‘The Shield’ sets cable precedent

Cop drama allowed FX to ramp up originals

Ryan Murphy should take a moment to thank “The Shield.” As should the Kessler brothers and Denis Leary.

Their respective skeins — “Nip/Tuck,” “Damages” and “Rescue Me” — might’ve ended up homeless if Shawn Ryan’s gritty cop drama “The Shield” didn’t take off from the get-go and single-handedly help launch FX as a home for edgy original programming.

“If ‘The Shield’ didn’t turn into ‘The Shield,’ who knows what happens,” says John Landgraf, topper of the cable net that was looking for an identity in 2002. “We might not be sitting here, and basic cable might not be what it is today.”

While “The Shield,” which begins its final season tonight, was certainly not the first police skein to get into the dirty underbelly of precinct politics, there were no series that had anyone like Det.Vic Mackey as its lead. Fox entertainment chairman Peter Liguori was running FX at the time and, along with Kevin Reilly, knew he had to have an actor with gravitas to fill the role of Mackey.

Coming off the sitcom “Daddio,” however, Michael Chiklis wouldn’t have been anyone’s first choice. Yet it only took one audition to change a lot of minds.

“I was walking by and I saw this guy in a skintight black T-shirt,” Liguori recalls. “I asked where Chiklis was waiting and was told I just walked by him. He scared the daylights out of the casting person he was reading with and stormed out of the room in full Vic Mackey mode.”

Part supercop, part villain, Mackey — as portrayed with stunning rage by Chiklis — shoots a fellow detective in the pilot episode. Clearly, the days of “Dragnet” were long gone.

The pilot drew raves from critics — the Associated Press said, “It echoes reality closely enough to create a chilling resonance and often gripping show” — and healthy viewer totals. Liguori was ecstatic.

“I will say, short of my personal life, hearing the ratings from the pilot was just about the most fulfilling thing in my professional life,” he proclaims. “This is a business of failure. The notion to get out of the gate and having a show work is infinitesimal. This business is humbling. We were lucky, but we prepared to be lucky.”

So with both the creative precedent set and viewers willing to go along for the handheld bumpy ride, showrunner Ryan — who originally pitched a laffer to FX before seeing his “Shield” script picked up — had to prepare to exec produce 12 more episodes of season one. It would seem a monumental task, yet one that would, in turn, flourish into seven seasons, the final one beginning today.

“I was always amazed they had so much faith in me,” Ryan says. “If there was one thing I was good at, it was to get out of the way. I’m more of a word guy than a visual guy.”

In describing what he desired “The Shield” to look like, “I told Clark (Johnson, the show’s director for both the pilot and finale) that I wanted the feeling you get when you’re on a police ride-along.”

Eric Schrier, currently a senior VP at FX who has been with the show since the beginning, says the relationship between the network and Ryan worked well because both were so new to the process of creating an original series.

“I have to say Shawn is a rare breed,” Schrier explains. “He had never run a show before, and what he did so well was listen. He never took our notes verbatim, but always embraced us. He and the guys there looked to us as the first audience. We had a very collaborative and respectful environment. That was the key.”

Three months after the first season concluded, the show’s momentum went into high gear. Chiklis would take home the Emmy as best actor in a drama, and soon after both Chiklis and the show would take home Golden Globes.

“That was the turning point,” Landgraf reflects on Chiklis’ Emmy triumph, the first time an actor from a basic-cable series had won the lead actor category. “After that, we knew this type of programming would ultimately succeed.”

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