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PRIME-TIME TV

It's time to put down his 'Shield'

Shawn Ryan got worn out by the FX series and strike demands. Ready to rest? No, just move on.

August 24, 2008|Maria Elena Fernandez | Times Staff Writer

There were times several months ago, when the writers strike was roaring, that Shawn Ryan was channeling Vic Mackey. Ryan, who created TV's ferocious, all-in-one good-cop-bad-cop, isn't anything like the lead character of "The Shield." But, as Mackey has proven through six seasons, everyone has his limits.

Ryan found himself reaching his while serving on the Writers Guild's negotiating committee. Like everyone else on the picket line, he had a lot riding on the negotiations. When he stopped working, the fate of his moderately rated CBS drama "The Unit" hung in the balance; "The Oaks," a pilot he was producing for Fox, was shot without his supervision; and the series finale of "The Shield," the cop drama that turned Ryan into one of the medium's most prominent producers and launched FX as a destination for cutting-edge original programming, also was filmed without him. Many of his peers would later say they wouldn't have had the fortitude to make the same sacrifices.

"There was the temptation to go Vic Mackey if they didn't solve this real soon," Ryan recalled recently, in his office on the Fox lot, where he produces "The Unit" and awaits the Sept. 2 premiere of the last season of "The Shield. "But instead, I spent a lot of time talking to people who are a lot smarter than me about what do we do now?

"It was a real education for me," said the 41-year-old father of two. "I learned about the companies that run this business, and politics, leverage and power. It was interesting to see how a group of lawyers treated the likes of Carlton Cuse ("Lost") and Marc Cherry ("Desperate Housewives") and Neal Baer ("Law & Order: SVU") and Carol Mendelsohn ("CSI: Crime Scene Investigation") and people who have created properties that have made those companies so much money. I didn't think it was right."

Right and wrong: The distinction is, to put it mildly, blurry for Mackey, who manages to be a hero and an antihero simultaneously, committing the most heinous acts imaginable while eliciting compassion from viewers. For Ryan, who "grew up with Midwest values and always knew his parents loved him," it comes naturally to play by the rules, said his wife, Cathy Cahlin Ryan, who portrays Mackey's ex-wife on the show.

But show runners were in a tough predicament during the strike: Pencils down meant no writing; did it also mean not producing? No editing? Ryan says he thought about it for a few days and concluded that editing is intrinsic to writing and he chose not to work at all, even though it meant not being present as "The Shield" filmed its 88th and final episode, which will air in November.

"I think I learned more about myself in that stretch of time than I did in the previous five or six years because life had gone very well for me up until that point," Ryan said. "It was a real test: Are you prepared to lose something for the right cause? Essentially, in my mind, it became a question of, 'Can I show the same kind of resolve that I would demand from a character that I was writing?' Ultimately, I decided that it wasn't that big of a tragedy in the grand scheme of things that I didn't get to go to 'The Shield' for the finale. I come from a place, Rockford, Ill., where people do a lot tougher things than that. It seems like a silly thing to whine about."

They filmed, he picketed

Considering the thousands of people who were out of jobs as a result and the impact on the local economy, point taken. With Michael Chiklis, the star and also a producer, and director Clark Johnson at the helm, the cast and crew filmed the last episode as Ryan and his writers picketed outside of Prospect Studios in Los Feliz.

"I was sad," said Chiklis, who says he is still going through a depression over the ending of the series that allowed him to reinvent himself from the roly-poly "Commish" to the bald, buffed and menacing Mackey. "We still finished it the way we set out to, but what was miss- ing was the familial aspect. We weren't together to do it, and that was disappointing because we've been such a great team during the entire run of the series."

Ryan's willingness to give up what was sure to be one of his career highlights did not surprise the people who know him. "Look at the way he approached the final season: He took the time to watch every episode that had been made in the first six seasons," said John Landgraf, president and general manager of FX Networks. "That's just really rare for someone to approach his work with such humility and seriousness and attention to detail. That does not come from ambition. It comes from integrity."

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