Shawn Ryan remembers well the furor that erupted when "NYPD Blue" premiered in 1993.
Ryan, the creator of FX's new gritty police drama, "The Shield," is from Rockford, Ill., home to one of the numerous ABC affiliates that initially refused to air "NYPD Blue" due to its bedroom scenes, violence and nudity. Station managers, religious leaders and several advertisers felt the show went too far.
"Rockford was a very religious town, and I remember talking to my mother there about how appalled people were in just thinking about [how] such a show could be on the air," Ryan said. "It's scary to think of a time that a whole part of the country could not watch a show that was so wonderful, especially in its first season."
What a difference nearly a decade makes.
"NYPD Blue" has become a popular mainstay of the television landscape, its content now barely raising an eyebrow. Meanwhile, Ryan is waiting for reaction to "The Shield," whose premiere makes that first episode of "NYPD Blue" look like a Disney movie, featuring brash treatment of sex, violence and nudity that may be unprecedented for a network partly supported by advertisers. (As a cable channel, FX also receives fees from cable subscribers.)
Moreover, the show--which is being shot in Los Angeles--cultivated its own brief controversy by beginning life under the working title "Rampart," a clear reference to the LAPD scandal involving police corruption. The producers changed the name when LAPD officials raised objections, and Ryan said the series has no connection to the Rampart scandal or real police situations.
Still, there are other elements of "The Shield" that might prompt concerns from law enforcement professionals.
In one scene of the pilot, Det. Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis) is called in to "interrogate" a child molester who refuses to disclose the whereabouts of a girl he's kidnapped. Using coarse sexual language, the detective teases the suspect before taking a box opener, phone book, a bottle of liquor and other items out of a paper bag and proceeding to brutalize him--with the approval of his superiors.
In the second episode, a rookie with strong religious convictions is persuaded to take part in a ritual called "The B&B," in which he is taken to a bar for pitchers of beer, followed by a sexual encounter with a prostitute.
Ryan was surprised by FX's interest in his pilot script, which revolves around an elite cop unit with an outlaw attitude: "I thought it was a show that no one would make. The subject matter is too dark. The main character does something really despicable. The rough language is essential. I thought it would just be a spec script that I could show to get other work."
Saying that it turns conventional TV police drama on its head, FX executives are optimistic "The Shield"--the network's first original weekly drama--will establish a brand identity for the network that will place it between the edgy sensibility of its sister Fox network and the bolder, no-holds-barred fare on HBO and Showtime.
"I hope that now the country is ready for a show that pushes boundaries and challenges adults who don't want to pay $16 a month for this kind of entertainment," Ryan said.
FX officials acknowledge that they are a bit nervous about how audiences--and police officers--will respond to "The Shield's" crass language and depiction of cops who break the law to keep the peace.
"We're pushing into territory that is very risky," said FX President Kevin Reilly. "This is not a show that is going to appeal to everyone. There will be some sensitivities bruised. We don't ever expect Johnson & Johnson or PG&E to buy commercials on this show."
He added with a chuckle, "But we're a cable network. We wouldn't be doing our job if we weren't offending somebody."
According to Ryan, being shocking or offensive is the last thing on his mind. "I'm not throwing 25 curse words just so I can get 10 in. I know what we can and can't do," he said. "There are certain areas we stay away from. There are times when the network feels we've gone too far, and I have to defend that material. If I can't defend it well enough, then we shouldn't be allowed to do it."
In the fictional police division depicted in "The Shield," extramarital affairs, racial insults, off-color pranks, references to oral sex and X-rated initiation rites are routine. The tightly bonded brotherhood of detectives is not above beating up criminals or infringing on a suspect's civil rights. And some department higher-ups look the other way as long as the crime rate goes down.
At the center of the drama is Chiklis' leader of the Strike Team unit, whose shaven head and solidly husky build illustrate his bulldog approach to his work. Mackey's effectiveness at his job and friendship with criminal elements is clouded by a malevolence that finds him butting heads with his commanding officer, Capt. David Aceveda (Benito Martinez), as well as perps.