Shawn Ryan moves on from Terriers and The Shield to create The Chicago Code, a cop drama where the lead characters are actually the good guys.
Written by Dylan Callaghan
Shawn Ryan was no doubt hurt by the cancellation of his critically raved, freshman FX crime comedy Terriers, but he’s not pausing to mourn. The Shield creator was quickly thrust into production on his new cop drama The Chicago Code, which Fox picked up last May.
There are no Detective Vic Mackey’s in the new show, none of the moral muddle that so defined Ryan’s award-winning controversial show about corrupt police officers The Shield. Chicago Code is classic cop drama in the sense that, despite a few eccentricities and flaws, the characters, including Teresa Colvin, Chicago’s first ever female police superintendent (Jennifer Beals) and her ex-partner, tough guy crime stopper Jarek Wysocki (Jason Clarke), are fundamentally the kind of cops a viewer can root for without shame.
Plus, the show explores the underutilized city of Chicago, a town Ryan personally knows well, having grown up in the Land of Lincoln.
He spoke with the Writers Guild of America, West Web site about how watching TV helps his own writing, why The Shield wasn’t really a cop show, and how, at the end of the day, no matter the genre, it’s characters that matter.
When you’re dealing with a genre that is so well-known, how much more important does it become to have strong characters?
They become everything. If you don’t have somebody that you want to follow or root for, if you don’t have a couple villains that are worth hating, there are just too many options these days for people’s entertainment time so you’ve got find something that really stands out and grabs them. Everyone’s trying to do it. It’s easy to talk about doing it. It’s tough to actually do it.
Are there any particular lessons you’ve come to learn about that mysterious alchemy of making characters that work, that grab people?
Photo: © 2011 Broadcasting Co.
Jennifer Beals and Jason Clarke in The Chicago Code.
Well, I’m a big fan of TV. I watch a lot of TV. So one of my basic rules is to try very hard not to do anything that seems similar to what I’ve seen. Now, you can’t watch everything, so sometimes there will be some similarities. But you’ve just gotta take that extra hour, that extra afternoon, that extra day in the writer’s room to come up with that thing that didn’t initially come to mind.
It’s more hard work than genius. It’s just having that meter in your head that says, “This feels kind of standard,” or “This feels fresh and different.” If it feels standard and stale, you keep working until you come up with something better. So it’s more trial and error than it is having genius ideas the first time you sit down and talk about an episode.
A lot of sending stuff back.
We constantly investigate things, reject them, write pages, rewrite them, reconceive them. I say all the time that I wish I was smart enough to know immediately if a story will work, but sometimes you need to see it in script form before you know it doesn’t work. And that can have nothing to do with the execution of the pages, even if they’re written well you can realize that something isn’t as compelling you thought it would be when we were conceiving it.
The Chicago Code was a 13-episode order, but we probably came up with 18 episodes worth of scripts and stories and then culled it down to the stuff that actually worked.
I spoke to Kurt Sutter about his show Sons of Anarchy, and he said that on The Shield, he thought you always had an idea of how Vic would wind up and that you had things planned out from the beginning. How much do you map out your season arc and how much do you let unfold as you go?
In this case, because of the nature of where I was last May when the show was picked up – I had two shows in production at that point, Lie to Me was just wrapping up and Terriers was fully in production, and then I was scrambling to finish post-production on the pilot for The Chicago Code – I really did not have a lot of time to map out where season one would go.
I had some notions of where I wanted to go, but really it was just assembling the writers I wanted. And I don’t like to have too many ideas before bringing in the writers, because you’re hiring writers for their smarts and their different perspectives. So if you hire them and then have everything mapped out and just tell them where we’re gonna go, you may not get the best work out of them because they’re gonna be recreating what they think you want. But if they get involved in the creative birth of the show, they feel an emotional and creative investment in it, and you get the best work out of them. This was very much a joint, team effort.
The morally nebulous world of The Shield is something you really mastered and had a lot of fun with. How does it feel to be back in the cop genre, but this time, with actual good guys?
It feels comfortable. In many ways, The Shield wasn’t a police show. Parts of it were, but the parts involving the strike team were much more of a crime show. So a lot of the stories we told there were way outside the genre of a traditional police show. So I kind of feel like there’s a lot of room for me to do things I haven’t done before in the police genre.
And it’s nice to like your main characters and to really root for them wholeheartedly. I would find myself rooting for Vic and company as a lot of fans would, but you kind of feel a little dirty doing it. In this case, our characters still have flaws and foibles, they don’t always get along, and there’s a lot of conflict, and yet ultimately you root for them on their journey, and I like that.