Rape, murders all part of rising realism levels

For Shawn Ryan, the time was right.

“NYPD Blue,” arguably the best copshow on air, had lost some of its edge; over on HBO, “The Sopranos” had transformed TV drama; and the real-life Louima and Rampart scandals had badly shaken the public’s faith in big-city police departments.

With all this in mind, he began to write, and didn’t hold back.

“I wrote something that I thought would be cool to watch,” he says, “but I didn’t think anyone would make it. If I’d consciously asked myself, ‘What do I want to do to get on the air?’ I probably would have censored myself.”

FX, meanwhile, faced a similar dilemma. Eager to establish itself as a maker of credible drama, its challenge was to make this new show as gripping and realistic as possible — which would, almost by definition, require a certain degree of envelope-pushing — while at the same time conforming to the standards and practices of a basic-cable network. According to Fox Entertainment prexy Kevin Reilly (formerly FX chief), the desired tone lay “somewhere between Fox and HBO.”

Current FX president and g.m. John Landgraf points out, “We’re really not breaking ground, here: The premium channels go a lot farther with frontal nudity and language.” For all “The Shield’s” down-and-dirty reputation, he insists, “You’re not seeing anything explicit.”

True, but its makers certainly appeared keen to test the limits. In the season-two episode “Partners,” the show’s bullish antihero Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis) burned a gang leader’s face on a kitchen stove. And with “Back to One,” from season six, the skein created a stir among even hardened fans when a local drug lord was beaten almost to death with a length of chain before being dispatched with a single shot to the head.

But in perhaps the skein’s most controversial plotline, police captain-turned-city councilor David Aceveda (Benito Martinez) was raped at gunpoint by two gang members and subsequently began re-enacting the incident in the course of an increasingly violent and nihilistic affair with a prostitute.

All strong stuff, though Landgraf is quick to point out that “rape has been depicted on TV before. And while this one was written and performed in a harrowing way, what you actually ‘saw’ is what your imagination filled in. We’ve been pretty careful from the beginning.”

As with other basic-cable networks, FX’s attitude toward nudity, violence and coarse language seems to occupy a somewhat undefined middle ground — not nearly as circumscribed as the broadcast nets, but not as permissive as HBO and Showtime.

Like the pay cablers, it’s exempt from FCC guidelines, but its nonsubscription model often leads to voluntary self-censorship in order not to alienate potential advertisers. (Even “The Sopranos” was modified when shown on A&E in 2006, with bikinis being added to the topless dancers at the Bada Bing.)

Even so, Landgraf acknowledges “The Shield” show “was a tough sell (to advertisers). I think we were viewed with a lot of skepticism.” But then, he adds, sponsors are, for the most part, innately conservative creatures: “If you were to ask advertisers if they’d want to be on ‘The Sopranos,’ there’d be some who’d say no.”

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