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How the Perfect Pilot Set ‘The Shield’ Up for the Perfect Ending

The FX corrupt-cop drama is known as one of the best shows of the 21st century. But it stands virtually alone in one regard: Its fully formed pilot episode planted the seeds for virtually everything that happened at the series’ conclusion.

Adam Villacin

TV drama doesn’t get more fraught, or more fulfilling, than the last two episodes of The Shield, the seven-season series about cops and criminals (and criminal cops) that aired on FX from 2002 to 2008. In a sense, the series climaxes in a scene from the penultimate episode—not with a shootout, a car chase, or a dramatic interrogation, but with a man and a microphone in a nondescript room. Having wheedled an immunity deal out of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in exchange for his help in apprehending a cartel enforcer, corrupt-cop protagonist Vic Mackey confesses his crimes into a tape recorder, unloading a long list of unpunished—and, as soon as he speaks, unpunishable—transgressions in a onetime, no-strings-attached absolution. After taking a twitchy minute to gather himself, he begins with the worst one: “I shot and killed detective Terry Crowley.” The duped, appalled ICE agent, who looks like she was expecting to send Mackey away with a finger wag and an instruction to say a few Our Fathers, asks, “You killed a police officer?” Mackey, both beaten and victorious, confirms, “I planned it. I carried it out. I shot him once, just below the eye.”

What made the scene so special, aside from Michael Chiklis’s portrayal of a serial deceiver who’s forced to fess up to his (surviving) victims and to himself, is that the audience had been anticipating the moment when Mackey would come clean ever since the series started. Almost every meaningful moment in the last two episodes (including a finale that, like the legendarily well-concluded Breaking Bad’s, boasts the highest average IMDb user rating of any episode in the series) was set up by the Emmy-nominated pilot, which had aired six and a half years earlier—20 years ago this Saturday.

Vic’s final fallouts with (and backstabs of) strike team members Shane (Walton Goggins) and Ronnie (David Rees Snell); Shane’s shocking murder-suicide; Vic’s confrontation with a disgusted, accusing Claudette (CCH Pounder); an office-bound, bereft Vic’s silent, series-ending scene—all of those wrenching, Shakespearean moments and more traced their roots to the twist in the closing seconds of the series opener, which makes The Shield unusual, if not unique, among long-running series. “I don’t know that there was a pilot I can think of that had a specific incident that carried through to the finale the way that we were able to do with ours,” says series creator Shawn Ryan, who wrote the first and last episodes.

TV pilots almost never work that way. Their job is to establish a premise and setting, introduce core characters, and convince spectators to come back next week (or, on a streaming service like The Shield’s current home, Hulu, to select “Next Episode”). It’s easier to summon examples of pilots that flopped so spectacularly that they never aired and led to recast roles, or that featured prominent characters who never returned, than it is to pick out pilots whose events resonated right through the series finale. To watch most pilots is to venture into a world where the series you remember hasn’t quite come together: where the writing is too cute or too caustic, the leads are still stuck in the wrong relationships, and actions lack consequences. Leslie Knope crushes on Mark Brendanawicz and Andy Dwyer dates Ann Perkins on Parks and Recreation; Coach costars instead of Winston on New Girl; Xander’s close friend Jesse on Buffy is bitten by a vampire and, after Xander accidentally stakes him in the second episode, is never mentioned again.

But when Mackey murdered Crowley, a strike team member and would-be informant who’d agreed to blow the whistle on Mackey’s misdeeds, it set the long-term tone and course for a series that ran for 87 more episodes. It also altered TV history by blazing a trail on basic cable for the mature content and “difficult men” who would dominate the decade’s indelible TV dramas. Crowley’s unpredictable demise, and the ramifications that came from it, made America’s introduction to The Shield one of the most startling, momentous, and prescient pilots ever. “It opened up a lot of doors, and then shows came through and kicked them open even further,” Ryan says.

From a plot standpoint, the pilot’s apparent prescience was partly engineered after the fact, as Ryan followed the threads that led from the episode’s stunning turnabout. One reason that the events of pilots so rarely reverberate throughout a series’ run is that those first episodes are typically trial balloons floated by creators who haven’t mapped out where they want their shows to go and networks that may not be sold on their storytelling; both are fumbling forward in the absence of feedback from a mass audience. In those respects, The Shield’s pilot was par for the course. As Ryan recalls, “When we made the pilot, I never thought we were going to make an Episode 2. … I was trying to get everything I could into that pilot and trying to make it important because I thought it would be the calling card for me to help get me staffed on my next job.”

Ryan, who was 35 when the pilot aired, had previously written episodes of Nash Bridges and Angel, but he’d never scripted a pilot for a drama. After winning a national college comedy playwriting award, he’d moved to Los Angeles intent on becoming a comedy writer. His first TV writing credits had come on the sitcom My Two Dads and the animated series Life With Louie, and even after dabbling in dramas, his future still seemed to lie in lighthearted, 22-minute morsels. Fox Television Studios had given him a blind pilot deal to work on a script for a sitcom, the polar opposite of the path he’d end up pursuing. When he and the network couldn’t agree on a comedy idea, Ryan pitched them on a drama—which worked, against all odds. “I was too naive to know just how stupid that was, that you don’t just get hired to write a sitcom pilot and then walk in one day and say, ‘Oh, I’d rather do a drama pilot,’” Ryan says. “I think they were just worried that if they didn’t start me up sometime soon and write something, that they wouldn’t have a script in hand for their money.”

The script he produced was partly inspired by the Rampart police corruption scandal, which was big news in L.A. in 1998. (Rampart was, at one point, the project’s planned title; not only did that change, but The Shield never explicitly referenced the LAPD, for fear of a legal challenge.) It was also informed by his experience on Nash Bridges, whose heroic protagonist had problems in his personal life but few issues obeying the law. Ryan had taken part in police ride-alongs in San Francisco while working on that show, and he’d witnessed “darker” behavior than Nash Bridges would depict. The concept he had in mind would incorporate what he’d seen in San Francisco and read about in reporting on Rampart, as well as the conflict between security and civil liberty that he felt as a young father concerned for the safety of his child. “When I would read news articles about corrupt cops dealing with drug dealers or killing people or various things, I would want to understand how that happens. … How do a group of cops routinely and systematically break the laws while enforcing the laws, and who are the people in power that like the results enough that they overlook these transgressions?”

Those questions come to the fore in the first scene of the pilot, in which politically ambitious police captain David Aceveda (Benito Martinez) of the fictional Farmington District briefs the press on decreasing crime rates as Mackey’s strike team—the apparent reason for those shrinking rates—uses excessive force on a drug dealer. The theme of moral and legal lines respected by some and obliterated by others develops over the rest of the episode, which revolves around the department’s efforts to rescue a girl abducted by a pedophile. The up-and-up cops can’t crack the case, so Aceveda reluctantly calls in Mackey. “Good cop and bad cop left for the day. I’m a different kind of cop,” Mackey says, just before using a phone book to beat the location of the missing girl out of her captor. The child is saved, but the department’s ethics are compromised.

Not nearly as much as they’re about to be, though. Amid the search for the kidnapped girl, Aceveda meets with Crowley and a representative of the Justice Department to discuss making a federal case against Mackey. Crowley agrees to go along with the idea, and his hunt for intel on Mackey’s dirty dealings seems to be paying dividends when Vic invites him on an upcoming raid on a drug dealer named Two-Time, making him a full-fledged fifth member of the strike team. At Two-Time’s apartment, Vic, Shane, and Terry go after the target while Ronnie and Lem (Kenny Johnson) cover the exit. After Two-Time fires at the cops, Vic and Shane shoot him—and then, just before the credits roll, Vic calmly and deliberately takes Two-Time’s gun and uses it to shoot Terry in the face, removing the mole from the strike team.

That drastic solution is rich fodder for future conflict not just between Mackey and Aceveda (who suspects what Vic did), but also between Vic and Shane and between those two and Ronnie and Lem, who didn’t see the shot and believe Mackey’s explanation that Two-Time killed Terry. Ryan didn’t initially know how those clashes and loyalties would play out—“When you really don’t think they’re going to pick up the show, you’re not thinking about how you’re going to end at Season 7,” he says, adding that “loose notions” of the denouement first surfaced in his mind during Season 4 or 5—but the groundwork was laid for the tensions that sustained the series for so long with no drop-off in quality.

The idea for the episode’s sensational twist came to Ryan years earlier, when he was watching the 1997 movie Donnie Brasco. As Ryan recounted in 2017, “I remember sitting in the theater, thinking, ‘Wouldn’t it be a great twist right now if Al Pacino walked in and shot Johnny Depp in the face and you realize that he knew that Depp was an undercover cop trying to take him down?’” Donnie Brasco was based on a true story in which that hadn’t happened, but Ryan wouldn’t be bound by any actual events in the story he felt compelled to tell. “The minute I just started writing it, it came alive to me,” he says.

FX executives liked the script: “I thought the cop genre was tired,” then–FX president Kevin Reilly (who had previously presided over The Sopranos’ production company) would say, “and then I read the script by Shawn Ryan, and it knocked my socks off,” though they raised the idea of saving the twist for a little later in the season, which Ryan resisted. “My attitude was, I think that is a great twist, I think it makes sense, I think it works on a lot of levels, and I’m not ever going to get a chance to put it in Episode 4, so let’s keep it.” Ryan says he would have considered delaying Crowley’s killing if he’d known the pilot would be picked up, but that “there’s something to be said for having a pilot that has an ending that makes you go, ‘Whoa.’ … The events of the pilot having such a profound effect on the last couple episodes of the series, that has impact too. Would it have been the same if that Terry Crowley shooting had happened in Episode 5 or 6?”

In addition to his uncertainty about whether the network would green-light the show, Ryan faced skepticism from agents and actors about FX, which was then an unlikely landing spot for a prestige drama. For its first several years, the network was known (if it was known at all) mostly for airing Fox reruns and a smattering of disposable unscripted series. “I heard a lot of comments at the time and shortly afterwards about, ‘I love the script, but there’s no way a show on FX can ever be good,’” Ryan says, adding, “It wasn’t just the network that was unproved, but the whole concept of anything other than broadcast TV or HBO.”

In later seasons, the series enticed stars such as Glenn Close and Forest Whitaker to play recurring characters, but before it premiered, many actors wouldn’t audition or consider offers, often on the advice of their agents. Reed Diamond, who played Crowley, signed on partly because the pilot would be directed by Clark Johnson, with whom he had costarred for a few seasons on NBC’s Homicide: Life on the Street. Ryan was a Homicide admirer, Diamond liked the script, and he was looking for a short shoot (so to speak), so he was willing to take a chance. “With the beginning of all these basic cable networks, I was still such an old frame of mind,” he says. “I was like, ‘These? Who’s going to watch these things? How are people going to see these?’”

The saving grace was that everyone who was cast truly wanted to be there, which fostered an enduring esprit de corps on set. Among the most committed cast members was Chiklis, who saw Mackey as a means of changing his image from that of the cuddly, older-than-his-years characters he’d played in lighter fare like The Commish, Daddio, and TV movie The Three Stooges. Chiklis took six months off from acting to remake his body, and he shaved his head to complete the image makeover, which helped him land a part that he hadn’t been seen as a fit for. “The big reason why he got the job was his unbridled enthusiasm for that script and that role, and his willingness, even though he was a big TV star at the time, to come in and audition for us, when there were many other far less accomplished actors who felt that this little nothing network wasn’t worth their time,” Ryan says.

FX executives thought there was an opening for a network that would make more mature content than broadcast TV but would dial down the profanity and nudity enough to sell ads. (“You had a certain number of ‘shits’ you could say per episode,” Diamond says.) However, Ryan says “there was a lot of concern, especially after the pilot was made and people got a chance to look at how rough some of the content was, about what sort of advertisers would be there,” Ryan says. FX president Peter Liguori traveled to New York to meet with ad agencies and, Ryan says, started the meeting by asking, “If you could advertise on The Sopranos right now, would you do it?” Most attendees said they would, so Liguori told them to keep that in mind as he played them the pilot. The strategy worked well enough to move forward.

FX ordered the pilot in March 2001; filming happened in June, and Ryan turned in a cut shortly afterward. Then he waited. In the interim, he heard the pilot had tested well, but not phenomenally. “It was just so different from most everything else on TV that they weren’t sure how much to trust the testing,” Ryan says. Despite competition from a Jason Priestley pilot called Dope, FX finally issued a series order for The Shield (then called The Barn) on August 30, the day before the deadline. Less than two weeks later, September 11 changed the nation’s mood and potentially its appetite for a show like The Shield. Ryan remembers, “There was a lot of concern about, ‘Oh, what does this mean? Cops are heroes now. Do we want to see this?’”

But by then, the network was committed, and it didn’t take long for FX to feel better about its investment. Training Day came out in early October, and the critical and commercial success of a movie about an L.A.-based police detective who breaks rules and laws reassured the suits. “I do think that that made them go, ‘Oh, the audience is there,’” Ryan says. And it was: The series premiere drew 4.8 million viewers, a modest number by contemporary broadcast standards but a record for a scripted series on basic cable. FX had little trouble selling ad slots after that.

Diamond says it “felt significant at the time” that The Shield was breaking ground that couldn’t be covered as authentically—or with quite the same care, given broadcast-network episode counts—on series such as Homicide or ABC’s NYPD Blue. “This was the launch of doing these kinds of shows on basic cable,” he explains. “You could feel this energy, and it was exciting to know that we were going to go to this next iteration. … This was a radical departure.” His short-lived character was part of the pilot’s precedent-setting strategy. “If you kill somebody off who seems like they’re an important character right away, you’re going, ‘Oh shit,’” he says. “It’s that Ned Stark thing that happens with Game of Thrones. You’re going, ‘Oh crap, anything could happen.’ But we hadn’t seen that before. That hadn’t been part of television. That’s what usually makes network television so boring, is there’s no stakes. Because you know that anyone who’s in the lead cast is going to live forever.”

Diamond’s face, name, and history helped sell the fiction that Crowley would be a permanent main character, which Ryan encouraged by including Diamond in group photos for the press and the opening credits. “It seems like I’m a series regular,” Diamond says. “And you’re going, ‘Oh, that’s that guy from Homicide, and he’s being directed by his buddy. Yeah, he’s going to be here.’” A misdirect of that sort would be harder to hide in the era of Reddit and rampant rumors, but secrecy was more manageable before social media. (FX didn’t even watermark scripts for The Shield until the series finale.) Anyone watching live would have thought the series was going to be about an undercover cop taking down a corrupt cop, right up until the corrupt cop put one in the undercover cop’s cheek. (Yes, the cheek: “I thought it was just a little less cliché than right in the middle of the forehead,” says Ryan, who also liked the idea that “Vic wasn’t a superhuman marksman who could put it where he wanted it to go.”)

Diamond didn’t get a lot of screen time, but his limited minutes had a high degree of difficulty. “I’ve died in every possible way you can possibly imagine,” Diamond says, sounding like Kenny McCormick. But this time he had to die after outwardly mirroring the audience’s emotions. “You had to do that moment where you’re like, ‘Oh fuck, I’ve been found out,” he says. “You had to have that moment of betrayal in the eyes. And then they had to go dead. I had to use all of my acting chops to try, like, how do I do that? How do I have a moment where I’m dying, but I perceive, ‘Oh no, I blew it?’ And then let the light drain out of my eyes.”

Given the good vibes and great ratings, Diamond was sorry not to be on board beyond his death scene, but he did return for a flashback episode in the second season, and his character—and sometimes his likeness—loomed over the remainder of the series. “They used my photo for the last season all the time, so I’d get these cute little $800 checks or whatever for every time they showed my dead body on TV,” he says. The checks were worth a lot less than the satisfaction of playing an outsized part in helping propel The Shield into the TV pantheon. “For something you thought maybe no one would see, it was great that it became a little part of television history.”

The twist had helped Ryan secure a series order and robust initial viewership, but it also presented a conundrum: how to make spectators tune in weekly to watch a confirmed cop killer. “Once they picked up the show to series, then it was like, ‘Oh wow, well now I’ve got to deal with this,’” he says. As it turned out, making viewers want to watch Mackey was almost disturbingly easy. The conventional TV wisdom, Ryan notes, was that for a TV series to succeed, its protagonist had to be likable and sympathetic, but breakout HBO shows Oz and The Sopranos had defied that maxim and started to change many minds in the industry, Ryan’s included. “I wasn’t worried about making Vic sympathetic or likable,” he says. “I was interested in making him interesting.”

What Ryan discovered was that he seemingly couldn’t make Vic unlikable no matter what he tried. In Seasons 4 and 5, Close and Whitaker’s characters presented a more moral alternative to Mackey, but “there was no moral conflict for the vast majority of the audience,” Ryan says. “They were on Vic’s side. … I had conversations with Forest Whitaker, who was just in disbelief that the audience was having some of the reaction they were having. He’s like, ‘Do they not get I’m the good guy?’”

Vic did do good at times, though it would have been difficult for him to balance the scales. The audience’s unflagging loyalty was partly a testament to Chiklis’s charisma, but it also suggested something about the nature of narrative. “It was a real interesting lesson to me about the power of camera and the power of perspective,” Ryan says. “When you train a camera on someone long enough and you humanize someone, despite their flaws, people tend to root for them. It’s interesting. It’s scary a little bit.”

Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and other Peak TV touchstones would learn that lesson well. “There were things like The Sopranos and Oz where we wouldn’t have existed without them, and I think there are definitely some other shows that wouldn’t have existed without us,” Ryan says. Take away Tony Soprano, and we probably wouldn’t have had Vic Mackey. But without Mackey, we might not have had basic-cable icons Walter White and Don Draper, or later FX leads like Jax Teller and Raylan Givens.

Cracks start to form in Farmington’s strike team as soon as the second episode, as Shane feels remorse at Crowley’s funeral. The killing comes up again in Episode 3. “We killed a cop,” Shane says to Vic, who answers, “Get over it. And don’t bring it up again.” The scene sizzles. “I remember thinking when I was watching that, ‘Oh, that thing, that is a wound that we never want to completely heal,’” Ryan says. The other shoe was always waiting to drop, and the question of whether Vic would pay a price for his original sin never fully faded, but the writers went to that well sparingly. “It’s not like we would start the story breaking with, ‘Well, it seems like it’s time to revisit Terry Crowley’s murder, so what’s the story we can build around it?’” Ryan says. But “it was always something that was really potent when we decided that it was the right time to use it.”

The Shield has held up well, in part because it anticipated society’s increased scrutiny of police violence and subsequent critiques of “copaganda.” Ryan took pains to ensure that there would be “some balance” in his portrayal of the police, with the rectitude and conviction of Claudette and the largely pure intentions of Dutch (Jay Karnes) and Danni (Catherine Dent) counterbalancing the violence and venality of the strike team. But he adds that “I’d like to think that the show did more to disabuse the public of the notion that all cops are pure and simple heroes” and advance the idea “that cops are human beings, some of whom have flaws and go and make big mistakes.”

Mostly, though, The Shield remains riveting because of its incredible cast, sharp writing, and emotional stakes, all of which were on display in the pilot. Chiklis won an acting Emmy for the episode, and Ryan and Johnson were nominated for writing and directing, respectively. Later that year, Johnson would direct the first two episodes of The Wire (which he’d later act in), helping springboard a second essential series about criminals, law enforcement, and the blurry lines between them. The Shield’s pilot established the series’ influential “floating camera” look, and although the camera operators grew more adept at keeping their cameras steady in a documentary style as the seasons went by, Ryan always “wanted the audience to feel like I felt when I was on a ride-along.” Diamond notes that “The camera moves [Johnson] was using now have become kind of cliché. You see them now all the time. But he was just really good at always doing things handheld and keeping so much kinetic energy in the shots.”

Ryan, who’s now shooting The Night Agent for Netflix, thinks The Shield’s pilot also anticipated the way series are written, sold, and discovered today. In the past, the key to TV was “having something that felt nonoffensive to the greatest number of people who might just continue to tune in when the show that’s on before it was [over],” Ryan says. Now, with the audience splintered over hundreds of channels and dozens of streaming services, networks are “looking for those shows that inspire a smaller portion of the audience to be so passionate about the show that they work like hell to seek it out.” A streaming service will serve a second episode to its audience automatically, but that audience still needs to navigate the maze of viewing options to get there, just as audiences unfamiliar with FX and basic cable had to go to extra lengths to track down The Shield in 2002.

With the number of scripted originals climbing by the year, a series also has to have a hook to convince people to click for the first time, and enough frontloaded excitement to keep them coming back. Increased competition for eyeballs makes it tough for a series to survive and thrive on word of mouth if it only starts to pick up in, say, Episode 7. Thus, more writers have internalized the questions that Ryan has asked himself ever since his first drama pilot took off: “What are the important things that I want the audience to get about the show? What are the moments that might make them go ‘Wow!’, and is there a way to have those moments come earlier rather than later?”

Pilots have been described as endangered for years, and the networks’ and streamers’ scrabbling for content has empowered creators to land bigger, better deals, some of which call for straight-to-series orders that bypass the pilot process. But that shift has coincided with a presumption that Ryan sees as antithetical to one of the medium’s strengths: its capacity to course correct.

“The expectations these days are that writers are supposed to come in with an idea for a show and all seven seasons laid out,” he says. “And I think that’s a really short-sighted way to look at things. … If I had been asked to do that all by myself at the very beginning of The Shield, before I knew the characters as well as I did later, without the benefit of amazing writers on my staff, I would’ve come up with an ending far more pat and less interesting than what we ultimately did. That ending was the culmination of living with those characters and writing with them, and getting to know the actors that played them, and getting to see audience reaction over the years.” To somebody binging today, The Shield’s full-circle series finale may make it look easy to produce a pilot that set the stage for tragedy and spectacle seven seasons hence, but that ending had to be earned.

As Ryan has expressed previously, he’s open to the idea of continuing to chronicle Mackey’s decay or redemption someday, if only because he misses seeing and making TV with his friends from the production. But he’s skeptical about developing a story that would justify bringing him back, despite Hollywood’s hunger for reboots and sequels. “I don’t know that I’ve seen any shows that have taken this ‘Let’s revisit this approach’ and have done anything other than chip away at the legacy,” he says. “I haven’t seen any Godfather IIs in these reboots.” It’s one thing to bring back Dexter to try to erase the stain of a reviled first finale. It’s another to reopen a plot that so perfectly paid off. “Until I had a story that I felt could rival or eclipse the way we ended the show, I don’t see any point in doing it. … I would never want to do anything to tarnish what I feel is one of the better endings in TV history,” Ryan says. And one of the better beginnings, too.

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