'Shield' guru turns basic cable upside down
Shawn Ryan is starting to love the underdog.
The rookie exec producer hit a critical home run on his first show, cop skein “The Shield,” and he’s convinced that there are other genre-pushing projects out there … but Hollywood will have to look hard. “The next person who will reinvent drama is probably unemployed with big dreams,” he says.
He should know. The Middlebury College graduate grew up in Rockford, Ill., with big dreams of going Hollywood. And in 2000, after honing his writing on “Nash Bridges” and “Angel,” he finally got his chance to create a series for cabler FX.
“They gave me far more freedom than most veterans get from the major networks,” he says. “I certainly asked, ‘Why me?’ but they had nothing to lose by taking a chance.”
The gamble paid off. “Shield” has copped three Emmy nominations, quite a coup for a first-year skein that had to weather a major advertiser storm over its gritty content. Ryan and Clark Johnson scored separate mentions for writing and directing the pilot, respectively, and Michael Chiklis scored a dramatic acting nomination.
For specific tastes only
Despite hitting a high note right out of the box, Ryan has come to terms with “The Shield” being, despite its broad-appeal genre, somewhat of a niche program. “It’s definitely not a show for every advertiser and every viewer,” he says, “but I’ve gotten past the lightning-rod attention. I’m completely comfortable with the content.”
Not everyone is, of course. “The Shield” has become the poster show for corporate paranoia, and that skittishness on the part of Madison Avenue — Burger King, Office Depot and Anheuser-Busch pulled out of season one — hasn’t deterred Ryan from changing the game plan — breathing life into a familiar format.
“Critics overemphasize the need to do something very different,” Ryan says. “It’s enough to do something very well. ‘CSI: Crime Scene Investigation’ is a good example. That kind of sleuthing has been covered, but its look, feel and little differences make it exciting. That’s also the case with ’24.’ A gimmick can get you started, but that goes away, so what’s left better be sturdy on its own.”
By sturdy, Ryan is presumably talking about good writing, a factor that is getting tested in a new way nowadays with the proliferation of dramatic spinoffs such as “CSI: Miami” and the “Law & Order” skeins. Ryan points to franchises as a trend that is exciting and problematic.
“They work only if the characters are good,” he says. “There are certain spinoffs that are out there to make money while they can, but they contribute little. Branding has become a much used term, but for a very good reason. Creatives need to protect the original, because there will be a time when spinoffs will be wholly judged on their own.”
Whether “The Shield” is a flash or a franchise, it has already become a pop culture nugget.
“People who voice their opposition toward a particular show still don’t understand that their reactions have caused the reverse effect,” says Dallas Morning News pop critic Tom Maurstad. “Everyone wanted to catch a glimpse of ‘The Shield’ because a few people told them not to. Now it’s out there, it has received Emmy consideration and, more importantly, it’s got momentum. If nobody said anything, maybe it would have gone away by now.”
Heading into its second run — the new season will start in January — “The Shield” doesn’t play by the same rules when it comes to scheduling. And HBO is the de facto leader when it comes to shortened seasons — “The Sopranos” isn’t even up for an Emmy because it didn’t air a new show in the eligibility period.
Some criticize the strategy, claiming that auds deserve more, but Ryan sees the tactic as the answer to even louder critics who claim that TV has nothing good to offer in bulk.
“Why is the entertainment industry the only business which takes heat for making a product stronger?” he asks. “Anybody anywhere would rather have the time and effort to demand excellence.”
The TV biz
Show that first got you hooked on dramas: “I always liked dramas, but I grew up very much a sitcom fan. To that end, ensembles like ‘Cheers’ and ‘Taxi’ taught me how to structure characters and create real situations.”
Most compelling characters on today’s dramas: “It all comes back again to ensembles. ‘The Sopranos’ and ‘Oz’ have depth, so they really score points in terms of character development. When the characters from ‘The West Wing’ are on their game, that show shines.”