09.07.10

The Shield Creator's New Act

Eight years ago, Shawn Ryan changed cable TV with his gonzo cop show, The Shield. But with the stakes higher now, can his new show—less violent, awkward name—live up to it?

Eight years ago, Shawn Ryan changed cable TV with his gonzo cop show, The Shield. But with the stakes higher now, can his new show—less violent, awkward name—live up to it? By Jace Lacob

The success of both cable network FX and writer/producer Shawn Ryan seems inexorably intertwined. When Ryan burst onto the scene in 2002 with ultra-violent cop drama The Shield, he ushered in an age of high-quality drama—an era of antiheroes and amoral protagonists—and a new approach towards original cable programming.

At the time, FX was yet another cable network overflowing with off-network repeats and sanitized movies. But with The Shield, FX became an improbable major player in the original-programming business, and Ryan himself became the go-to guy for compelling, challenging fare.

“I feel obligated to deliver results for them… They’re looking for home runs and those are really hard to find.”

Eight years later, Ryan is coming off of a successful run on Fox’s Lie to Me, the Tim Roth-led procedural drama about a human lie detector (which has been picked up for a third season, though Ryan has moved on), and has two new series in the works: Fox midseason drama Ride-Along and FX’s Terriers, which launches tonight.

“There’s really no better creative situation than FX these days,” said Ryan, speaking to The Daily Beast in late August. “They have enough shows and enough experience where they know what they’re doing, and yet few enough shows that they can give you the attention you deserve… At a place like FX, you can take your characters into occasionally unlikable areas and do a lot of things you can’t do with a [broadcast] network.”

Ryan knows a thing or two about pushing characters into some compromising and shocking territory, thanks to The Shield, which redefined what was possible to pull off on basic cable.

On the surface, the quirky Terriers couldn’t be more different than The Shield. The 13-episode Terriers, created by Ted Griffin ( Ocean’s Eleven), a close friend of Ryan’s who had written an episode of The Shield back in 2006, follows two unlicensed private investigators, perpetually immature ex-cop Hank Dolworth ( Life’s Donal Logue) and best friend Britt Pollack ( True Blood’s Michael Raymond-James), who become entangled in a nasty scandal that’s far too high-reaching for these low-end PIs.

The PIs of Terriers might seem dramatically at odds with The Shield’s morally bankrupt Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis), a Los Angeles police officer and a brutal thug who was not above theft, drug trafficking, and murder even as he attempted to take down murderous gang members.

With Terriers’ Hank and Britt, Ryan and Griffin don’t offer successors to Mackey’s throne of skulls. The hapless investigators live in a far different world than Mackey and his Machiavellian methods. But sunny Ocean Beach casts shadows of its own, and the violence that erupts in Terriers is all the more shocking and explosive as a result. A missing girl—the daughter of Hank’s old drinking buddy—leads to a case involving a powerful real estate developer, a revealing video, and a savage murder.

What emerges is a series vastly different than The Shield but one that deals in the darkness of everyday life just the same. Hank and Britt might not burn a drug trafficker’s face on a kitchen stove (as, yes, Mackey once gruesomely did on The Shield.) Their tactics are somewhat less sadistic—the most awful thing they do in the pilot is kidnap a dog—but they become enmeshed in a conspiracy that’s troubling in a different way.

The result is a show that seems tailor-made for FX, a mix of light and dark, comedy and violence that’s perhaps less mainstream and more highbrow than, say, a USA dramedy like Burn Notice. There’s a winning chemistry between the leads and an indie craftsman-like spirit to Terriers that audiences will find refreshing. That is, if they can get past that title.

Complicating FX’s marketing, Terriers conjures up an image of, say, middle-aged dog breeders rather than private investigators. But Ryan said that it suits the scrappy show—whose tagline is “Too small to fail”—and what was meant to be a temporary name ended up sticking.

“As someone who’s now lived with the title for 15 months or so, I like it,” Ryan said. “We could have been more on the nose and called ourselves Beach PI’s or something. Hopefully, it won’t be an impediment to people watching the show.”

Let’s hope not, as there’s a lot riding on this for Ryan and more pressure than there was when he was launching The Shield. With two shows in the works for this season, Ryan has the opportunity to seize control of his destiny, but there are also more eyes on him than ever.

“One of the great things with The Shield was I was a nobody when we started it and there really was no pressure,” said Ryan. “It was a network that nobody gave a crap about. It was a show that that nobody gave a crap about. It was a group of actors that nobody gave a crap about, and we were able to embrace that underdog status and run with it for seven years.”

“With the success of The Shield now, I am no longer an anonymous foreigner,” he continued. “Failure would certainly be more spectacular now than if The Shield had failed… I feel obligated to deliver results for them… They’re looking for home runs and those are really hard to find.”

Should audiences be able to look past the scrappy title, they’ll find one. And those that are looking for something closer to The Shield can also mark their calendars for the midseason launch of Ryan’s own creation, Ride-Along, a riveting Chicago-set police drama that stars Jason Clarke ( Brotherhood), Jennifer Beals ( Lie to Me), and Delroy Lindo ( Kidnapped), among others. Revolving around the first female police commissioner in Chicago (Beals) and a dogged detective (Clarke), the ensemble drama seems to be yet another police procedural, until the plot takes a unexpected turn, shining a spotlight on far-reaching corruption in the political infrastructure and giving the series a taut throughline.

Despite the fact that Ride-Along is airing on broadcast television—Ryan’s last project for the networks was CBS’ military drama The Unit, created by David Mamet—the show seems to be produced rather like one would a cable project, with all 13 episodes shot ahead of time.

“I really do like being able to make these episodes in a kind of a vacuum,” said Ryan. “We can focus on the work and not worry about premieres or the actors having to do a lot of press now.”

Ryan isn’t resting on his laurels, must as Terriers’ Hank and Britt might do, if they were Hollywood showrunners, “I still feel driven to try to make great shows and to make each episode great,” he said. “I don't ever want to have a weak episode of television with my name on it… There’s room to go up, but there’s a lot of room to fall down. Everyone in Hollywood goes through it. Everyone in Hollywood who is successful becomes less successful at some point. I’m just trying to delay that fall for as long as I can.”

It’s impossible that Ryan’s fall will come anytime soon, certainly not with Terriers and Ride-Along to add to his vast resume.

“I feel like we pulled it off with Terriers; it’s really good from episode one through 13,” he said, laughing. “ Ride-Along is still in the early stages. There’s still plenty of time to screw it up.”

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Jace Lacob is the writer/editor of Televisionary, a website devoted to television news, criticism, and interviews. Jace resides in Los Angeles. He is a contributor to several entertainment Web sites and can be found on Twitter and Facebook.