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Interview: Shawn Ryan Takes Us Inside 'The Chicago Code'

Brittany Frederick Brittany Frederick
April 18th, 2011 5:11pm EDT

To the television world, Shawn Ryan is A Name. He's the critically acclaimed genius who brought us The Shield, The Unit and Terriers, did a season on Lie To Me, and used to write for Angel. They don't make resumes much cooler than that.

Shawn Ryan

To me, he's the guy that I want to hug and thank profusely for creating The Chicago Code, my favorite television series of the season, and potentially one of my most favorite in a long time. It's the show that got me excited about TV again. Oh, and he once also validated my entire career. Shawn is one of those people who's got an open invitation to drop by these parts anytime.

He sat down with me Friday to discuss all things Chicago Code - how the show came to be, what makes it so awesome, and what it's like to be the man at the top.

We talked in our first interview together about why you chose to set the show in your own backyard. What made you want to do another show that involved the police? I hesitate to say "cop show" because it's not really a cop show.

Initially, I didn't. Then I started thinking about things I could do very differently than how I did them on The Shield. The kinds of stories I could tell that really are political stories, or personal stories, or stories about a city, or the Midwest. That's what got me intrigued.

Inevitably, there were going to be comparisons to The Shield because of the genre. How did you approach that issue?

You just have to let it go. I'm very aware of the magic and luck that needed to happen for The Shield to happen and I'm extraordinarily proud of it, but if I let myself become prisoner to it, then I'd never do any work at all. I just take the lessons that I learned and try to apply them to this show. It's something that I'm sure will be on my tombstone, but I can't let it stop me.

Let's talk a little bit about casting the show. How did you land such a fantastic group of people? What did you see in each of them that made them the right fit for these roles?

You never know for sure. The things that works for us is that we just took a long time. Charles McDougall and I were very, very picky. There'd be an actor he liked that I didn't or vice versa and that actor wouldn't go forward. We had to be very patient, to the point of endangering the show. We thought it was better to get the plug pulled than cast the wrong person.

We were actually in discussions with Jason Isaacs to play Jarek, so I ended up seeing Jason Clarke's work [in Brotherhood]. Jason Clarke was a person we investigated very early on. He's a real force of nature. I like to write really energetic stuff and he's someone that really gets my rhythms and brings this energy to the show. We knew that Jennifer Beals was a good possibility, and there was something magical and great about him and Jennifer together. The casting of Delroy Lindo was very, very late in the process. I think we were already shooting the pilot when we made an offer to him. You just hope you cast the right people.

How much do the actors influence the scripts? Is it a collaborative environment?

I wouldn't call the writing collaborative with the actors. I encourage them if they have questions or suggestions, and they do, [but] we keep those two roles pretty separate. But we do spend a lot of time with them. Each of the actors comes into the writers' room at the beginning of the season. I'm very interested in their perspective, what things they'd be interested in playing, their thoughts on relationships with other characters. Those meetings are very helpful to us.

I do like to know as much as I can about my actors, because you can take some special skill they have and apply it to the show. For example, when Jason played Johnny Depp's driver in Public Enemies, Michael Mann had sent him to expensive driving schools, and Jason had become a pretty expert driver, so we found a couple of opportunity to get him behind the wheel of a car. It comes off very realistic because it's Jason that's doing the driving.

Speaking of actors, was it just a happy accident that Adam Arkin appeared in one episode and then directed the very next episode?

It was not an accident because he was prepping that episode that he was about to direct. We had this role we were having difficulty casting and somebody smarter than me said "Adam's already in town, why don't we ask him to do us a favor?" And he said, "Sure."

Okay, plot-related question time. Some people have expressed concern over whether or not the Gibbons storyline puts an unintentional limitation on the show - in terms of "Well, when they bring this guy down, where will the show go?"

I've spent a lot of time thinking about what the audience would want. That's my job, is to anticipate ahead of the audience. I watch a lot of TV myself and I understand the things that frustrate me about other shows. I think people will appreciate the path.

The other ongoing storyline is how deeply these characters' personal lives have fractured. Are we going to get a resolution to Jarek's personal drama by the end of the season? Is there hope for Teresa with her family?

We will see some big changes in it. Certain things will come to a head. We won't be dealing any more with [Teresa's] family this season. We didn't have room.

TV has moved away for awhile from the outright 22-episode season to the 13-episode season, sometimes with or without the potential for a back 9. You've done all sorts of different lengths of seasons on your shows. How does that impact the stories you're trying to tell and the way you tell them?

I don't mind as long as I have a sense of what the game plan is going in. I've run seasons of 22 episodes and one year we did 24 episodes on The Unit. You just need to pace yourself properly and address the storylines properly. 13 is always easier to do than 22. You feel like you can uphold the quality better. Having said that, you want to get to a place where the show is successful and the network wants 22 or 24 episodes a year. I have an idea and a model for that for this show. I'm ready to go when they are.

As a writer, is it different for you to watch TV? Even as a critic, sometimes I can't turn my job off when I'm trying to enjoy a show.

Working as a showrunner has made it tougher to watch other shows and movies. I spend so much time in the editing room that I'll see bad edits or continuity errors that I never would have noticed [otherwise]. So it does make it tougher in that regard. The closer the subject matter to what I write, probably the tougher on that stuff I am. That's probably why I watch a lot of comedies. I also know that there are so many things that can go wrong in the process that I try to be forgiving of shows as well.

You have, now, thanks to the success of multiple shows on multiple networks, this well-earned huge reputation. What's it like for you to just step back and say, "I did this"?

I don't really do that at all. The closest thing I would say is that I have two children who are too young to watch the shows that I make, and I do think about the day that they'll be old enough to watch them, and I want them to be proud of their father's work. I'm very humble in terms of knowing that television is an extraordinary collaborative medium and that one person alone cannot make a great TV show. I do know one person can work on a bad TV show. I know if I'm not vigilant, and not inspiring the people that I work with, it's not going to work.

What TV shows hold your interest?

I do tend to watch a lot of comedies. I like Parks and Recreation, Archer, The Office, Modern Family. I like to watch a lot of those comedies. I find myself watching fewer dramas. I was a huge fan of Friday Night Lights. I'm a big Mad Men fan. I tend to watch a lot of sports. I'm a big fan of Shark Tank. As reality shows go, I actually think it has value.

My thanks to the ever-awesome Shawn Ryan for another fantastic interview! Don't miss The Chicago Code tonight at 9 PM ET/PT on FOX. (For an advance look at tonight's episode, head here.) And if you're a fan, check out ChicagoCodeFan.com.

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