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Interview: Shawn Ryan

Shawn Ryan is one of the most prolific and busiest writer/producers in the business today. He has had a hand in some of the most beloved television series of the past couple of decades.

Shawn has created series like S.W.A.T., Timeless, The Shield, Last Resort and The Chicago Code. He has written for and produced series such as Nash Bridges, Terriers, The Unit and Mad Dogs. Timeless will air its 2-hour wrap-up movie this Thursday, December 20th at 8/7c.

Today, we sit down with Shawn to talk about the current season of his hit series S.W.A.T., we also talk about the second cancelation of his series Timeless and what the future may hold for the series and how working on Nash Bridges influenced his writing and work ethic.

Pop Culture Principle – Heading into the second season of S.W.A.T., did you already have the season mapped out in your head?

Shawn Ryan – We were able to get an early start on the second season. While we were doing the final five or six episodes of Season 1, we started planning the first six or so episodes of Season 2. We are going to be making 22 or 24 episodes of the show this year and its sort of impossible to have that all planned out, but we sort of had the first half of the season planned out in the Spring and when the show was officially picked up in May, we started pushing towards ideas for the middle and the final third of the season. We always knew places we wanted to go and storylines we wanted to tell with the characters, but also, we wanted to give ourselves some room to figure out new things along the way.

Pop Culture Principle – On many of your shows, you have this knack for being able to balance action, drama and comedy and S.W.A.T. is no different. Is that something you strive for when you are working on a series?

Shawn Ryan – Yea. I don’t always have action in my series, but a lot of the time I do. My mantra is always just to try to make things feel grounded and real. A lot of the times the subject matter is elevated and when you are dealing with a show like S.W.A.T., their job is to respond to big things, so the stories can feel big, but our intention is to treat them in grounded and realistic ways. Life can have action, life can have drama and life can have humor, so I like having all aspects of that in the show and I just want to treat them realistically and have it feel like life as much as it can.

Pop Culture Principle – Looking back at the first season of S.W.A.T., were there any lessons that you learned or anything that you didn’t get to do that you were looking forward to doing in Season 2?

Shawn Ryan – There isn’t anything that we didn’t get to do. Sony and CBS have been tremendous about letting us pursue the story paths we’ve wanted to pursue. I’ve learned dozens of lessons along the way from Season 1 in terms of what kinds of stories we can tell, what kind of B stories that we can tell. Because of the nature of the A stories that we tell, they are always time sensitive and that affects the types of B stories that we tell. I learned a lot about the strengths of our cast and what we can write for them and write towards them and that was great. We learned about that balance that we spoke of earlier. The first season of a show is always a big learning curve and you are trying to make it entertaining and you are learning along the way.

Pop Culture Principle – S.W.A.T. does a great job of balancing the team’s personal and professional lives. Was it important to you and the writers that you have that balance in the series?

Shawn Ryan – We want to get more and more into their personal lives. Doing a network television series that spans 22 or 24 episodes is different than making a ten-episode short season show on cable or streaming. You can take a little more time with the characters in terms of their personal stories and revealing things about them. We have storylines this season coming up that really get into Chris’ romantic life and Deacon’s financial difficulties trying to raise a big family. This season also gets into Luca’s attempt to mature and slow down a little bit and also Hondo’s frustration sometimes that for all his good intentions to change things for the better, things can be slow to change.

We want to dive deep into the characters and you have to be careful when you hope that a show is going to last five or six seasons, is you can’t blow through all the characters stories by the middle of Season 1 and have nothing left to discover about these characters. CBS could tell that we were looking to be a bit more serialized in our personal life stories and going into the second season, they thought that would be a good thing to do and encouraged us to follow those instincts. It’s really fun in the second season to see these stories kind of string together and see how our characters are changing as they go through them.

Pop Culture Principle – One of the underlying storylines was the off and on tension between Hondo and Deacon. Has that been resolved or will it come up again this season?

Shawn Ryan – I think Deacon has some ambition and there isn’t just one team at S.W.A.T. Just because they’ve aired it out and articulated it, it isn’t something that I would call settled. It’s not really an issue Hondo controls and I don’t think it’s something that Deacon resents Hondo for. It’s the circumstances that Deacon found himself in and I think in Season 2, we’ll see that he still has aspirations for more and we’ll see what happens with those aspirations.

Pop Culture Principle – We see at the beginning of Season 2 that Street is still a patrol officer. Why is it so hard for him to apologize to Hondo and do you feel Hondo is being fair?

Shawn Ryan – I would say that my thoughts will convey themselves on the screen. What I do love is that there are people on either side and there is this gray area where there are some people rooting for Street and some people who understand and appreciate Hondo’s point of view. What I will say is that when you deal with men who are in these high stress and high skilled position like their jobs, there is a lot of pride and ego involved and sometimes mean have a problem saying I’m sorry. So, that’s something that Street will probably have to figure out in time and Hondo is going to have to find some forgiveness in himself. The two of them are going to have to meet somewhere in the middle I would guess if things are going to work out.

What I do like is that I like that it’s not such a quick fix for Street. I like that he did something to compromise the team at the end of Season 1 and he lied to his team leader and that should not be the easiest thing to come back from. We’ll have to see him go through a crucible of sorts to see what is on the other side. I don’t want to give away what happens and we don’t want to be predictable, but I’m very proud of that storyline and it will play out over more of the season.

Pop Culture Principle – When you found out Timeless was coming back for a second season after cancelation, how did you approach writing the second season and did the initial cancelation have any effect on writing that season?

Shawn Ryan – Sure. It’s a fine line because there was some aspect of the show that didn’t work for enough people the first time. Having said that, we have this amazing and passionate fanbase that love what we do. So, the approach was to just focus on what we could control. Ultimately, you can’t control what your timeslot will be and how many people are going to watch you, but what you can control is how good the episodes are. We wanted to really focus on the emotion of the show and we wanted to focus on the core relationships.

We had a good idea of what made some stories work in Season 1 and others stories not work as well. I think Season 2 of Timeless is superior to Season 1 and I liked Season 1 of Timeless, but we did find a groove and we found a way to find these really great historical figures that we could tie into emotionally to what our characters were going through and really interesting aspects of the past.

Ultimately, we couldn’t get enough viewers for Season 3, but our fans were vocal and angry enough that it made NBC really want to give the fans an ending.

Pop Culture Principle – Will this be the definitive finale for the series or are you holding out hope for another miraculous renewal?

Shawn Ryan – What I’ve been saying and I’ve tried to be transparent and not trying to trick the fans, but this is it for the show on NBC. We’ve talked to other places and there were definitely some places that were interested in the show creatively and in the fanbase, but it’s an expensive show. To this point, we haven’t found the outlet that it works for creatively and financially and also at this point, the actor’s contracts are up.

How I’ve been viewing this because the fanbase is so passionate about Timeless, I compare it to Star Trek. Star Trek was a show that was considered ultimately a failure from a ratings perspective in the 1960s, but the fanbase kept it alive and ultimately revived it as a movie and television franchise.

Now, I’m not saying Timeless is going to be as big as Star Trek, but what I think is, we are going to make this 2-hour movie and we are going to air it. The series is going to live on digitally going forward on say Hulu or whatever. What’s really fascinating and wonderful about television now is that there are different forms of it. Not everything is a twenty-two-episode season. Maybe at some point there will be enough of an appetite for a four- or eight-episode sort of continuation or make a 2-hour movie to pick up things.

Timeless - Season 2

So, maybe this is the end. It is certainly the end for NBC. I believe in the quality of the show and maybe at some point, someone will say let’s do something more with Timeless. We will see.

Pop Culture Principle – Where you aware or did you have any idea of how influential and revolutionary The Shield would be?

Shawn Ryan – Certainly not when we were making the pilot or Season 1. I would say in the middle of the run of The Shield, I saw the effect of the series. I was more aware of the shows that inspired me, so I never think of The Shield as patient zero because to me, without Hill Street Blues and Oz and The Sopranos, The Shield would have never existed. I always tend to honor the shows that made me want to write The Shield. I’m always tickled pink when people talk about the effect The Shield had on other things. It’s not really for me to say how big or how small the effect was, but I do feel that The Shield has a place in the canon of television and in the evolution of television and I am proud of that.

Pop Culture Principle – Many critics and fans have praised the series finale. What made you decide to wrap up the series the way you did and why do you think the finale worked?

Shawn Ryan – We talked for months about where we wanted to go and the culmination of Shane’s storyline and Vic’s deal with ICE and that ending was the best one we had. We are proud of how the show ended and if I take your premise that the ending was successful is that one of the reasons why it was successful is that we were very adamant about staying true to our show to the very end. What I mean by that is that you can get caught up in the idea that the finale has to be much bigger, better and different. We tried to treat the finale like another episode. We knew some big things were going to happen, but we tried to keep the finale in the scope of what the show has always been.

I watched a lot of series finales of both dramas and sitcoms before doing the last season of The Shield and marked the ones that I admired and marked the ones that I thought had felt a little bit flat. At the time, a lot of the finales that I wasn’t a fan of were victims of trying too much too hard to be something different then what they did the whole time and the ones I admired the most, felt like part of the series and that’s what we tried to do.

I think one of the things that made this show stand out for some people is that there was no attempt to write a “happy ending” and a lot of series do that and there are series for which that is appropriate. For us, thinking about all the things that we had done over the years, we just tried to take our characters to their logical conclusion and I think there was a brutal honesty about that that people weren’t accustomed to always seeing. I think you are seeing it more now, but at the time it was rare I would say.

Pop Culture Principle – In today’s television landscape, revivals are big. Has there been any talk of bringing back The Shield and would you be interested in visiting that world again?

Shawn Ryan – It’s certainly something that Michael Chiklis has talked about and I have always tried to keep an open mind about the idea. I am of two minds. One, I think we ended it really well and, in that sense, it’s best to leave it where it is. Having said that, I have explored at times other corners of that universe that would be interesting to explore. It’s hard to say. I’m reluctant to say yes and I’m reluctant to say no. The thing I always tell Michael is if and when I have an idea that really excites me, then it might be something that we look at.

For me, that chapter of The Shield is closed and we said exactly what we wanted to say. If there were a character or characters that we wanted to explore in a different part of town or a new part of the universe, I would never want to say know just to say no. When I wrote The Shield pilot, I really had something in me that I wanted to say and I was very blessed to be able to say it for seven years. I would have to have that same kind of excitement and enthusiasm for some new aspect of the show.

Pop Culture Principle – One series that never really got a chance was The Chicago Code. Why do you think that series ended up being canceled after one season?

Shawn Ryan – You are the third or fourth person who has mentioned that show to me this week. It’s funny because it had been a long time since anyone had talked to me about that series. It was a cusp show without a doubt meaning that the ratings were good enough to be picked up and good enough to be canceled. Kevin Reilly was running FOX at the time and he had been at FX when we had done The Shield. I was always told that sister studio shows always had an advantage. We made our show for 20th and it was on FOX and then we didn’t get picked up, but Fringe, which was an outside Warner Brothers show with lower ratings did get picked up. Then again, I’m not privy to all the research. I’m not privy to all the financial information, the budgets, how the show is performing internationally or any side deals.

I can’t say why it was canceled. I really liked the show. I thought FOX gave their best efforts to launch the show and put it in a position to succeed. We semi-succeeded, but we weren’t undeniably successful and when you aren’t undeniably successful, you are at the mercy of the executives and bean counters. I never got an answer to why the show was canceled. I certainly never got any complaints from a creative standpoint. That really was a passion project for me. To do a show that was very specific to Chicago and to sort of embrace the ethos and the way of life of those people and bring that to screen, I thought was something really exciting and jazzed me to come to work every day.

Pop Culture Principle – One of your earliest writing jobs was on the series Nash Bridges. How did working on that series help you hone your craft and influence future projects?

Shawn Ryan – It’s funny because I tell people all the time that they may see my different shows, but if you look at the story construction of a series like Nash Bridges, you’ll see its DNA in The Shield.

That was a really professional, well-run show. Carlton Cuse was the showrunner and John Worth was the number two guy who ran the room and between the two of them, that’s where I learned to be a professional writer. I had talent as a writer, but I never spent a lot of time really thinking hard about story and story construction. The way that that show ran had all of the writers in the writers’ room pretty much every day from 10 am to 7 pm, which is a schedule I still keep on my shows because I got used to it.

Every day was spent trying to break stories and figuring out what worked and what didn’t work. I did that for sixty-eight episodes over three years and it was really like going to graduate school in terms of story breaking and it has influenced all of my writing ever since.

As you can see, Shawn has been and continues to be one of the busiest men in the business today. We'd like to give a huge thank you to Shawn for taking time out of his schedule to talk with us. Remember, the 2-hour Timeless movie wrap-up airs on Thursday, December 20th at 8/7c on NBC. You can catch all new episodes of S.W.A.T. everything Thursday night at 10/9c.

**S.W.A.T. photos courtesy of Bill Inoshita/Sonja Flemming/CBS Photo**

**Timeless photos courtesy of Darren Michaels/Ron Batzdorff/Sony/NBC**

**The Shield photos courtesy of FX**

**The Chicago Code photo courtesy of FOX**

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