The Shield: A Postmortem with Creator Shawn Ryan
By now you've seen how The Shield took its final bow. [And if you haven't and don't want to know what happened on the series finale just yet, you shouldn't read any further. This story requires one big SPOILER ALERT!] Corrupt cop Vic Mackey got his immunity deal, but it came with several justice-serving, tragic trade-offs. Shane, his former Strike Team comrade, killed himself and his family. Ronnie, who was left out of Vic's deal, was arrested. Vic's family entered the witness-protection program without telling him. And that cushy job offer from the Feds turned out to be a workaday desk job. No more action for Vic! After so many startling developments, we had to talk to series creator Shawn Ryan about his last creative choices for the show, what he thinks its legacy will be and what he'll work on next. (Hint: It's a sitcom!)
TVGuide.com: CCH Pounder [who plays Det. Claudette Wyms] said of the finale: "Vic Mackey gets what he deserves." Do you think Vic got what he deserved?
Shawn Ryan: Well, that's a tough one for me. I don't think it's my position to tell people what to think. I think the story makes sense. He certainly pays a price. Some people will think that price is too high and some will think it's too low, depending on your take on Vic Mackey going into it. But we enjoyed writing it, and seeing Vic deal with the death of Shane and his family and Ronnie's incarceration. It was pretty great to watch. But I don't want to tell the audience how to feel about it.
TVGuide.com: Is it true that you've always known what the end of the series was going to be?
Ryan: Not true.
TVGuide.com: Then did you ever consider killing Vic?
Ryan: We considered a lot of things. Ultimately, I felt that if I was true to the character, that Vic is a survivor, so he found a way to survive, albeit stripped of so many of the things he loves. So I wouldn't call it a victory. I also read a lot about dirty cops, and there's always one that ends up better off than the others, the one who cuts the deal. It just made sense to me that Vic, with all his savvy, would find a way at least to escape jail and to escape death.
TVGuide.com: What were some of the alternatives you considered?
Ryan: The writers and I — it's very collaborative — we investigated everything from Vic on the run, having to leave the country, to Vic being incarcerated, to Vic going out in a hail of gunfire with the city portraying him a hero. Ultimately, I don't think it's good to pick the ending you want; I want the story to lead me to it. Where we ended is what felt most comfortable to us.
TVGuide.com: Was it a goal to make Vic Mackey sympathetic? Does it bother you that people root for Vic?
Ryan: No, but that did happen. It doesn't bother me if they do or don't root for him. Listen, I just want them to watch the show and for them to take it seriously and for it to have an effect them. Michael Chiklis said it best during the first season. He had two friends over to watch the pilot, and one guy argued that Vic Mackey was the most horrible human being alive, and the other thought he was great. And that's when he said, "Well, this show might work." I always thought it was important to find a balance in Vic. There were a lot of aspects to him, some were positive and some were negative. I think people sympathize with him is because he comes off as human. And when that kind of character is played by Michael Chiklis, who is naturally likable, who brings a natural sympathy, I understand why people are drawn to him.
TVGuide.com: Just before Vic began his long confession to Agent Murray, there was perhaps one of the longest pauses in TV history. How was that scripted?
Ryan: I actually timed it the other night: 42 seconds! Well, we just said "long pause" [in the script], but I talked to Billy Gerhart, the director of that episode, about taking his time with it. It has taken seven seasons to get him to say these things. He has done everything he can for the previous 86 episodes not to say these words, so this cannot be easy. That's something fun, when you have a show that moves at such a breakneck pace as ours did most of the time, and then you decide to slow down for something like that. It has the potential to have a wonderful impact.
TVGuide.com: Did you ever have any hesitations about killing a character?
Ryan: Absolutely. Certainly when Kenny Johnson's character, Lem, got a grenade in his lap at the end of Season 5, that was a real tough one. There's a tendency when you like these people — and I like Kenny and Walton [Goggins] and Michele Hicks — to just keep what you have going. But I have a responsibility to do what's best for the show. I always gave these things a lot of thought. These people became family members in a sense. When you kill somebody, you're essentially taking them out of a job. Fortunately, Kenny got a gig very quickly on Saving Grace, so that made us all feel better about it. And he was a real mensch, and understood the need to do it story-wise.
TVGuide.com: I'm guessing it's no accident that Vic's family is relocated to Rockford, Ill. [Ryan's hometown].
Ryan: It's not. Did you figure that out? It's just such a typical town that you would send people to. It's just big enough to have big-city problems, but small enough to not have big-city advantages.
TVGuide.com: Do you see The Shield's fingerprints on other basic-cable shows that have come after it?
Ryan: Yes, I do, but I know how this answer might read. I want to say that that movement was about to happen, and it would have happened without The Shield, maybe a little later. It's important for me to acknowledge that it's not just by the grace of The Shield that all this happened. We got very fortunate with our timing. All that said, what we did was put a show on the air that a lot of people thought was the creative equivalent of a network show, but we were doing it for not much money at all. We were making a show that was very, very fiscally responsible. And that's the thing, in my opinion, that caused AMC, Sci Fi, TNT, and TBS to really ramp up their production. Because, all of a sudden, if your costs are lower, then the ratings don't need to be quite as high to justify it being a success. I see the fingerprints on a show like Battlestar Galactica. I know that they used us as a model economically. Now, creatively, they're their own show, and I love that show, but I think it was seeing how The Shield could work that made people think that Battlestar, Mad Men and The Closer could work.
TVGuide.com: Do you have a favorite season or storyline?
Ryan: I'm very fond of this final season, but I would also say that Season 5 with Forest Whitaker, which culminated in Lem's death, is about as well as we as a group could tell a story. Those episodes really hold up tremendously.
TVGuide.com: I know the show was partially based on true events, but is there a book or movie that was an inspiration or touchstone for you?
Ryan: Again, I realize how this is about to read, but over the last two or three years of the show, John Landgraf, who runs F/X, really encouraged me to think of the show in Shakespearean terms. He knows it better than I do, but we would talk about Macbeth and Hamlet, and these moments of self-reflection of these doomed characters late in these plays, and was there a way to bring that to episodic television? Now, Shakespeare is Shakespeare and The Shield is The Shield, but that was something that we looked at and thought about. He encouraged us to think of a TV show in grand terms like that.
TVGuide.com: What do you watch on TV?
Ryan: I watch a lot of comedies: The Office and 30 Rock. I'm a big fan of Lost. I like Mad Men. I watched Battlestar on DVD. And then I watch a lot of sports.
TVGuide.com: Is it true you weren't on set when they filmed the finale?
Ryan: Yeah, they started filming the finale on the first day of the writers' strike. One thing I want to make clear is that I was never one who spent a lot of time on set during the filming anyway. I enjoyed stopping by, but it wasn't like I was a regular presence, and then during the strike, completely disappeared. Really it was more ceremonial; I wasn't able to be there to say good-bye.
TVGuide.com: Do you have any kind of epilogue in your head? Like, where are these characters five or 10 years after the end of the show?
Ryan: Not at the moment, I'm not sure I'll ever need to have an idea. We'll see. If there ever comes an opportunity to consider these characters after the finale, we'll think about it. It would most likely be a feature film. I loved the show and that world so much, I wouldn't want to completely close the door on that, but I would only do it for the best creative reasons.
TVGuide.com: What's next for you? Is it true you're working on a sitcom?
Ryan: Yes, I'm writing a comedy for Fox called Millionaires' Club, about a group of five people living in Pittsburgh who are all dissatisfied with their lives, and all feel, rightly or wrongly, that the solution is money. So they try to come up with a get-rich-quick scheme to change their lives. But they have difficulty. It's more about their inactions together. I call it "a desperation comedy." They're expecting a script from me within the next couple of weeks.
TVGuide.com: Would you ever consider writing a screenplay?
Ryan: Yeah, I am doing that too, something very different for me, a teenage coming-of-age film produced by James L. Brooks, who is shepherding and mentoring me. It's called Long Pine. I was always affected by films like Diner, Say Anything..., Dazed and Confused and Metropolitan, so this is my attempt at such a thing.
TVGuide.com: Any message for the fans?
Ryan: Only that there is no show without the fans. I'm appreciative of everyone who has watched, and I hope that the finale lived up to their expectations.
So... did it? Tell us what you thought in the comments.
Read the full recap of The Shield's finale.