On Shawn Ryan’s desk, there’s a computer, stacks of loose papers, a Captain Aceveda desk plaque, and a blinged-out cup that spells “SHIELD” in rhinestones.
“That’s not a Shield cup,” Ryan clarifies, deadpan. “That’s a Shield Pimp Chalice.”
Ryan, 46, explains that he and his wife gave crew gifts every year on The Shield, the show he created and executive produced, with the theme always revolving around some kind of sin. One year it was the Pimp Chalice, another year it was a liquor flask, then a lighter, martini glasses, and so on. “We worked for a month and a half to get those,” he nods at the chalice. “People love them.” (Ryan says he’s never drank out of it, though.)
We’re in his guesthouse turned office, with a modern kitchen and a generous living room outfitted with a Simpsons pinball machine — Ryan says he bought it for his son — a large flat-screen TV, and a plush couch. It’s where he comes to work late at night when his kids and wife are asleep. He says he likes to listen to Christmas music when he writes so he can zone out.
Just this past June, the WGA ranked The Shield as one of the best-written TV series of all time, putting Ryan’s show in the same echelon as iconic dramas like The Sopranos, M*A*S*H, and Six Feet Under. This is some heady company, yet Hollywood is Hollywood, and pantheon-level success doesn’t promise anything next time out. When asked what he’s currently working on, Ryan is tongue-in-cheek: “Trying to get back on the air.”
The most recent pilot that Ryan created and executive produced, Beverly Hills Cop, was supposed to be a sure thing. In April, Deadline called it a “frontrunner” to be picked up to series just a week before CBS passed on it. After that, rumors swirled around exactly why the pilot didn’t make the cut. CBS President Nina Tassler commented on the move at the time, saying, “We have to make tough choices,” and cited the fact that the network was pushing more into half-hour comedies, whereas Beverly Hills Cop was a procedural drama. Ryan says he was “devastated” by the decision.
“CBS ultimately didn’t pick up many dramas,” he says, hesitant to give any specifics about what exactly went wrong. “Our show was about a very modern, wisecracking 25-year-old black kid who kind of sticks it to the rich man in Beverly Hills. And ultimately, the people who decided our fate were more like the people getting taken down than they were like the main character,” he says with a laugh. “And so I think sincerely, it wasn’t the show for them. I will defend the execution of that show. Do I believe that Beverly Hills Cop would have gotten sampled in greater numbers than they ultimately chose? I do.”
Even when seated, Ryan seems tall and imposing, with a starkly bald head — the kind of guy who could be very intimidating if he wanted to be. He looks like Vic Mackey, the corrupt detective he created for his breakout show The Shield, only more suburban in a white polo shirt, worn sneakers, and dark basketball shorts that go down just past his knees. And nicer. Way nicer.
He leans forward in a small chair that barely contains his towering stature, and pauses before speaking, weighing his next words carefully. “The most bothersome thing to me is that people assume that since it was such a slam dunk, that we must have made a really awful pilot for it not to get picked up. We didn’t make an awful pilot. In fact, when Sony tested the pilot, it was the highest tested pilot out of 108 dramas.” (A rep for Sony confirmed that the Beverly Hills Cop pilot was, in fact, the highest tested at the time; but a week later, The Blacklist tested higher.) Regardless, that success has led Paramount to reboot the film franchise, as Ryan tweeted out in July, and he’s set to be a producer on it.
“You do some soul searching,” Ryan says. “And you just make the decision to not waddle in grief too long, and decide to start looking forward rather than backwards.”
Ryan, originally from Rockford, IllInois, was 34 when he went on a few ride-alongs with San Francisco cops and hatched the idea for his own show. He’d previously written for the CBS Don Johnson detective show Nash Bridges (created by Lost’s Carlton Cuse) and the Buffy the Vampire Slayer spin-off Angel, but had never worked on the first season of a series, let alone started one from scratch. Initially, he looked at the experience of filming the Shield pilot as a great sample he’d have for his next gig, in part because FX was the channel known for airing Nascar races, not serious scripted fare.
And the most important element of the show, aside from Ryan himself, was the result of a random encounter at a local Gymboree. “My wife dragged me to a Gymboree class for my youngest,” recalls Michael Chiklis, like Ryan, an industry lifer, whose role as Vic Mackey on The Shield proved career-making. “We both knew his wife, Cathy, and we were running into Cathy for the first time in over a decade, and she introduces me to her husband.”
Cathy then went on to mention that her husband had just sold a pilot to FX called The Barn — the original title of The Shield — and Chiklis asked if he could give it a read. Ryan obliged. “I had no idea that when that script came to my house that it would be a) the best pilot I’ve ever read, and b) that it would be something that would change my life and career,” Chiklis says. Still, it wasn’t a simple decision. “Even the people around me were advising against it,” he says, “because it was on this cable channel, and I was a network star.”
The Shield pilot went on to set a cable series ratings record when it aired in March 2002, pulling in 5 million viewers.
“That morning when the ratings came in, and they were really big, it was stunning to me,” says Ryan, his eyes widening. “And I know it was stunning to FX. I know it exceeded their best hopes.” He’d gone in assuming he’d never have a second season of the show, but as the ratings and audience continued to grow, it became clear that this was something special.
The Shield went on to win a Golden Globe for Best Drama Series and an AFI award for TV Program of the Year, and it put FX on the map as a network. Even though the show has been off the air for five years, people haven’t forgotten about it, especially the executives at FX. In the lobby at FX to this day, one of the first things you see is a giant poster of The Shield, paying homage to the series that changed everything.
“It really was not only the show that launched FX,” says FX CEO John Landgraf. “It was the show that launched quality scripted entertainment.”
While that is probably something that can be spiritedly debated, the idea that the show fostered an on-set spirit that went on to define an entire network’s identity and strategy is clear-cut. “I think one of the reasons the show was so successful is because of how collaborative it was,” says Chiklis. “I mean, Shawn was the showrunner, and we gave him that respect. Because at the end of the day, Shawn had the final power. But he was incredibly collaborative, and sensitive, and listened.”
Prior to The Shield, Ryan had always been the writer who was planted in the room. Nash Bridges filmed in San Francisco, and writers weren’t allowed to go to set. He’d seen a little more when he worked on Angel, but it was limited. So Ryan knew he’d need help when it came to things like casting, editing, and making the day-to-day small decisions that go into production. And he asked for it. Scott Brazil, who had previously worked on Nash Bridges, Hill Street Blues, and JAG, started as The Shield’s line producer, and went on to direct and serve as an executive producer.
“We’re only paying 85 cents on the dollar compared to network shows to our crew,” Ryan remembers telling Brazil. “And I said, ‘How are we going to get good crew and keep good crew if we’re paying them less?’ And Scott’s answer was, ‘Make it the happiest set on earth.’” Ryan laughs at the conversation since sets are notoriously tough, tougher than being a crooked cop with a captain breathing down your neck. “‘Make it a place everybody enjoys coming to work, and everybody feels valued, and that will be worth a 15% premium to people.’ And he turned out to be right. The vast majority of our crew stayed all seven years on the show.”
Unintentionally, FX was doing something similar with Ryan. The executives realized that since they weren’t a big network, they couldn’t pay as much. But in exchange, they offered more creative freedom. Unlike the broadcast networks, which were famous for copious notes and edits, FX became a showrunner-friendly environment.
“He has a strong point of view, as you might imagine,” Landgraf says of Ryan. “But he’s extremely receptive to other points of view, and really wrestles with them when he thinks they have merit… He’s a very emotionally mature, sophisticated, and extremely creatively ambitious guy. And those are rare qualities to find in one individual.”
And even if Ryan himself doesn’t currently have a show on the air, his management style is on display via writers who were part of his process. Former Walking Dead showrunner Glen Mazzara — who Ryan hired for The Shield as a writer and executive producer — thinks of him as a “mentor” from their days on Nash Bridges, and credits working with Ryan for where he is today. “I’ve tried to pattern the way I run shows and the way I lead writers’ rooms [from Ryan] – I really draw a lot of inspiration from Shawn. He doesn’t just go with his gut, he thinks about things for a long time. And that can be frustrating to people, particularly working in a creative environment on a show where people need answers and they want to go on. He’s willing to say, ‘This is my process. It’s going to take a while.’ But the way he offsets that is he’s incredibly funny, he’s collegial, he enjoys the process of being in the writers’ room.”
Even Ryan admits that his favorite part of the showrunner process isn’t writing; it’s working with the creative people around him. “I’ve been in many, many writers’ rooms with him,” Mazzara says. “He puts his head against the window — he likes to have the pane of glass be cool against his bald head. He puts his feet up on the desk, and he usually has some type of Nerf ball in his hand. And he concentrates and everyone stares at him. Then he says, ‘I’ll tell you what we need to do,’ and then he’ll pitch the entire story from beginning to end, and that’s the story, and he always makes it better.”
To people on the Shield set, Ryan was known as Lem, as in Lemonhead, according to Mazzara, “because he was bald.” And when faced with the tough situation of long hours on set, he turned to playing online poker to stay awake.
“I was so obsessed with it, at one point during The Shield we used it to name some of the episode titles,” he says. That was especially noticeable in Season 3, when back-to-back episodes were titled “All In” and “On Tilt.” Ryan says, however, he hasn’t played online poker in years.
The Shield ended in 2008, but those involved with it have kept in touch with Ryan. Landgraf is currently working with him on a new project called Mad Dogs (more on that later), Ryan and Mazzara have coached a soccer team together, and Chiklis is the godfather to his two kids. “The Shield was different,” Chiklis explains. “This was life-altering, ya know? We are friends. We love each other. It was genuine. That’s not bullshit. We will be friends till we’re dead.”
The Shield is a tough act to follow, and an even harder one to top. But in the years following, Ryan kept busy working with one of his heroes, David Mamet, as an executive producer on the CBS Mamet-created military drama The Unit and Fox’s micro-expression drama Lie to Me.
Then came Terriers in 2010. It was the first new FX project Ryan had worked on since The Shield, and it focused on something Ryan knew a lot about: underdogs. The Ted Griffin–created dramedy centered on Hank (Donal Logue), a smart-ass recovering alcoholic and former cop who’s loyal to a fault, and his sometimes immature partner Britt (Michael Raymond-James). It was another critical darling, but Terriers was ultimately canceled after its first season due to abysmal ratings.
“The truth of that show was that it had a relentlessly downward trajectory in audience,” says Landgraf with a sigh. “Every week for the entire run of that show, it lost audience in every platform we put it on. Now, why is that? I don’t know.”
There were plenty of theories as to why the show never took hold, including the title, which, looking back, Ryan says he would’ve changed. “I think Terriers was an awful title,” he says, laughing. “I just didn’t think about it that much. And in retrospect, the show’s charms were kind of so different and offbeat that it required a more on-the-nose title, I think. I still don’t know what that would be.”
“We’ve all done a lot of soul searching for why that happened,” Ryan says of Terriers’ cancelation, “and ultimately, I’m just left with the idea that it was a show that was just destined to be a really great 13 episodes. In the same way that Freaks and Geeks is the perfect little 19-episode time capsule that never got worse, Terriers, I hope, is this really great little 13-episode time capsule that holds up from beginning to end.”
With a show like The Shield under his belt, and an enviable reputation as a showrunner — Chiklis called him a “perfect combination of talent and decency” — Ryan should be working on a TV series right now. Right? But he’s not — not yet, anyway. Instead, he just has to wait and see what gets picked up. That doesn’t mean he’s sitting in his sweatpants all day, anxiously waiting for a phone to ring. It just means that instead of being in a writers’ room, where he works best, he’s working out of the Sony Pictures Television lot, where he has an overall deal, and his guesthouse, trying to develop new scripts to go to air.
The Beverly Hills Cop pilot came to fruition in November, shortly after ABC canceled Ryan’s critically acclaimed drama Last Resort, which he co-created and executive produced, making it one cancelation and a pilot that failed to be ordered to series. The year before that, the Fox cop drama he created, The Chicago Code, was canceled after its first season. With a record like that, it almost seems like trying to get a new show picked up to series is as tough as having Vic Mackey push your face against a stove.
“Nothing’s a slam dunk,” he laughs. He laughs a lot, almost with his whole body, and mostly at himself. “The previous two pilots I made — Chicago Code and Last Resort — the press initially reported that those two pilots weren’t going to be on the air. And both got picked up. And then Beverly Hills Cop was the one that was a sure thing, slam dunk, and then it didn’t.”
Ryan is currently attached to executive produce Mad Dogs, an American remake of a U.K. miniseries for FX. But even that has a finite shelf life. “We have this 10-episode story to tell, that will have a beginning, middle, and end. We know there’s a second 10-episode story we can tell with these characters, but that would be definitively it. So if there’s only 10, that’s fine, that’s the story. If it ends up being 20, so be it.”
Of course, there are perks to knowing there’s an end in sight, and for Ryan, who has now had four of his shows canceled before they could get a full story out, it’s somewhat of a relief. “You don’t have to preserve things,” he says pragmatically. “We certainly found plenty of stories to tell in Seasons 3, 4, and 5 of The Shield, but Season 6 felt like it was searching for when the ending would be. So Season 7, when we knew, ‘OK, this is the end,’ we were able to just go all out. So what’s cool is to be able to do that from the beginning of a project. Nothing needs to be saved.”
In addition to Mad Dogs, there’s Badlands, the project Ryan has at HBO with writer Ron Fitzgerald. The pilot focuses on a struggling mining town in Wyoming, and might just be the project he’s most excited about. “If we were able to get the HBO show launched, I think that could be a really seminal, important show,” Ryan says. Mad Dogs, a comedy thriller about mortality and morality, and Badlands, a premium cable drama about blue-collar mine workers, are vastly different from each other. The former follows four middle-aged men as their trip to Belize takes a grim turn. It’s darkly comedic and delves into the sense of uselessness that often strikes when you hit your forties. And from a writer’s perspective, it also has a built-in ticking clock; there are only so many episodes it can span. Rather than people who feel worthless, Badlands focuses on a community just struggling to keep afloat.
For Ryan, who labels this point in his life as the “nadir of his career,” it’s clear that he’s restless. Even as he sits, he fidgets with the collar of his shirt, or uncrosses his legs, then re-crosses them. He has a kind of strong energy about him that needs to be channeled into something, and right now there’s no telling where it will land.
But regardless, for all his frustrations, he knows, “You probably learn more in failure than you do in success.”