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The Chicago Code Creator Shawn Ryan on the Age of the TV Antihero and What Went Wrong With Terriers

Let Shawn Ryan’s story be a lesson to you show-runner wannabes: You can earn your chops on something as toothless and mediocre as Nash Bridges and still go on to fashion a balls-to-the-wall masterpiece like The Shield … not to mention the brilliant, confounding failure that was last year’s Terriers. His latest show is Fox's The Chicago Code, a serialized tale of an unlikely new police superintendent (Jennifer Beals) teaming with her former partner (Brotherhood's Jason Clarke) to take down a powerful and corrupt Chicago pol (Delroy Lindo). We talked to Ryan about his new project, how he envisioned Beals as a tough top cop, and just what went wrong with Terriers.

After working on FX with The Shield and Terriers, did you find it cramping to have to hew to network standards with regards to language and violence?
I have no problem at all going back and forth between cable and network. I‘m perfectly happy to color within the network lines when I have to.

When I first heard Wysocki, Jason Clarke’s character, calling someone a "jaghole,” I thought, Okay, here’s the cable show-runner compromising for the network suits. But then you have Wysocki repeatedly mention his aversion to profanity. Was that a way of covering up this necessary compromise?
It can certainly be seen as a sellout concession to network standards, but I tended to look at it as an opportunity to give the character some definition. And so, you go in thinking we’re not going to be able to drop any s-bombs and f-bombs, so you say, well, do we just ignore that fact and try to make it realistic? And I do like the idea of a character who has a chivalry that makes him more powerful and more interesting in a way.

He’s also, at least thus far, considerably more of a hero than an antihero …
Absolutely.

… which had me wondering: Has the era of the tortured antihero played itself out a bit?
I would say that the industry is ready for phase 2.0 of the antihero, whatever that is. You still have the Sons of Anarchy guys and Mad Men and Breaking Bad, but between The Sopranos and The Shield and Deadwood and a number of things that followed, I think the bar is set a little higher now, and dark antiheroism is not shocking anymore. I think you need to do something new and fresh with it, and somebody at some point will.

You’re an Illinois native, and Chicago has such a longstanding reputation as this nexus of sleazy officialdom. It’s a good thing you’re getting the show on the air now, though, because surely once Rahm Emanuel becomes mayor, corruption will be a thing of the past.
[Laughs.] Well, I certainly hope that’s the case. And since I’m represented by the agency [Endeavor] that’s run by his brother [Ari], you won’t catch me saying anything bad about Rahm.

Some of the early reviews of The Chicago Code complained that Jennifer Beals seemed an odd choice to play a police superintendent.
She’s obviously a beautiful woman. But let’s look at her résumé. If I said to you that I have a 47-year-old woman who is born and raised in Chicago and grew up in poor circumstances but nonetheless educated herself to the point where she ended up at Yale University, would you say that that was a candidate for a high position of power? You would. And that is Jennifer Beals. That is her biography. So yeah, we can all kind of think back to the welder scenes in Flashdance, but the reality is this character is a lot closer to who she is. And people will either buy it or they won’t; all I did was hire the best actor that I could for that role.

Let’s talk about Terriers a bit, seeing as its cancellation was the biggest tragedy of the television year. Who should we fans be mad at — the person who gave the show that ferkakta name, or FX’s promotion department?
Well, Ted Griffin and I gave it the name, so you can certainly be upset at us. You know, looking back, there are some things we’d do differently, including taking another look at the name of the show, but I’m not sure that would have solved our problem, and I’m not sure having a different promotional poster would suddenly have equated with having five million viewers a week.

So what happened?
I think the most logical explanation is that it wasn’t the right show at the right network at the right time. You can make a good show, but you still need some magical alchemy to get people to watch. And ratings are not a direct function of quality, unfortunately. Sometimes they are, but a lot of times they’re not.

To be fair, it’s not as if there haven’t been wildly successful shows with unusual titles.
I kept referencing The Sopranos as a show whose title could initially have been confusing, but I think ultimately when you look at the early Sopranos artwork, they spelled the “r” with a gun, and they were able to sell it — even then they had the mob-family hook to it. With our show, the very thing that was so interesting about making it, and that allowed us to do a show that was new and fresh, was the very thing that made it tough to sell: These two guys are fun to hang out with, but we’re going to do some unexpected things and we’re going to veer from being really funny to some really heartfelt pathos. That is really tough to get across in a 30-second ad or on a poster.

Was there any serious discussion about giving it another chance? Did anyone point out that the overwhelming critical acclaim might have given you guys a good leg up on season two?
I think it killed [FX president] Jon Landgraf not to be able to do that, but he does run an ad-supported cable network. This is a guy who kept Damages alive for three seasons despite low ratings, and our ratings were markedly lower than Damages’s.

If I might finish with a Shield-related question: Last year Michael Chiklis had told me that he envisioned the return of Vic Mackey in a feature film down the road, while you were not so sure. Any further thoughts on that?
That’s still up in the air. Obviously we’re both doing other stuff at the moment. I wouldn’t say that I’m overly pessimistic, but some things have to fall in place for it to happen: I think there needs to be an appetite for it, and in that sense letting some time pass is probably a good thing, to build that appetite. It would also take people at the studio who are really passionate about doing it, and unfortunately for us, Alex Young, who was really behind the idea, has since left. So we’d have to start over in terms of pitching it, and I don’t think Michael or I have had the time. We’ve all seen how difficult it’s been to launch an Arrested Development movie and a 24 movie. These things take a little time and a little finessing. I certainly don’t want to say it’s never going to happen, but I also don’t want to give fans false hope that it’s right around the corner.

Photo: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images