At a time when the basic cable landscape was not known for scripted dramatic storytelling, FX, and Shawn Ryan, forever changed that perception with the arrival of crime solver The Shield, starring Michael Chiklis, in March 2002.
“If we had a building and there was a cornerstone, it would read The Shield: March 2002,” FX President John Landgraf once said in an interview. “That’s really when FX as we know it began. And frankly, I think that’s when basic cable began as you now know it in terms of scripted original programming.”
Utimately, FX became the first basic-cable network to snag a top series award when Michael Chiklis won the Emmy for outstanding lead actor in The Shield that same year. Shawn Ryan was the first person on a cable series nominated for an Emmy for outstanding writing for a drama series. The arrival of multiple Oscar nominee Glenn Close in the show’s fourth season was the turning point for prestige actors to pursue roles on cable. And FX was able to lure in advertisers to The Shield at a time when the broadcast networks still had a lock amongst “A” list sponsors.
Over the years, Shawn Ryan has created (or co-created) a number of other scripted dramas, including The Chicago Code, Last Resort, and Timeless, which returns for 10 new episodes in midseason on NBC.
He also has produced The Unit, Lie to Me, Terriers and Mad Dog, the latter for Amazon Prime. His most current project, of which he is a co-executive producer and co-showrunner, is the revival of S.W.A.T. on CBS, debuting Nov. 2. Most interesting, perhaps, in Ryan’s body of work is working on projects that run the gamut of cable, broadcast and digital.
“Probably the biggest difference about working in the different platforms is the number of episodes per season,” he said during a Q&A session late Tuesday at the New York Television Festival moderated by former New York Times’ TV beat reporter Bill Carter.
“On broadcast you are normally afforded the time to really tell a story, whereas the story component on cable or digital tends to be quicker,” said Ryan, who honed his writing and eventual showrunner skills working on dramas Nash Bridges and Angel before landing The Shield. “I go where the opportunities are and not based on what platform the show airs.”
“When I went off to college, I did have an interest in theater,” said Ryan, who cites his mother’s passion for the arts as a precursor to his eventual career path. “I started taking some theater classes and I took a class in my freshman year where the final project in the class was to write a five-minute scene and have other kids in the class act in it. The professor, who was also a playwright himself, suggested I take his playwright class the following semester. And that was the first time I got to see something I wrote actually produced.”
Now a joint theater and economics major, acknowledgement from the American College Theater Festival after graduation led Ryan to a trip to Los Angeles at 23 to spend two weeks in the writers room working on sitcom My Two Dads.
“It took me about five years to get my first professional job after that,” recalled Ryan, who wrote about 16 television spec scripts in a four-year period in an effort to get noticed.
“For me it was about writing and writing and writing, and taking jobs that could pay the bills and still afford me the opportunity to write,” he remembered. “And that is why I now hire assistants who have an interest in writing.”
Mixing Comedy, Drama
Known, of course, for his dramatics roots, Ryan wrote spec scripts for both comedies and dramas in his early days — including for shows such as Cheers, Friends, Roseanne, NYPD Blue and Northern Exposure.
“To this day I advise young people to diversify as much as they can,” said Ryan. “And the first steady job I got, Nash Bridges, was a drama, but I was hired after being noticed for a spec script I wrote on The Larry Sanders Show.”
After going on some police ride-alongs in San Francisco with a writer on Nash Bridges, there were some things Ryan saw, “things I knew we could not do on this show,” that gave him the vision for The Shield. “When I ultimately got The Shield based on the spec script I wrote, I surrounded myself with experienced people who could help me along. I knew what the creative vision for the show was, but I was not sure what the practical way to do it was.”
“I give a ton of credit to Kevin Reilly and Peter Liguori, who had a vision of what basic cable could be,” he said. “Peter Liguori went to New York to meet all the advertisers, which was 2001, and he asked…‘If you had the chance to advertise on The Sopranos, which was already in season three of four, would you do it? And when they said yes, he replied, ‘With that in mind I would like to show you this pilot.’”
“That was how The Shield was born.”
[Cube image of Bill Carter and Shawn Ryan courtesy of Marc Berman; content image of S.W.A.T. courtesy of CBS/Bill Inoshita]