There were times several months ago, when the writers strike was roaring, that Shawn Ryan was channeling Vic Mackey. Ryan, who created TV’s ferocious, all-in-one good-cop-bad-cop, isn’t anything like the lead character of “The Shield.” But, as Mackey has proven through six seasons, everyone has his limits.
Ryan found himself reaching his while serving on the Writers Guild’s negotiating committee. Like everyone else on the picket line, he had a lot riding on the negotiations. When he stopped working, the fate of his moderately rated CBS drama “The Unit” hung in the balance; “The Oaks,” a pilot he was producing for Fox, was shot without his supervision; and the series finale of “The Shield,” the cop drama that turned Ryan into one of the medium’s most prominent producers and launched FX as a destination for cutting-edge original programming, also was filmed without him. Many of his peers would later say they wouldn’t have had the fortitude to make the same sacrifices.
“There was the temptation to go Vic Mackey if they didn’t solve this real soon,” Ryan recalled recently, in his office on the Fox lot, where he produces “The Unit” and awaits the Sept. 2 premiere of the last season of “The Shield. “But instead, I spent a lot of time talking to people who are a lot smarter than me about what do we do now?
“It was a real education for me,” said the 41-year-old father of two. “I learned about the companies that run this business, and politics, leverage and power. It was interesting to see how a group of lawyers treated the likes of Carlton Cuse (“Lost”) and Marc Cherry (“Desperate Housewives”) and Neal Baer (“Law & Order: SVU”) and Carol Mendelsohn (“CSI: Crime Scene Investigation”) and people who have created properties that have made those companies so much money. I didn’t think it was right.”
Right and wrong: The distinction is, to put it mildly, blurry for Mackey, who manages to be a hero and an antihero simultaneously, committing the most heinous acts imaginable while eliciting compassion from viewers. For Ryan, who “grew up with Midwest values and always knew his parents loved him,” it comes naturally to play by the rules, said his wife, Cathy Cahlin Ryan, who portrays Mackey’s ex-wife on the show.
But show runners were in a tough predicament during the strike: Pencils down meant no writing; did it also mean not producing? No editing? Ryan says he thought about it for a few days and concluded that editing is intrinsic to writing and he chose not to work at all, even though it meant not being present as “The Shield” filmed its 88th and final episode, which will air in November.
“I think I learned more about myself in that stretch of time than I did in the previous five or six years because life had gone very well for me up until that point,” Ryan said. “It was a real test: Are you prepared to lose something for the right cause? Essentially, in my mind, it became a question of, ‘Can I show the same kind of resolve that I would demand from a character that I was writing?’ Ultimately, I decided that it wasn’t that big of a tragedy in the grand scheme of things that I didn’t get to go to ‘The Shield’ for the finale. I come from a place, Rockford, Ill., where people do a lot tougher things than that. It seems like a silly thing to whine about.”
They filmed, he picketed
Considering the thousands of people who were out of jobs as a result and the impact on the local economy, point taken. With Michael Chiklis, the star and also a producer, and director Clark Johnson at the helm, the cast and crew filmed the last episode as Ryan and his writers picketed outside of Prospect Studios in Los Feliz.
“I was sad,” said Chiklis, who says he is still going through a depression over the ending of the series that allowed him to reinvent himself from the roly-poly “Commish” to the bald, buffed and menacing Mackey. “We still finished it the way we set out to, but what was miss- ing was the familial aspect. We weren’t together to do it, and that was disappointing because we’ve been such a great team during the entire run of the series.”
Ryan’s willingness to give up what was sure to be one of his career highlights did not surprise the people who know him. “Look at the way he approached the final season: He took the time to watch every episode that had been made in the first six seasons,” said John Landgraf, president and general manager of FX Networks. “That’s just really rare for someone to approach his work with such humility and seriousness and attention to detail. That does not come from ambition. It comes from integrity.”
“As a writer, your job is to explore the moral issues that interest you the most,” said Cuse, who offered Ryan his first writing job 11 years ago and served on the guild’s negotiating committee with him. “You can’t be principled without really thinking about what’s right and wrong, and I think clearly Shawn has done that. Shawn was always fascinated with the moral ambiguities of characters, and I think the psychopathology of Vic Mackey makes him one of the greatest characters that’s been written for television.”
“The Shield” launched 12 years after Ryan arrived in Los Angeles, having won a playwriting award that put him in the writers room of a sitcom, “My Two Dads,” for two weeks as an intern. He then worked as an SAT tutor and freelanced until 1997, when Cuse hired him to write for “Nash Bridges.”
As part of their research for that cop show, the writers rode with police officers in San Francisco. Ryan always returned with dark, twisted tales that were intriguing but inappropriate for the lighter, comedic “Nash,” Cuse said. But the young writer knew just what to do with his ideas. Those stories, coupled with the Rampart police scandal in Los Angeles, became the impetus for a gritty pilot about a fictional division of the Los Angeles Police Department whose cops use illegal and unethical methods to fight crime.
“He put his conviction into his words, and that led to a whole new chapter in his life, one which really established his position as being one of those voices out here in the TV landscape that defined show runners as artists,” Cuse said.
Ryan wrote the script, then titled “The Barn,” and moved on to work on “Angel,” his second job, without any expectations. He figured Mackey’s antics -- he murdered a fellow officer at the end of the pilot -- were not suitable for broadcast television, and he didn’t think he stood a chance with HBO. What Ryan didn’t know was that transformation was afoot at FX and the little network known for NASCAR hoped to become a player in original programming.
“The Shield” helped FX do that and much more. The series premiered in March 2002 with 5 million viewers, a cable-series record at the time, and in its first year won the Golden Globe for best series and earned Chiklis an Emmy for his pit-bull portrayal of Mackey. That set the stage for two other signature shows on FX, “Nip/Tuck,” and “Rescue Me,” and in time a slew of other cable series centered on deeply flawed protagonists that did not have to attract broad audiences.
“ ‘The Shield’ not only put FX on the map,” Cuse said, “it created the map. It created a model for how cable channels could create brand identities. And it started an era that you didn’t have to make a show that appealed to everyone
‘We got really lucky’
Uncomfortable with accolades, Ryan quickly points out that he sees it all as a happy accident. “If you look at March 2002, there were a couple of exciting things on TV that premiered that year -- ’24' and ‘Alias,’ ” he said. “But a lot of TV was getting very stagnant, so there was an appetite for this kind of stuff. It’s not like I conjured up a new way of doing television and cable becoming this new mecca for quality writing and acting. I was just trying to do my little show and we got really lucky with the timing. Those gates were ready to open whether it was us or somebody else.”
When the gates to “The Shield” close, viewers will learn what happens to Vic Mackey, who for years has flirted with redemption without committing to it. Ryan, of course, won’t even hint at what’s to come, saying that “I like songs that have a strong ending and books that have the confidence to end and say this or that.” (In other words, there will be no cut--to-black while eating onion rings for Mackey.)
As fans of the series wait for the big moment, Ryan has moved on to other things. In addition to launching the fourth season of “The Unit,” his company sold four pilot scripts last month through his development deal at 20th Century Fox Television. For FX, Ryan has teamed with “Ocean’s Eleven” writer Ted Griffin for a comedic drama about a private eye. With author James Ellroy, Ryan will work on a drama for A&E; titled “The Lead Sheet,” which is based on the 1970s Hillside Strangler case. CBS has bought a soapy version of author Richard Murphy’s book, “Confessions of a Contractor,” that Ryan and Murphy will write together. Ryan also will pen a single-camera comedy, “Millionaire’s Club,” for Fox.
If the projects seem more upbeat than “The Shield” or “The Unit,” that’s not a coincidence. The labor stoppage gave an already introspective man a life lesson on adversity, and now, the pendulum is swinging toward brighter days.
“The strike was a very hard time for a lot of people: for the companies, for the writers striking, and for the crew members that were unemployed during it,” Ryan said. “So there is some hopefulness that comes out of it, and that’s probably why the development slate I’ve chosen has a lot of hopefulness in it. I’m trying to be optimistic about the future.”