At every turn, “The Shield,” which begins its long-awaited final season 9 p.m. Tuesday on FX, has defied expectations.
The first person to be surprised was the show’s creator, Shawn Ryan. He assumed each season might be “The Shield’s” last, despite the critical acclaim and ratings success it enjoyed when it debuted on FX six years ago.
Well before that dazzling debut, however, Ryan got an even bigger shock, when FX decided to make his uncompromising pilot script in the first place.
“I didn’t think anyone would make it the way I was writing it. I thought maybe somebody might like it and make me change it to be network-friendly,” he said in a recent phone interview.
He wasn’t alone in that belief.
Damon Lindelof, the executive producer of “Lost,” recalled reading Ryan’s well-regarded “Shield” script when it was making the Hollywood rounds almost a decade ago. “Mackey murders an Internal Affairs rat in cold blood. He kills a cop. Shoots him in the head,” Lindelof said. “And when I read that, I thought to myself, ‘Shawn Ryan will never get this ending on the air.’
“Well, I stand corrected,” Lindelof added.
Not only did FX shoot that shocking ending, Peter Liguori and Kevin Reilly, who were then the top executives at FX and who are now the heads of the Fox network, put Ryan in charge of “The Shield.”
It’s not uncommon for the person who creates a TV show to be elbowed aside once it goes into production, and “The Shield” was a critical project for FX , which was then trying to put itself on the map with original programming. Despite his lack of production experience, FX trusted Ryan to bring the show to life. He was 34.
“I think one thing that helped me was, frankly, my ignorance,” said Ryan. “I had not done a lot of TV producing at that point. I had written for a couple of shows, (‘Angel,’ ‘Nash Bridges’) but I wasn’t involved in a lot of production decisions. ... I didn’t have any kind of preconceived notions about how these things were supposed to be done.”
Ryan credits fellow “Shield” executive producer and director Scott Brazil, who died in 2006, as well as the show’s first director, Clark Johnson, with coming up with the production strategies that gave the show its distinctive style. Money was tight: In its first two years, the show’s budget was $1.3 million per episode, which was “minuscule” compared with many network budgets, Ryan recalled.
When it arrived, “The Shield” certainly looked like nothing else on TV - except, perhaps, the more adventurous documentaries on HBO and PBS.
“The Shield” was shot in an immediate, fluid style, often with hand-held cameras. Many scenes were filmed in hardscrabble locations in and around the show’s scruffy Los Angeles studio. As they tried to keep the peace on violent, gang-controlled streets, Mackey and his fellow Strike Team members found themselves in corner stores, in messy apartments, in claustrophobic interrogation rooms and in innumerable alleys.
Despite, or perhaps because of, its unconventional depiction of life in the big city, “The Shield” got noticed, and not just by awards-giving organizations and critics. In 2003 and 2004, Ryan said, Brazil got calls from other TV producers and executives, who wanted to know how they made a show that won Michael Chiklis an Emmy and garnered truckloads of praise, all on a cable-TV budget.
“It wasn’t solely because of the creative success of ‘The Shield’ and (FX’s) ‘Nip/Tuck,’ but a lot of it was the economic success of ‘The Shield.’ It inspired people to get into this (original series) business, because we were making the show for a price that made sense,” Ryan said.
But the show’s budget dictated several deviations from the usual TV formulas. Complicated lighting took too long to set up, so artificial lighting was kept to a minimum. Shooting in small rooms necessitated the use of small, hand-held cameras. Filming on location was routine.
“24” and “The Wire,” which premiered a few months before and after “The Shield,” respectively, as well as later series such as “Friday Night Lights” and “Battlestar Galactica” helped make that kind of “on the fly” shooting style popular. But “The Shield’s” lasting influence can be seen in the popularity of its various directors, who are now working on everything from “Dexter” and “Saving Grace” to “Law & Order.”
“But that’s the nature of TV and film. It’s not the same as copying a test in school,” Ryan said of the influence of “The Shield,” which, he noted, owes a debt to everything from “The Sopranos” to “L.A. Confidential.” “I can’t say I was lying in the weeds, waiting to change television. I just took the circumstances I was in and did the best I could with them. And I think other people in my same position would have found similar ways to do things. I do like the fact that we were sort of the first to do it.”
Chiklis, who lost weight and shaved his head before starting work on “The Shield,” brought a ferocious vigor to the role, which won him an Emmy in 2002. But the show’s intensity takes a toll, Chiklis said in a 2007 interview on the show’s set.
“Some roles are exhausting physically, some are exhausting mentally. Some are really devastating psychologically. (Vic) is all of that,” Chiklis said. “You ever take a face cloth and soak it and wring it out? That’s me, at the end of the day. I’m a wrung-out washcloth. An overcooked noodle.”
Part of the reason for that exhaustion at the end of the day springs from nature of the show’s storytelling, which mixes complicated plots with the expert excavations of moral gray areas. Vic Mackey spends most episodes trying to escape the consequences of his canny but shortsighted actions. But the genius of “The Shield” is that it’s impossible to think of Mackey as purely evil. He’s convinced that he’s doing the right thing.
“Really, it harkens back to that Jack Nicholson speech in ‘A Few Good Men,’” Chiklis said. “He is the embodiment of that argument: ‘I am the man on the wall; you people who sit in your suburban households can look at what I do from a distance, and go, “Oh, isn’t that terrible, isn’t he awful?” But you can’t handle the truth of what we need to do to protect ourselves.’”
“One thing I learned from Joss Whedon that I blatantly stole was the idea of approaching the stories first from character,” said Ryan, who is also executive producer of “The Unit” and has several new projects in development, including a private-eye dramedy for FX, a drama he’s working on with novelist James Ellroy for A&E, a sitcom for Fox and an adaptation of the book “Confessions of a Contractor” for CBS.
“The cop stories were always the last thing we’d figure out on a ‘Shield’ episode,” Ryan continued. “You just start from the premise of, ‘What do you want to happen to Vic and Shane this week? What do you want to happen to (fellow cops) Dutch and Claudette or Danny and Julien, or (Vic’s ex-wife) Corrine? What hoops do you want them to jump through?’ And then you figure out, what are the best stories that allow you to do that.”