Shawn Ryan: "I Don't Want to Be a Dinosaur"

Ryan got bad news from Fox Tuesday about his critically acclaimed cop show. He talks to Maria Elena Fernandez about the tabloidization of the TV business.

05.11.11 7:51 PM ET

As the broadcast networks decide on their new schedules, some people get good news, and some get bad news. Shawn Ryan, one of Hollywood's most respected TV writers and producers, was getting ready for dinner Tuesday night when Fox President of Entertainment Kevin Reilly called him. His freshman drama, The Chicago Code, was being canceled, just six months after FX put an end to his other series, Terriers. Ryan, who took the news like a trooper, is already looking to a future that might possibly merge his gritty, realistic sensibility with gossip magazine fodder.

It's such a shame. The Chicago Code was a good show.

I thought we had a good run and I'm really proud of the last two episodes that are still to air. It's a very tough time in the TV biz right now. And the days of just worrying about the quality of the show and being able to be super patient and giving it a couple of years to grow... those days are gone. All you can do is try your best and make the shows as good as you can. And you're just at the mercy of the viewing public.

How have you been spending the day today?

I found out around dinner time last night that the show had been canceled so I had enough time to send emails out to the actors, and the writers, and the crew so that they heard it from me first. So I didn't have a lot of time to call everyone. So I've been spending a lot of time today just trying to call everyone and thank them for their work and everything.

How exactly did you hear?

I got a call directly from [Fox President of Entertainment]] Kevin Reilly. He's a class act and I appreciated hearing directly from him and hearing some of his reasoning. He and I go way back and have a lot of respect for each other. That was a class act on his part to call me directly.

We had just turned in a document last week that talked about what we imagined happening on Season 2. And we had turned it in earlier that day. So I thought Kevin was calling to talk about that document and I was ready to go into sales mode. Instead, he quickly and with a very clean cut, delivered the bad news.

“I think there is a change going on in the TV landscape right now—not necessarily all for the best.”

Did he even read that document?

He actually liked it quite a bit.

What was his reasoning for the cancellation then?

It was about burrowing really deep into the numbers. There was a concern about the age of the viewers of this show. It's very difficult to make a show skew younger. If they were to grow the show, they would have to grow it younger. It is what it is.

It's interesting. It's given me a lot to think about going forward. It's such a tabloid age that we live in. And there seems to be this psychic connection between some of the more successful shows and the tabloid nature of them. You know, the way that Dancing With the Stars, and Jersey Shore and even Glee to a certain extent. The shows almost serve to sell magazines and the magazines almost serve to advertise the shows, if that makes sense. And The Chicago Code wasn't that kind of show. It wasn't a tabloid-friendly kind of show. We took the subject matter seriously and we presented it the best way we could. But people have a lot of options and it just didn't break through.

Were you surprised with the decision?

I was clinging to that hope as well. I had given ourselves a 40 percent chance of being picked up in my own mind. So I can't say that I was shocked but I was holding on to some significant hope that we would get the benefit of the doubt. But we didn't.

Is there any chance you might resurrect it elsewhere?

I was talking to some of the 20th people today and there are conversations happening today to see if there's a possibility. Those moves are always difficult. So I wouldn't say it's likely but I'm sure we'll investigate all possibilities.

What's next for you? Do you even know?

I do have one more thing in the Fox family, which is a pilot for FX that one of my Chicago Code writers, Davey Holmes, is writing. That's being developed under my deal and we'll probably turn in a script to FX within the next month and see where that goes.

And then I start a new deal with Sony on June 1 that will allow me to develop in the cable and network arenas. And if we can't find a savior for Chicago Code, this will be the first extended period of time I've had in a long time without a show either in production or prep, so I'll use that time to re-charge myself artistically and try to come up with some new ideas.

You talked about how the business is changing. It's hard to even picture, considering the kinds of shows that you've done, but do you envision getting yourself to a creative place where you can do a show that US Weekly is going to care about?

(Laughs) I don't know. You can't achieve much success chasing what you think works in a crass manner. I still will approach these things from what is the story I'd love to tell and what's the story I'd love to work seven years on? Having said that, I do want to open my mind. I think there is a change going on in the TV landscape right now—not necessarily all for the best. But it is going on and I don't want to be a dinosaur that's stuck in his ways and can't evolve with the industry. So I'll spend a lot of time looking around at what is working and the things that didn't work and opening my mind to see what comes out of it.

Considering what's happened, you don't sound like you've got your head in the sand.

This is just my Midwestern upbringing. I try not to get too big-headed when things are going well and I try not to get too depressed when things aren't going well. I've come to accept that I can only control the things I can control. In the case of both Terriers and The Chicago Code, I am very proud creatively of both those shows and the fact that we didn't get enough audience to get a second season for either, is very disappointing. But I tend to feel worse for the actors and the crews on those two shows who did great work because I know I'm going to get a lot of other opportunities to work on other things. So I feel more compassion for them than I feel sorry for myself.

To have had the critical and commercial success that I did with The Shield, I always knew in the back of my head, going forward, that not every experience was going to be like that. I always knew there would be big disappointments along the way. So I've prepped myself for years for the idea that I'm not necessarily the golden child where everything I touch turns to magic. So a night like last night, I can approach it logically and understand that as disappointing as that it is, it presents an opportunity to do new things. And even if we came back, we would have immediately been in the bubble and in the same position. So I tell myself, this is an opportunity to do something bigger and better.

You know. I shared a building a couple of years ago with Chris Lloyd and Steve Levitan and I remember talking to them when Back to You was canceled by Fox. And they took that opportunity to re-group and they came up with Modern Family, which is a huge success on every level. So I'll try to use them as an inspiration of how they rebounded back from a disappointing cancellation to create something that was really relevant and successful. And we'll see if we can do something like that.

There are two episodes left of The Chicago Code. Are fans going to be frustrated when it's over, or will there some kind of closure?

I don't want to give away too much but I don't think people will be frustrated. We wanted to have an ending of sorts. We were prepared, certainly, for the story to continue to Season 2. But I think fans of the show will like these two episodes quite a bit.

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Maria Elena Fernandez is a senior entertainment reporter for Newsweek/The Daily Beast. She previously covered television and nightlife for The Los Angeles Times and spent many years on the crime beat, writing for The Washington Post and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She also worked at the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, where she covered the AIDS epidemic. Her children's book, The Secret of Fern Island , was published in 1996 under a pseudonym so that she wouldn't be stalked by screaming children.