When Shawn Ryan sold The Shield to FX as a pilot, he was a young writer primarily known for his work on Nash Bridges and Angel. Yet the dark vision he had of compromised cops working in a down-and-out city became one of the most influential television series ever made, putting a whole network on the map and essentially creating the idea that basic cable could play on the same level as premium-cable channels like HBO. Since the success of The Shield, Ryan has been showrunner for a host of projects, including David Mamet’s first television series, the CBS military drama The Unit, and the much-loved, much-lamented FX private-investigator show Terriers. In spite of being associated with quality product, however, Ryan has had trouble getting a show to stick since The Shield (which ran seven seasons) and The Unit (which ran four). Both Terriers and cop drama The Chicago Code, which he also created, ran 13 episodes and were canceled, and other series haven’t been picked up. His latest is a new Tom Clancy-ish techno-thriller named Last Resort, which he co-created with Karl Gajdusek. The series, which debuts September 27 at 8 p.m. Eastern on ABC, is about an American nuclear submarine commander who’s been given orders to launch a nuclear strike but refuses to press the button, forcing the crew of the sub to resort to desperate measures as the U.S. military pursues them. Ryan talked to The A.V. Club about the perils of serialization in a 22-episode season, figuring out how the geopolitical situation on the show might evolve, and the possibility of a Terriers movie.
The A.V. Club: When you’re doing a serialized show like this that has a possibility of a 22-episode order, do you plan for just the first 13, or do you have a larger plan?
Shawn Ryan: We have a larger plan. We know big, huge signposts that we want to hit somewhere along the way, whether those are by the end of season one or beyond. On a smaller scale, we’re currently looking at and planning the first 13. In terms of specifically knowing what we want to do in those first 13, we’re breaking episode nine right now, so there’s only four beyond that.
This is the kind of show where you do have to say to yourself, “We have to plan for success more than plan for failure,” because it is a serialized show. You can’t just wrap up a bunch of stuff in episode 13 and then find yourself getting a pickup and not knowing where to go from that. So we have a pretty hard plan through the first 13, and we know big things that we want to hit along the way of the series.
AVC: What’s the major difference between planning for a 22-episode season versus a 13-episode season?
SR: The obvious answer is that there’s so much more time to fill. In my experience, it always comes in that episode 16-to-19 slot. Those are the episodes that always have the potential to kill you if you’re not careful, because you’re starting to get exhausted. You know what things you want to hit in the last three or four episodes, but not there. It’s kind of hard; it’s just more stuff and storylines. I would say this: I think you can tell one really strong throughline in a 13-episode season, but it’s harder to maintain audience focus on one strong throughline for 22 episodes. It’s not impossible, but I think it’s harder. In my opinion, a 22-episode season works better dividing it up to find some moments to shift directions and complete two or three big throughlines in the course of a 22-episode season.
I look at The Shield, for instance. Season five of The Shield, we brought Forest Whitaker in and that was a very strong throughline of, “Okay, Forest Whitaker’s character is trying to take down the strike team,” and that drove all of the action for that season. That would be a tough main-thrust story to tell over 22 episodes.
AVC: How did you come up with the geopolitical situation of this show? It’s vaguely realistic!
SR: [Laughs.] Yeah. We started to think what had happened. As we were writing the pilot, I had spent some time over the previous months with Navy SEALs down in San Diego, because I was writing a movie that involved that world, and I had spent a lot of time talking to them about what the actual danger spots in the world were for them, from their perspective, and the places that they thought would be the most problematic going forward. And Pakistan was certainly one that came up. We just tried to take an approach of—a lot of this is fiction, obviously—this is a fictional president, a fictional administration, and a fictional crisis that we find ourselves in, yet we did want to base it in a certain amount of realism. It was just, frankly, taking the news of the last few years and applying it to the story.
But that’s one of the fun things, I think, going forward in the series, is we spent a lot of time thinking about the events that happen in the pilot, if they really happened, what would start happening in the world? What events would spring from that? And we actually had a long, three-hour conversation with an expert at the RAND Corporation who is an expert in the Middle East and in Asia and everything, who spit-balled with us a lot of, from his perspective, the things that would happen geopolitically in the aftermath of those hypothetical events. So that’s one of the fun things in the show, is trying to predict a realistic future when these things happen. It just comes from reading the news and trying to have a decent worldview of what’s going on in the world and projecting, “Okay, if this thing happens, what might come from that?” Which is no different from all TV writing, just on a bigger, more political scale, obviously.
AVC: There’s a long tradition of writing stories about people trying to build the perfect society, and it seems like you’re going to be heading into that. What sort of discussions did you have about that?
SR: That is a part of the show. I’d say it’s not the sole portion of the show, because a driving force for many of these characters is trying to get home, not to be stuck there, and yet they are stuck there for the moment and for a foreseeable number of episodes, and they are going to have to deal with that. We’ve looked at some shows and movies that have tried things like that and that maybe didn’t tremendously succeed, so we’ve kind of looked at things that we don’t want to do, necessarily, more than looking at things to try to glean what we might want to do.
And what I’d say is that we’ve tried to apply those storylines that touch on what you’re talking about, specifically to our characters, primarily through the lens of Marcus and Sam, our main characters played by Andre Braugher and Scott Speedman. What would these two specific people do, trying to build certain elements of this society, as opposed to just a generic society-building thing? These two men are very close when the series begins. They come from different perspectives. One has everything in the world back in the United States to get home to; the other has less of that, and they have different opinions along the way. So our approach has been to try to go micro, in terms of the society-building, as opposed to macro. It’s about these people in charge and what specifically they would do in certain, very specific situations.
AVC: How have you approached breaking each episode?
SR: Basically, we think our director on the pilot, Martin Campbell, did a fabulous job. We think we’ve got a really great, incredible cast and we’ve approached it from the perspective of, we think the pilot is pretty great. We know a lot of people like the pilot, and we know there’s a lot of skepticism on whether we can do it on a regular, weekly basis. So we approach it from the standpoint of, “Okay, that’s a challenge.” We relish the challenge, and can we make this episode as good as we thought the pilot was, or better? There’s certainly no approach of, “Oh, we did that; now, we’ve got to do something else, and we’ve got to make it smaller.” It’s been a fun thing to approach.
The scope and the scale of the storytelling is something that I think we’ve tried very hard to maintain, but we’re aware, because there have been some high-profile failures in the past of shows that I don’t necessarily think are direct comparisons to ours, but some TV critics have drawn comparisons to some shows with big aspirations that ultimately collapsed under their own weight. It’s a fun challenge in that way. We’ve approached it as, we have this incredible canvas. We have the whole world to tell, storytelling-wise. We’ve got nations and people. It’s interesting, because when we did the pilot, I was thinking, “Well geez, what kind of stories do we tell from here? Where do we go?” But in a way I’ve found it very liberating. There are very few boundaries on the stories that you can tell, so you’re only contained by [the] collective imagination of the writing staff. It’s more freeing than writing a procedural, I think. Like I said, we’re breaking episode nine right now. We’ve got scripts for seven or eight of them, and a lot of stories are very different from each other, and yet I think they all feel of the same canvas. So we just take it as a challenge, and we’re aware that there’s some skepticism about our ability to maintain that. I’ve always liked being an underdog, so that’s fine.
AVC: When you have storylines going on in three or four different locations, how do you balance that? Is that vastly different from having a big ensemble like in The Shield or The Unit?
SR: It’s hard. I’m fortunate to have a great partner in Karl Gajdusek, who I co-created this with, who does not have a lot of experience in TV but has proven incredibly adept and talented with it, so it’s always easier when you’ve got someone to lean on, as I do with him.
I’d say that I just have a good brain for that kind of balancing thing that you’re talking about. I don’t see it as being that different from The Shield, for instance, from a storytelling point of view. The Shield would have a strike-team story going on. It would have some personal, family element going on for Vic. There’d be a Dutch/Claudette story going on. There’d be some David Aceveda political element that was happening. There’d be a Danny/Julien on-the-street beat-cop thing, and it would all have to tie together in a cohesive way. Some episodes would be more successful than others at that. But those were very complicated, lots of characters intertwined with each other, lots of different stories going on, so The Shield was a very good practice ground for something like this, where the stories are more global. In The Shield they almost all took place in a specific part of Los Angeles with various things going on. This takes place all over the world, but in terms of different characters who are all part of the grand canvas together. But in various parts of it, it’s not that different from The Shield, I think.
AVC: TV has struggled to do shows about the military recently, yet you’ve done two in the last decade. What do you think is the difficulty with military-set series?
SR: Without getting into specific shows, I would say that to tell a military story involves fighting and war and death, and that’s not always the most comfortable TV viewing for people. Which is why, it’s interesting, this show involves military characters, but very quickly, they find themselves on the outs. They certainly, in the series, consider themselves American and they consider themselves Navy, but they’re obviously not in a typical military situation, so I do think this is different from some of the more straight military shows, including the one I did previously.
But America in general has a very interesting relationship with the military. We adore them, we’re grateful for them, and yet we don’t really want to donate, for the most part, our sons and daughters to their cause. We like it when other people’s sons and daughters go fight on our behalf. We don’t really want to take great care of our wounded military people when they come back from these conflicts. And yet we do, rightfully in my opinion, put the individual soldiers up on a pedestal for the sacrifices they make. So people are interested in the world and these people, but in real life, and on TV, I think, they’re not necessarily always interested in the specifics of these conflicts.
AVC: You tweeted recently about setting up a Kickstarter for a Terriers movie. Is that at all a possibility? Do you think that Kickstarter could be helpful in the future of reviving canceled TV?
SR: I tweeted almost immediately afterwards that I didn’t want to get people’s hopes up unnecessarily and that there’s all sorts of red tape that would make this thing a long shot. I literally had that thought and tweeted it two minutes later, so I hadn’t given a ton of thought to it, but I started thinking, “Why not?” There was an article a couple months ago that showed that Terriers had done unexpectedly well on Netflix in the streaming, and it started to make me think.
This was obviously a show that was cursed with a horrible title that Ted [Griffin, creator] and I have to take responsibility for, that just didn’t attract an audience right from the get-go and has only started to be discovered later, but those people that like it, still a relatively small number in the television universe, are nonetheless incredibly passionate about the show. I just started thinking, at least at this moment in time—they’re really talented, so this won’t be true forever—the main actors of the show are actually all available. I just started to think about creative ways of how to try to make something like that happen, and right now, if I went to Fox, specifically Fox 21, who produced the show, they’re probably not interested in throwing a lot more money into a show that, from their perspective, has already failed. But if you could come to them with some kind of financing in place, via a Kickstarter thing, why wouldn’t they want a two-hour movie that could be sold into streaming?
Now, what makes sense to someone like me in my living room as I think about it doesn’t always necessarily make sense to the bean-counters at these mega corporations, and might not be how they want to spend their time, but it’s something I’m going to look into. I have no idea how much it would cost us. I have no idea whether it’s something I could convince Ted Griffin to do, because if we did it, I’m sure it’d be a situation where Ted would write and direct. No idea whether the actors would, but I think the actors would all love to go and play those roles again, I just don’t know if the scheduling would work out.
I would describe this as an incredible long shot right now, but my love and affinity for that show is so great that I continue to look for ways to expose the show or expand the show. I’m still trying to fight to get a DVD release of the show, which has proven difficult, which is frustrating when you see the kinds of shows that are released on DVD. [Laughs.] And also, we’ll look for ways to maybe continue to tell the story of Terriers. We’ll have to see. It’s with great caution and restraint that I… I probably should have done some more homework before I even tweeted. I guess I was looking for some validation from people that that would be something they were interested in before I took the next step of talking to Ted or talking to Fox 21 about it. The reaction I got [on Twitter] was pretty incredible. That made me feel like, “Hey, this may be something worth pursuing, even if it is a long shot.”