, finally, I actually sold a sitcom I'm going to write myself—one I actually sold before this whole financial meltdown, but which seems to have grown only more relevant since—called Millionaire's Club, about a group of financially desperate people who band together and pool their money, resources, and ideas in usually futile attempts to get rich together.
AVC: At this point, would it be possible to sum up The Shield the way you just summed up those new shows you were working on? If you had to boil down what The Shield is ultimately about, what would you say?
SR: The original central question still holds true, I guess: "What are you willing to accept, in terms of behavior, from the people who protect you?" That was a very resonant question in 2002, when we were still in the shadow of 9/11. But I think as the series has gone on, the question has turned more inward, relating more to Vic and the other guys on the Strike Team in terms of, "What price do people pay for having bent the rules?"
What I've always liked about The Shield is that the show asked a lot of big questions early on, and a lot of the episodes were very broad, and the show was kind of shocking in many ways, especially compared to the other things on TV. But TV has really evolved since 2002, both on network TV and on cable, and I think The Shield isn't as unique as it used to be, even though we were the first to do a lot of stuff. But what we did—which is why I think the show has had some legs—was make the questions smaller and more personal. We went more inside Vic's head and heart, and did less ass-kicking. I think if we'd tried to up the ante on the ass-kicking, we would've lost our way, and the show would have become less relevant. The fact that we were able to spend two to three years asking those big questions, but then turn toward, "Okay, what happens to the man Vic Mackey, who has put himself above the law, sometimes for good reasons, sometimes for bad reasons?" Now it's become very much a character piece about what happens to Vic, what happens to Shane, what happens to Corrine, what happens to Dutch and Claudette. Which I really like.
But you know, I always like to leave it for other people to talk about what the show means. Nothing makes me happier than to have a really smart person tell me why the show is smart, especially if I didn't intend that. [Laughs.] I tend to be a very instinctual writer, and I don't plot shows out like, "This is my thesis and this is how I'm going to subtly sneak my thesis into this episode." I really just approach it from, "We know these characters well, here are the situations that they're in, now how would they behave? What would the consequences be?" And it's always fun to see how people interpret that and dissect it afterward, and make me and the other writers seem probably smarter than we really are.