Saying good-bye to The Barn: Chatting up The Shield's Shawn Ryan as series finale nears
Over the past several years, TV fans have been fortunate enough to be able to say a proper good-bye to some of the medium's finest dramas ever made. Alias, The Wire, The West Wing, The Sopranos, and Six Feet Under have all bowed out within the past four years, and the list could go on. They all got "endings" - whether you liked them or not. However, none of them (save for The Wire and for entirely different reasons) were as consistently riveting as Vic Mackey's exploits on FX's The Shield.
Since the seventh and final season began airing, FX has sent critics the first 11 episodes. So, despite the fact that I've been in the know, I've tried to avoid sounding like "I have a secret" in my episode reviews. Still, I was in the dark like everyone else when it came to how it all ends. So imagine my glee when I received an invite last month to attend a screening of the show's final two installments followed by a Q&A with Shield creator Shawn Ryan.
Along with a handful of other critics, I arrived for what turned into a mini-TCA session. However, before you read on, rest assured that what follows in no way spoils anything major about the final two episodes, but rather is about The Shield as a whole. I thought I had reached a pinnacle when I interviewed Walton Goggins - I was wrong. Following the screening, Ryan sat down and just started talking Shield. It was like being witness to the taping of a commentary for a DVD release. He made a point of saying how uneasy the show's finale makes him feel:
"This has been the longest ending ever. This show has been ending for me for a year [partly due to the WGA strike]. Between writing the final script, filming it, editing it, and it's airing, I mean it's obviously been a special show for me and it's nervousness, even knowing what's coming."
We then jumped right into the previous seasons as Ryan spouted off anecdotes, jokes, and tidbits that only an insider could know. During the strike, he actually picketed his own set one day so he could see his wife (Cathy Cahlin Ryan, who plays Corinne) film her last scene! One of his favorite episodes is season one's "Cupid and Psycho!" The Shield and Grey's Anatomy were on the same lot and McDreamy's house is where The Barn used to be! Did I mention this was heaven?
Without saying what, you'll find out one thing about Vic in the penultimate episode, "Possible Kill Screen" (airs tomorrow, 11/18, at 10PM ET on FX). Something so basic that you'll be amazed when you realize that you didn't know it already. However, that little bit of info really speaks to the basis of the show as a whole and this world that viewers were dropped into on that fateful night when Vic put a bullet in Terry Crowley's face. Except for the season two installment, "Co-Pilot," we know very little about the dark cave Vic Mackey crawled out of. When asked about the lack of info, Ryan stated that when it came to crafting his characters on The Shield, he simply followed a little bit of advice he got from David Mamet: "backstory is bullshit."
Yet for someone who we know so little about, as fans, we've never questioned Vic's ability to achieve ... well ... anything. While the comparisons between Vic Mackey and Jack Bauer are endless (24 premiered in 2001 as well), Ryan said that he agreed with 24's similar style of refraining from showing the main character involved in everyday, "mundane shit" - sleeping, doing laundry, etc. Ryan's reasoning related to why he thought The Shield was different from The Sopranos:
"... if there's one reason I avoided those kinds of stories, it's that I don't think I can tell those kinds of stories as well as David Chase. I can't tell the ... but it's not my strong suit, you know, the let's talk over making a sandwich and in three minutes we're going to have subtle inferences that lead to minor discoveries of each other ... The show was always about cops and only occasionally would you see the people outside those lives."
You have to appreciate an executive producer who's so willing to tell you what he isn't good at, and it's even more impressive to see how he used that humility to make the show better. While Ryan admitted that he takes credit for not letting the show get "bigger" after season one's awards success (Ryan believes that The Shield actually got "less outrageous" over the span of the series), he didn't hesitate to give credit to those who helped him achieve the goal of crafting a show that even he admitted could be dense:
"I'm the first one to say that you have to have a talented group of writers. You know it's hard to write an entire TV season or series and if you're not David E. Kelley or Aaron Sorkin, you can't do it ... but I can't, and the writing staff I had was just fantastic ... you had to come up with so much plot for each episode. A lot of times we'd come up with an idea for what Vic does, and then we'd make that the thing that he tries and then it doesn't work. So we'd have to come up with three different things."
Ryan said that for the life of the show, he would only hire script coordinators who were cult fans (so they knew if something in a plot seemed inconsistent) and often, his SCs were promoted to writers. If you look at the staff and consider where some of them are now (Kurt Sutter is the show-runner for Sons of Anarchy, Glen Mazzara is the EP for Starz's Crash, Adam Fierro wrote for 24 and is now on the Dexter staff -- the list goes on), it speaks volumes to the ensemble that crafted Vic's shenanigans.
Despite the fact that viewers know this never happened because each installment was nearly perfection, Ryan had no problem stressing that "he was deathly afraid of the show turning bad." Ryan, who wrote for Nash Bridges and Angel prior to The Shield, saw his FX drama as a vehicle to escape from those two shows and write something completely different - but he wanted it to be good:
"There's a real temptation to say, for whatever show you're working on, that you understand it better than you did at the beginning ... and that you've got it wired and that you can go home early that night and we just never went home early ... I never wanted to make a mediocre episode of the show, and I know that some were better than others, and I know that some were confused by the first five episodes [of this season] with all the machinations, although I would claim it still all makes sense and that you guys [viewers] love that complexity on The Wire. We tried not to settle."
Of course, that immediately spawned the question - why is The Shield different from The Wire? I mentioned earlier that I thought the two shows were equal but for different reasons, and Ryan was able to articulate it far better than I ever could have: "There's a heightened aspect to it, and there's the difference I think ... The Wire strives to be utterly sort of journalistic but I've always come from a place, as a TV fan, from looking for that cool, entertaining thing."
His point? Ryan wasn't saying The Wire isn't entertaining, but rather that it's completely believable, whereas The Shield, while it has moments that are borderline plausible, they're much closer to "entertainment TV" than to the "utter journalism" seen on The Wire. It's a really accurate distinction.
However, the two shows were extremely similar in that they both had an endless list of minor and supporting characters. Prior to production on season seven beginning, Ryan said he re-watched the first six seasons to try and determine which minor characters he wanted to revisit. We already saw Farrah (Mageina Tovah), Tavon (Brian J. White), Lester (Patrick St. Espirit), as well as many others. The finale features the return of André Benjamin's Huggins. You may remember him as the comic-book store owner in the season three finale. Wait'll you see what he's up to now.
Ryan said that during season six, bringing back Glenn Close was considered, but her filming schedule got in the way and then she got Damages. The same issues existed for Michael Peña, who played Shane's partner Army in season four. They wanted him, but his schedule never permitted it. Anthony Anderson was always at the top of the list, but Ryan said that they could never figure out the right reason to bring back Antwan. That's something I appreciate. As great as it can be to see a favorite character return, it's always lousy when it feels forced or isn't organic to the plot.
The one character Ryan regrets not being able to bring back? Diro Kesakhian (Franke Potente). She was busy filming Guerrilla (Steven Soderbergh's Che Guevara pic). Hence why we saw so much more Rezian instead.
If you think about it, the level of accuracy and attention to detail that needs to be adhered to when dealing with so many plots and so many characters must be mind-numbing. As I mentioned, Ryan gave credit to his staff, but he did say that he liked to go into a season with an idea of where he wanted to go and he even compared this final season to the fifth:
"In season five when we killed Lem, that was the plan from the beginning of the season but I told everyone I might pull away from it. I wanted freedom to not have to. I didn't want to paint myself in any corners and then just inevitably, it had to happen. In this case [season seven], we had areas we wanted to go to, but the moment you cut yourself off from doing something, you're limiting yourself in the writer's room I think. So it's good to have a plan, but you want that freedom to go off on side roads."
To me, that's been the beauty of season seven - all these little detours to seasons past that have been explored in each episode. So many other shows don't get to do that because they become so wrapped up in how it's going to end rather than exploring what it took to bring them to that point.
Also in attendance was FX President John Landgraf. Prior to the screening, Landgraf made it clear that he viewed The Shield as being "historically significant" and I'm inclined to agree with his assessment. Back in its early seasons, no other show on basic cable (and don't forget - this was 2001) pushed the limit (and language and content) in quite the same way as The Shield. However, Landgraf, who called Ryan "the original mold breaker," went on about why even something as great as The Shield had to come to an end. He acknowledged that Ryan had been writing towards an end since season four and was glad that the show wasn't going to be dragged out, but rather would exit at a creative peak.
However, the conversation kept coming back to Vic's ability to always get what he wanted, and Landgraf saw that as the impetus for needing closure. While Ryan agreed with needing an end, he argued that Vic's "luck" made sense, since as a cop, he was always dealing with roughly "the same 3% of people 97% of the time." Landgraf saw that as another reason to think about the direction the show was taking:
"That's why it had to end. It would have become The Dukes of Hazzard if it didn't ... was that what this show would turn into? Always getting away from Boss Hogg?" To which most of the room responded with a resounding, "would that be so bad?"
Perhaps it would have reached a point where Vic's endless luck became too much. At this point though, it doesn't matter because Vic Mackey has an ending. While it's going to be great to see why people agree or disagree with it, Ryan didn't appear to have reached that level of curiosity yet. He was still busy dealing with his own emotions:
"It's going to be sad to see that final episode air and know that it's completely over."
The series finale, "Family Meeting" airs next Tuesday, 11/25, at 10PM ET on FX. Be sure to double check your DVRs though, because it runs longer than an hour.