Who would have guessed the man who created Vic Mackey began his career on My Two Dads? Shawn Ryan went on to create CBS' The Unit, and is now the executive producer of Fox's Lie to Me. But his biggest gift to television has been The Shield, which set the standard for basic cable drama and proved cable dramas could be not just as good as network shows, but better. The Shield paved the way for Mad Men, Damages, and Battlestar Galactica's basic cable-success, but Ryan insists that if his show hadn't, another would have. "Cable TV was ready to explode like that," he says. Ryan, one of the influential television industry players interviewed for TVGuide.com's Best of the Decade section, talked with us about The Shield's influence, the cable-drama boom, and how TV audiences have changed forever.
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TVGuide.com: How did The Shield end up on FX?
Shawn Ryan: As I was segueing between Nash Bridges and Angel, I started writing the pilot that became The Shield. I was originally hired to write a sitcom pilot for Fox, but we could never really agree on what the pilot would be and ultimately I came back and said, "Well, I have an idea for a cop show." They were kind enough to let me write it. So I finished the pilot script, and the script was sent out to a couple places, one of which was FX, which was looking to change up what they were doing. They read it and decided they wanted to make it, which came as a huge, complete shock for me.
TVGuide.com: What inspired you to write it?
Ryan: I had gone on police ride-alongs in San Francisco while on I worked on Nash. I had seen things that were wholly inappropriate for Nash, but that I thought would be interesting material for something else. The Rampart scandal was a big inspiration for Vic Mackey and the Strike team. Hearing about that group and what they had done — not only that they had done this illegal stuff, but also that the neighborhoods were safer in many ways because of what they were doing, even if they were going about it in the wrong way — was of interest to me. On a creative level, the biggest inspirational thing was L.A. Confidential . And I was a big fan of cop shows on TV — Hill Street to NYPD Blue to Homicide — and I wanted to write something that would make me want to watch the way that those shows made me want to watch.
TVGuide.com: What did FX connect with most about the show?
Ryan: They knew what they were doing, even though the network was new. They were really enamored with the script. At the time, they had said the only thing they wouldn't do was a cop show because they felt there were too many of those and that wouldn't distinguish them from the networks. So they broke that rule to make my pilot. They were great creative partners, and they gave me more power than I had probably earned at that point. They had more trust and faith in me than I probably had in myself. They were good at knowing when to step in and give me advice and they were good at knowing when to trust my instincts on the show. It was an ideal marriage.
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TVGuide.com: Do you view The Shield as a trailblazer for the cable-drama boom?
Ryan: I do think it had a big impact, but I'm also aware that the impact was ready to happen. The conditions existed for it to happen, and if The Shield never happened, it would have happened with a different show. It was going to happen. I'm grateful that we got there first and got credited with changing the perception, but you just look back and cable TV was ready to explode like that.
It changed people's ideas about what could be done with certain budgets. We made that show for the first two seasons very cheaply. I started getting calls from producers asking us how we do it for that money. It made other networks like Syfy and USA look at original programming as more viable. You did not have to spend the same budget as the major networks did, but you could still have something as good or different and unique for that money if you did it wisely.
TVGuide.com: The show was also somewhat groundbreaking in its depiction of violence. How do you think it will hold up?
Ryan: I did spend a lot of time fretting about how the show would age in terms of the lingo and the gangs. As for the violence, we tried not to use violence pornographically. We tried to make the violence real. We were on the same time as 24, and to me 24 was a far more violent show than ours. The difference was, when we did show violence, it was done in a very non-stylized, realistic, horrific way that tended to stay with people. The violence had an impact on people. My hope is that impact will still exist for people 15 or 20 years from now. You look at early episodes of The Shield, and the first couple seasons seem more daring and liberal than almost anything you see premiering nowadays.
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TVGuide.com: Is there any commonality between The Shield, The Unit and Lie to Me?
Ryan: I never wanted to be someone that got defined too easily. The Shield was an example of the more extreme sides of my writing. I was very conscious that I didn't want to get labeled and spend the next 20 years trying to make different versions of the same show. One commonality I always seek is trying to find the truthfulness in a situation, truthfulness as it relates to characters and believability within the bounds of the show you set up. I'm a believer in pace and energy and not taking audience for granted. I want to entertain — one hour of screen time is precious. On Lie to Me, there really is a search for the truth, and that's something I've been trying to achieve on all my shows.
TVGuide.com: How has television changed over the past decade?
Ryan: I think viewers are more discerning and less likely to sit through something that only mildly entertains them. A show really has to be in your wheelhouse to get you to watch because there are too many other things you could be doing. So ratings are down on individual shows, but I think ratings are up for TV in general. People still love television; this whole news cycle about the death of TV is way premature and inaccurate. You've just got to find those shows that appeal to the core audience that goes out of their way to watch. It's far more competitive, but supply and demand has really raised the quality level of TV. TV over the last five years has blown films out of the water.