Friday, November 28, 2008

Pushing Daisies, "Robbing Hood": Open thread

Made the mistake of trying to watch this week's "Pushing Daisies" last night, after a long drive home from seeing the in-laws, just as the tryptophan was starting to kick in. In my semi-conscious state, I was aware that the episode was on, but only just. Still, I did technically watch it, and wanted to give those of you who did an opportunity to talk about it. What did you think? Click here to read the full post

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Sons of Anarchy: Kurt Sutter Q&A

After the jump, "Sons of Anarchy" creator Kurt Sutter talks about his original plan for Opie, explains the real reason for hiring Kim Coates to play Tig, explains how his wife/leading lady Katey Sagal inspired the direction of the show, suggests where the Dutch cat-strangling story on "The Shield" might have gone if he had been in charge, and a whole lot more (click here for my review of the season finale)...

Every new show has a learning curve in its first season. What were the things you learned making this show?

I've been abreast of your original review of the show and how some of that has changed as you've been blogging. I've learned a lot from the blogosphere on this show. It's allowed me to take a step back on the process, and I've had these conversations with John Landgraf. I think what happened initially on the show -- and I will defend the pilot, I think it's a solid pilot -- but part of the deal with the curve in terms of people coming on board the show is that it was a really different world, and it was a lot of information, and I think it took people a couple of episodes to understand that and plug into it.

We did a version of this pilot originally with Scott Glen that did not work. When we reconfigured the character of Clay and what that needed to be, the network and studio dumped another 2 million into the show, and you have this time to go, 'What else can we fix?' It was the first time for me creating the show, and I was as guilty as everyone, and you begin to overanalyze, and overnote and overwrite. If the pilot is uneven in areas, it's because, quite frankly, we probably spent a little too much time trying to fix it.

And not to lay blame -- because I love working with Landgraf and FX, they're very smart people and compared to a network show, they're a dream -- but we were on such an accelerated schedule for this show when they decided they were going to premiere it with "The Shield" instead of after it. By the second episode, there wasn't time to overanalyze, I just had to trust my storytelling instincts, and there wasn't time for me or anyone else to overanalyze it. That's really when the show hit a groove. Like anything else, there's always bumps out of the gate, even if it's in terms of talent trying to wrap their brain around a character.

We had all those glitches in those first two or three episodes. We had a director come in for episode three, Paris Barclay, and I think he was the first guy who, we had figured out how to do it by then, and Paris is such a great storyteller, and it was from that episode on that we really fell into a groove. And we all just started trusting what we were doing here, and let the stories take the show to where it was going to make it or not make it, but at least it was my vision, and I was sort of putting it out there. I've been very happy with the progression of it.

Well, were there certain things that you realized were working and things that weren't working as well as you had hoped?

It wasn't so much what was working and what wasn't working. It was some of my frustration sometimes when we were getting a lot of comparisons to "The Sopranos" out of the gate, due to the outlaw nature of the show. You know as well as I do that comparing an ad-driven show to pay TV is apples and oranges. I have to answer to a studio and a network, I have to answer to advertisers. There's a lot of restrictions about what I can and can't do. I only have 41 minutes to tell these stories, 3 minutes less than we had on "The Shield." As the shows got more expensive, we needed to sell more airtime.

What we realized is that, initially, some of the episodes were probably too ambitious in terms of how much story we were trying to tell. We just got really simple. My scripts now, Jesus, they're like 38 pages long, 39 pages long. These are really tight scripts. We'll have a really big A-story, and we may not even have a B-story, may just have a series of small beats about the supporting characters. Where on "The Shield," you could tell a big Dutch/Claudette story with a big Vic and the strike team story. We tried to do that initially (here) and realized we couldn't service it with the screen time we had. It's not that it got dumbed down, but it got simpler in terms of how we told the story. We tried not to get too ambitious.

The first episode that I think really hooked me was the one with Brian Van Holt as the guy who got kicked out of SAMCRO, and we find out just how important that tattoo is and get a sense of how their world really works.

That's a lesson I really learned on "The Shield." The first season or two of the show, it's not like we spelled everything out in terms of the areas we were going to explore, "This is how the strike team works." You try to do it organically and have it happen through stories, so you're never handing out exposition. It takes a few episodes, or sometimes a whole season, for people to really have all the pieces fall into place, and they can start to connect the dots a little bit. I think that was one of those episodes where you went, "Oh, that's how this world works."

How much of the season was plotted out from the start, and how much of it came together as you were going along?

I had a pretty good idea of what this season was going to be, only because I had so much time to think during the writers strike. I knew what I was going to do with the whole Kohn arc and Jax's deeper involvement into the club. My original plan was to kill Opie. I had a one-year deal with Ryan Hurst, we were leading down that path. The network was very squeamish about that, and rightfully so. Once Lem was killed on "The Shield," it became a different show. Not better or worse, but different. And Ryan has that great vulnerability, and he was becoming a very sympathetic character that people were plugging into. The fear was if we offed that guy from the jump, it would be hard to recover from. Plus, I love the actor. There's a lot more I can do with that character from here on.

The plan was never to kill Donna, but I knew I wanted to end this season on an exclamation point and not a question mark. We land with Jax having a definite point of view about what he feels he needs to do. To have that happen, you need to have that tragedy, which initially was going to be Opie, but we served that purpose, maybe in a more dynamic and visceral way, by killing such an innocent character.

So I take it then that Ryan Hurst is going to be around for a while?

We just signed a series regular deal with Ryan.

Were there any other characters or stories that changed significantly from your original plans?

We had reconfigured a character in the original pilot, Emilio Rivera, who plays Alvarez, the leader of the Mayans, was a character who was a club member. We reconfigured that character because we felt it was a little too confusing to have a cholo member in the club. So we reconfigured that character into Tig, and we were going out to actors, and we were starting to film the new pilot and had not cast that actor yet.

Kim Coates had come in and read, probably for two other characters on the show, we loved the actor but it never worked with any of the other characters. I met with Kim, and he wasn't initially my first choice in terms of who Tig was, but he's such a great actor, and quite frankly, he could ride a Harley. That was half the reason he got the gig. We were filming the next day! Kim was such a great actor, and I had a couple of those things early on that I had envisioned for that character that he just brought to another place. Everytime that guy comes on screen, he's just money. I used him in 12 of the 13 episodes, and he was only hired for 4.

Speaking of being able to ride a Harley, has Ron Perlman got any more comfortable with it?

God bless Ron. He was so gung ho, he took all these lessons and came in, then had a couple of near death experiences and got a little spooked. He's off doing some knights of the round table movie now, but has assured me that he's going to come back Harley-bound for season two. Once that happens, it's really hard to recover from that. We didn't push him on that.

Can you talk a little about the dichotomy in Jax as the guy who'd like to take the club in a more peaceful direction but also this guy capable of incredible violence?

One of the things I had to convince the network on was they'd never had a leading man this young. Most of their leading men are in their 40s, and the characters are very well-established in their worlds. For me, Jax had to be a man but hasn't decided what kind of man he is. He's more a Christopher or Shane than he is a Tony or a Vic. It's all about "What kind of man am I going to become?" That's an interesting struggle. So you have a guy who is conflicted by his own genetics. I think he's a guy who has been raised in this environment and is comfortable and understands the need for that violence and has a quick temper, and yet is probably like his dad -- as Gemma says in the finale, he thinks too deeply. He needs to know the reasons why. To me, that's the guy who hears a lot of noise in his head.

How I wanted to land at the end of the season, it's not about him ever thinking, "I'm going to get out of the club," because that's all he knows. It's "I do stay, and the only way I am going to stay and the only way I can change things is from the inside out." Next season will really be about him, it's not like there'll be a big coup afoot. It's a somewhat democratic society, and (we'll see) what happens when you have people breaking off into alliances -- what happens to that structure and that lifestyle when you have a two-party system.

Given how entrenched Clay and Tig are, it seems like the only way Jax can create a more peaceful club is through violence.

It's the age-old archetype of you have to become the devil to destroy the devil. It's not about him suddenly -- they won't be selling cupcakes and going on love rides. But I do think he feels like there are some things he can change. There are no new ideas in this show, let's get real, but it's Pacino in "Godfather III" -- "Everytime I think I'm out, they pull me back in!" You know, it's, "We're going to be outlaws, but what's a smarter, less violent, potentially less dangerous way to still have this brotherhood, and what we have here, without necessarily destroying ourselves? Clearly, if we stay on Clay's path, we are going to be in trouble."

What are the challenges of writing for a main character who isn't fully-formed like a Vic Mackey?

It requires a lot more thought on my part. I have to be careful that there's consistency in that fluctuation, and it's coming from an organic place. Me personally, I'm a guy who it took a long time to figure out what I'm supposed to be doing. I relate to a lot of that finding oneself a little later in the game, or being thrown a curve later in the game. I think throwing in a lot of complications in terms of love interests, the deep bond Jax has with his mom, I like that all that stuff still influences his decisions. S--t like that never influenced what Vic was doing. No matter how tormented Corrine was or how much she was being hurt, Vic still did what he did. Jax is still impacted by the people in his life.

I think, if we're blessed enough to have a long run, my hope is by the end of that run, Jax will become who he is supposed to become.

To me, it's more fertile ground, it's more interesting. People had initially a hard time wrapping their brain around Jax because he wasn't black and white. But I think ultimately, that struggle is who he is. And I think people, as the episodes have revealed themselves, and definitely after the death of Kohn, people realized, "That's what's going on this guy's head."

Yes, I definitely was informed by the Hamlet archetype in this show, but the trap in Hamlet is he's the most passive of Shakespeare's characters. He's not a Richard III, not out there taking a lot of action. It's a lot of asides and soliloquies where he's wrapped in angst, and that's not a very interesting character. The trick is keeping Jax a really proactive character in the midst of him making that decision. Week after week, I throw him into circumstances where he's forced to make a decision. Sometimes, it's just the day-to-day of the club and it doesn't necessarily inform the mythology, but the trick is always making sure that he's put into active circumstance.

Your mention of Jax shooting Kohn made me think about Jax and Tara having sex a few feet away from the corpse. When I was talking with Shawn Ryan about some of the more messed-up things on "The Shield," he said, "I could blame Kurt Sutter for that stuff."

I will defend every one my twisted, f---ed-up pitches. I will prove to you why they work psychologically and organically, from David (Aceveda) having to blow a guy to Jax and Tara having sex. That was one of those things, I saw that scene when I was writing the pilot, and I knew the first time they were going to have sex was four feet from a dead body. And, yes, one of the things I lead my writers with is, "What's the obvious and linear narrative choice in any circumstance?" And then, "Let's never do that."

It doesn't mean, "Let's do something absurd that has no roots in the nature of the show," but to me, that (traditional) storytelling, people can go someplace else to watch. As a storyteller, I love to use my imagination, and that's what I hire writers to do. All that stuff is, from the burning off of the tattoo -- I'm not going to say that somebody told me one of those stories, but I can tell you it's a very real thing. For me, the psychological and emotional catharsis that happened when Kohn was killed, maybe it went too far, but to me, I bet you I can get you at least one or two psychologists that can back it up.

Well, on "The Shield," Shawn always got the final say about what stayed in the scripts and what was too extreme. What's it like to be the guy who now gets to make that choice?

I have writers and I trust a lot of my writers, and the network is very conscious of that, and they will always question what's too much and what's too violent, and I hear that. I do feel like, and I don't know that I would call it a signature of the show, but it's the kind of storytelling I love. I love doing stuff that's real but unexpected. Because of the nature of this world, a lot of times that does mean violence. If I was doing a hospital show, it probably would be something completely different. It's a storytelling device that I like and, what I do, I do well.

But trust me, there were other things that didn't make it into episodes, because I trusted somebody telling me , "That didn't work," or "That's too much," or "That's gratuitous.'"

One thing that got vetoed, the character I play of Big Otto had a f---ed-up eye, there was a scene where Stahl offered to give him plastic surgery, and the scene where Otto smashes her face into the table was originally me grabbing a pen and stabbing her in the eye. To me, that felt organic, and the network felt it was one step too far. But I listen to them. It became about the story point, which was him sending a message to the MC that he was not ratting.

Until Kohn got killed, it was really interesting to see Jay Karnes on back-to-back nights every week playing these two completely different characters.

Jay's great. I had him in mind for that role. My pitch for Dutch, and in fact we did something in a gag reel at some point, my pitch for him in season three was that we find out he's a serial killer and has a basement full of bodies.

I know Jay has that level of intensity, and I've had him in mind for that obsessive yet likable -- the trick to Kohn was, on the outside, he's a nice guy, he's at the family picnic, he's ingratiating himself into the town, and yet underneath is the obsessive, dangerous.

Any plans to bring in anyone else from "The Shield"?

I love all those guys. Kenny Johnson constantly sends me e-mails, "Hey, uh, I'm not back on my show until the end of April..." And if there's a role that makes sense, I would love to bring in those guys. But right now, a lot of them are working and I don't have anything specific in mind.

You wouldn't expect a show set in such a macho world to have so many strong female characters. How did that come about?

I went into this project knowing that I wanted to do something with Katey and knowing it was a great world for her. I wrote that character for her, but she helped inspire that idea that took me to the Hamlet archetype. Having a really strong maternal figure in this world, not unlike the Livia Soprano character, who's sort of in the background, maybe not pulling the strings, but at least psychologically responsible for the strings being pulled. Initially, the character of Gemma was much more in the background, and it was the network reading a draft who wanted her pulled out front more. It's probably one of my favorite characters to write, and as a result of that, because of her relationships, it really helped pull Tara's character into an interesting direction, and the Wendy character. You have this great maternal powerhouse who then becomes the light to the moths that surround it.

It wasn't my plan from the jump to write a testosterone-driven show that had a lot of strong female voices, but it was much to do with what a great job Katey was doing. Someone mentioned it to me at one of the panels, and I realized, "I guess that's true." That's great. Some of it speaks to the world, as was discussed somewhat in the exposition in the episode "Better Half" -- unlike the mob, these women become tools for a lot of these guys. One of the guys that I know up in Oakland has felony gun charges and his girlfriend carries his piece. They're more plugged into the lifestyle, and they are aware of pretty much everything that goes on.

I've gotten some reader feedback from people who claim to be in motorcycle clubs, and the one complaint they keep bringing up is about Jax wearing sneakers when he rides instead of boots.

The new subculture, Charlie (Hunnam) and I both did a lot of research hanging out with these guys in Oakland, there's a new wave of bikers, the prospects are influenced by the hip-hop culture. Guys that really want to be bikers are the guys that feel like they need to wear the uniform. Most of the guys I know, 40-odd-year full-patch members, these guys are on motorcycles all the time, they ride for comfort, that's why their bikes aren't all tricked out, they wear sneakers because they're comfortable, they don't have anything to prove. Especially if you have a death's head on your back, nobody's going to say "Why are you wearing sneakers?" But it's definitely influenced by these kids who are influenced by the hip hop culture, and one of the guys Charlie modeled his character after, who has since been gunned down and killed, was a guy who wore these clean white sneakers.

It's like "The Shield." Up until the last episode, from the first episode people write in, 'Why are their badges on the wrong side?" But I love that you're getting complaints about things like the sneakers.

What kind of feedback are you getting from real club members?

I've gotten my share of death threats. Some people are not happy, but I'm actually surprised at all the really good feedback. The outlaw culture by nature is about not being put into a box. The fact that we're making a little TV show about that world flies in the face of that. I wasn't expecting to be embraced, but for the most part, people get it, that it's a TV show, that we're at least trying to make it as organic and real as we possibly can, within the framework of having a compelling narrative week after week. They appreciate the fact that somebody is attempting to tell dynamic stories, and attempting to at least show it as it really is. I would say that the majority of the feedback has been positive.

But you don't usually expect death threats as a showrunner, do you?

Death threats, not as good. For the most part, it's people upset that we're doing it at all, we're having Hollywood actors, and none of these things would happen, and you'd never have a character like Gemma. People don't understand that we're creating entertainment as well, the ones who think we're making a documentary.

I've really enjoyed those modern covers you've done of all those '60s folk and rock songs. Where did the idea for those come from?

When we were doing the origins of all of this and coming up with the tone of the show, I just knew culturally, that music was going to be really important, that northern California sound. I knew I didn't want to just do traditional needle drops like we did on "The Shield." I hired a guy named Bob Field Jr., who's our music supervisor, and Bob is a great musician. He produced a couple of Katie's albums and a lot of local bands, and I knew he'd be able to do some scoring for us. I know how expensive it is to get masters, so I knew he'd be able to do some covers for us, and he just ran with it. I'd be able to say to Bob, "Hey, what about an acoustic version of 'Fortunate Son?'" and then four days later, I'd get an MP3 of a couple of people doing it. He's very plugged into the independent music circuit here, and found people like Audra Mae who did the Dylan cover in episode 12. For me, it's become thematically important to the show.

How did Katey wind up doing that "Son of a Preacher Man" cover? And do you have to fight the temptation to ask her to record half of these?

Obviously, I'm a big fan of my wife. I love some of the stuff that she does, it's pretty soulful. I was thinking originally of using the Aretha Franklin cover of that song and couldn't afford the master. It was 60 thousand dollars, something like that. And I had the idea, I knew Katey had a couple of these blues singers who sang on her album, and I knew I could get her cheap. And then she just knocked it out of the park. She loved the song.

You're going to be called the heir to "The Shield" now.

I think it's a different kind of show. There were two set of shoes laid before my feet. One was, obviously, "The Sopranos" because of the world. And the other was "The Shield." They're two fairly big sets of shoes. But I'm proud of the show and of this first season. And hopefully we continue.

Alan Sepinwall can be reached at asepinwall@starledger.com.
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Sons of Anarchy, "The Revelator": To destiny run, or not to destiny run?

Spoilers for the "Sons of Anarchy" season one finale coming up just as soon as I visit an out-of-town bar...
"Time for a change." -Piney
"Yeah." -Jax
Kurt Sutter (who not only wrote the finale but made his directorial debut on it) said in our interview that he wanted "to end this season on an exclamation point and not a question mark," and he clearly accomplished that. Jax, with the realization that Clay and Tig were responsible for Donna's murder, and with the prodding of both Hale and Piney (who, remember, co-founded the club with Jax's dad), has stopped asking "to be or not to be?" He's ready to take action, and based on how he handled the two crises of the finale -- Piney mouthing off at the Niner bar, Tig about to shoot the teenage witness -- he (and Charlie Hunnam, who got a lot more interesting once Jax became less passive) should be ready for it.

Like a lot of epic cable dramas (though not, oddly, "The Shield"), this season played out with the major earth-shattering event in the penultimate episode, while the finale was primarily a time for reflection and setting up the events of next season. And I think it worked really well on that level. Jax took his opportunities to step up (including a cemetery-inappropriate, but otherwise necessary, PDA with Tara), we got further clues that Jax's dad didn't die such an accidental death, and the supporting cast -- particularly Katey Sagal, Ron Pearlman, Kim Coates and newly-promoted regular Ryan Hurst -- got to do some fine work showing their grief and confusion over Donna's death.

The 90-minute length didn't seem to add much in the way of plot, but it did allow for more moments of quiet, powerful reflection, whether it was Clay and Tig at the horse farm, or Gemma helping the arthritic Clay button up his shirt for the funeral, or Opie sadly taking off his son's tie (men in this world don't wear ties), plus the beautiful final sequence of Jax walking around the cemetary, and ultimately stopping by the graves of his brother and father.

As I said in yesterday's column (which included excerpts of the longer Sutter interview that should be right above this post), I've been really impressed by this show's improvement curve over the season. It's not in the class of "The Shield" yet (after that series finale, it's hard to think of many shows that are), but it does feel like a worthy heir.

Some other thoughts on "The Revelator":

• One thing I neglected to ask Kurt about: the homeless girl has now had two prominent but seemingly random scenes the last two weeks, this time swapping her blanket for Jax's hoodie so he could catch some cemetery shut-eye. Given all the show's explicit "Hamlet" love, is she supposed to be the gravedigger? Yorick?

• Line of the night, by Wendy and about Gemma: "You're like Dr. Jekyll and Donna Reed."

• What on earth happened to Tom Everett Scott's career? It's certainly not a bad thing to be appearing on a show of this quality, but he's headlined a bunch of shows, and now he's doing a small role as SAMCRO's attorney? Was "That Thing You Do" really that long ago? (Wow; it was 12 years ago.)

• Stahl's scene in prison with Bobby Elvis was very nicely-played by Ally Walker and Mark Boone Jr., and I thought it was a nice touch that Bobby's hair was gray because he didn't have access to his usual grooming products. ("Say Anything" did a similar beat with John Mahoney's hair when Lloyd visited him in jail.)

• Again, Donna's funeral is probably not the ideal time and place for Jax to be declaring his romantic intentions, but dammit if Hunnam's little nod and smile after the kiss wasn't cool.

What did everybody else think?
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Today I am thankful for... the new 'Cupid' trailer

I was originally going to save this post for tomorrow, figuring that it would give me at least one new thing up on the blog for Thanksgiving, but then I realized that most of us will be too busy being with family, or watching the Detroit Lions stink, or carving new notches into their belts to hang around a TV blog, so I'm jumping a gun, just in time for all of you to instead be busy driving or flying to your Turkey Day destination. (Timely, that's me!)

Anyway, a bunch of people have been e-mailing me over the last week to point out that a new trailer for ABC's upcoming "Cupid" remake (now an official Thomas/Ruggiero joint, as opposed to Rob Thomas solo) is up on YouTube for your viewing pleasure.

It's obviously hard to judge much from just the brief snippets -- particularly whether the two leads have chemistry -- but I liked what little I saw of Bobby Cannavale in the old Jeremy Piven role and am looking forward to seeing a full version, whenever ABC gets around to giving the show a timeslot. (It's one of several midseason ABC shows that has yet to be scheduled; I'm still hopeful it winds up after "Grey's" or "Desperate Housewives," even for a few weeks.)

So watch, and feel free to use this post to speculate on the remake, or talk about your favorite Thanksgiving-related TV moments of all time (Hulu now has the entire legendary "WKRP in Cincinnati" turkey episode up), or just what you're thankful for, TV-wise.

Enjoy the holiday. Other than some "Sons of Anarchy" stuff tonight at 11:30, don't expect much out of me before Monday at the earliest -- if for no other reason than that there's nothing much on before then. Click here to read the full post

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Shield, "Family Meeting": Goodbye, Vic Mackey

A review of the series finale of "The Shield" coming up just as soon as I take a closer look at my snake habitat...
"All those busts. All those confessions you got in this room, illegal or otherwise. All the drugs you got off the street tonight for ICE. You must be very proud of yourself. This is what the hero left on his way out the door." -Claudette Wyms
And, at the end of the amazing series finale of "The Shield," this is what Vic Mackey has left on his way out the door: one cop murdered by his own hands; another cop murdered by his protege; the protege having killed himself, his two-year-old son and pregnant wife; his last surviving partner doomed to life in prison because of his association with Vic; and a wife so disgusted by and terrified of him that she went running into witness protection to keep him from ever seeing their kids again.

As with "The Sopranos," the show we so often compared "The Shield" to, we didn't get either of the predicted endings, as Vic didn't die or go to prison. But the diabolical fate that "Shield" creator Shawn Ryan constructed for his anti-hero had elements of both. Vic may not be dead, but he's lost everything and everyone that ever mattered to him: his friends, his family, his reputation. And he may not technically be in jail, but his vengeful new federal boss has constructed his new job like a three-year prison stretch, with an ill-fitting suit as his uniform and a barren cubicle as his cell.

Now, I loved the "Sopranos" finale, but it was an abstract kind of love, because that show deliberately disengaged from its audience at the end, gave us a climax we're still puzzling over. "The Shield" has never been about abstractions. While it had thoughtful things to say about law-enforcement and urban life (and continued to do so through the finale), its pleasures were largely visceral. And you can't get more visceral than several sequences in the finale, which was the most satisfying end to a great drama series that I've ever seen.

Start with Vic and estranged, fugitive sidekick Shane's final showdown. Though it was on the phone, an in-person encounter couldn't have cut any deeper than the things each man said to each other: that Vic had negotiated a deal that would prevent Shane from saving his wife from prison, and that Shane knew Vic's own wife had turned against him to co-operate with police. And it was that call -- and Vic's taunts about going to visit Shane's kids while Shane rotted in prison -- that led to Shane's horrifying decision to kill not only himself, but his wife and young son, to ensure they remained "innocent."

(I take copious notes whenever I watch a show like this, part transcription of what's happening on screen, part capsule of my feelings as I'm watching, and when Shane's house was notably silent after he blew his brains out, I started typing "OH NO OH NO OH NO OH NO OH NO" over and over, realizing what Claudette was going to find when she went into the other room. Just a massive gut punch. It still upsets me thinking about it a month after first watching the episode.)

And Shane's murder-suicide led to the first of two astonishing, entirely silent scenes by Michael Chiklis. Vic's ex-boss Claudette, unable to prosecute Vic for a single one of his crimes due to the blanket immunity deal he scammed, hurt him the only way she could: by confronting him with the truth of all he had done. Ordering Vic into The Barn's interrogation room -- and insisting he sit on the side of the table ordinarily reserved for the perps -- she read to him from Shane's suicide note, then laid out the crime scene photos of Shane, Mara and little Jackson.

Chiklis has never been better than he was in that scene, attempting to shut down all his emotions, not show Claudette how much this affected him. Every mannerism -- the glazed look in his eyes, the slight facial twitches -- was perfect, especially the way that, after Claudette left the room, Vic had to roll his head down to look at the photos, as if it was just an accident that he was doing so, because if he actively chose to look at the pictures, then they're real, and they're his fault.

In that scene, and in the mesmerizing final sequence -- four silent minutes of Vic adorning his cubicle with photos of his lost loved ones, impotently watching police cars go by on the street below, and reflecting on all his sins -- Chiklis showed Mackey's tough guy faƧade crack ever so slightly. But in both cases, outside forces -- first Vic remembering the camera in the interrogation room, then the office lights automatically turning off at 6 -- snapped him back to attention and raised his emotional shields.

(Ryan told me that it was a coincidence that both "The Shield" and "The Sopranos" had final scenes punctuated by the lights going out, but the difference between the two shows did get summed up nicely by the way that "The Shield" continued to move forward afterwards, where "The Sopranos" just stopped.)

The finale was dominated by the death of Shane and the destruction of Vic's life -- which included another final humiliation by Claudette, as she made him watch the arrest of longtime sidekick Ronnie -- but Ryan was able to provide satisfying grace notes for most of the major characters.

Dutch, once the butt of Vic's barbs and practical jokes, now stood as the respected cop who got to slap the cuffs on Ronnie while the rest of The Barn watched approvingly. (In possibly the series' funniest line, when Ronnie asked what he was being arrested for, Dutch said, "The last three years.") He also met an interesting romantic prospect (Billings' lawyer, played by Jay Karnes' real-life wife, Julia Campbell), and he and Claudette also got to put one final serial killer into the interrogation room. Though Lloyd hadn't given it up by the end of the episode -- even after we got to hear one final entry from Dutch's Amazing Serial Killer Fact File, about how the streets of LA are literally paved with dead bodies -- it was clear his confession was just a matter of time.

Also, sadly, a matter of time: Claudette's impending death from lupus. In a moment as dignified as it was heartbreaking (CCH Pounder, like Chiklis and Walton Goggins, deserves serious Emmy consideration), Claudette told Dutch that her medication had stopped working, that, "All I have to do is deal with this pain every day, and every day that I can, I will show up. Until the day that I don't." She'll probably outlast Lloyd, and she was able to get some small measure of justice (karmic, if not actual) on Vic, but her clock is running down, fast.

Vic's old rival, cop-turned-politican David Aceveda, seems a lock to win the mayoral election after being tangentially involved in Vic's final, biggest drug bust, and it's clear he'll be just as effective at cleaning up City Hall as he was in corralling Vic -- that is, not at all.

Ryan didn't like to make the series' themes too overt, but in the finale he brought back Andre Benjamin from OutKast as neighborhood activist Robert Huggins (he first appeared in a season three episode as the owner of a comic book shop), this time waging his own fringe party run for mayor, talking about "a new paradigm" for law-enforcement and a change to the "prison-industrial complex." In the end, while Aceveda was busy doing TV interviews taking credit for Mackey's work, Huggins was shot and killed while picketing a crackhouse -- trying to effect change instead of just talking.

For a series that was as fast and loud as any in TV history, after this finale what "The Shield" may be remembered for are the slow, silent moments: Claudette and Dutch looking at the tableau of Shane's murdered family, Claudette watching Vic try not to look at the crime scene photos, or Vic stoically decorating his cubicle.

Our final image of Vic Mackey isn't of him on the verge of tears (that came earlier), but of him tucking his off-duty gun in his waistband and walking out into the night, a brutal expression on his face that said he was looking for someone to hurt. I wouldn't want to be that someone.

Some other thoughts on "Family Meeting":

• Next to the tableau of Mara and Jax lying so peacefully on the bed, the bouquet in her hands, the toy truck in his, the most disturbing part of that storyline was the small scene of Shane helping Mara go to the bathroom because she was in too much pain to even wipe herself. That's a classic example of what David Milch used to talk about with "NYPD Blue": people noticed the nudity and language, but the relaxed content standards also gave him a much greater freedom to show small, painfully honest moments in the lives of his characters. I suppose a network show could have given a version of that bathroom scene, but it wouldn't have been as explicit and humiliating, and in turn wouldn't have made it as clear just how horrible things had gotten for those two.

• For that matter, Shane and Mara's discussion about what to name their unborn baby daughter is devastating (especially on second view). Shane and Mara brought all of this doom down upon themselves, but in that moment, Walton Goggins and Michelle Hicks made you forget about the murders and just think about Shane and Mara as parents who might never get to hold their kids again.

• Clark Johnson returns, not only as director (forming a neat loop with the series pilot in the same way he did with "The Wire"), but in a brief cameo as the U.S. Marshal introducing Corrine and the kids to their new home in Rockford, Ill. (Shawn Ryan's hometown, not coincidentally.) In the closing credits, Johnson's character is identified as "Handsome Marshal."

• Some people wondered last week how Vic could have such amazing recall of every crime he needed to confess to ICE to make sure it was included in the immunity agreement. This week provided a good explanation: Vic had studied up on Shane's blackmail file (and that, in turn, inspired him to remember the things Shane forget to write down).

• I loved how much smaller Vic seemed in that suit (I suspect the wardrobe department deliberately picked out one that was a size or two too big), and how pained he looked throughout the HR reps' tour of his new hell. Note that for help, he now has to dial 912 instead of 911.

• As Shawn discusses in the post-finale Q&A, the songs bookending the episode are "Los Angeles" by X, and "Long Time Ago" by Concrete Blonde. He initially wanted the latter song to start during the final scene but was convinced (by Landgraf, I think) to let Vic's exit to play out in silence. As it is, the song and the montage of classic "Shield" moments (I had forgotten all about Shane with the earbuds) was a reminder of just how far all these characters had come (and, in many cases, fallen) since a long time ago. Plus, it forced FX to run the final credits at their full size, instead of squishing the names of all the crew people in their victory lap.

• You could argue that the three uniformed cops -- Danny in particular -- got short shrift in the finale, but Julien and Tina were involved in the very engaging, mission statement-y Andre 3000 story, so I'm okay with that. You can't fit everything in, even at 90 minutes. Shawn does talk at length in our interview about why he never revisited the matter of Julien's sexuality, and you may have noticed the moment, as he and Tina are driving to break up Huggins' stump speech, that his attention is briefly captured by the sight of a very happy and playful gay couple holding hands on the sidewalk.

• Nobody has a kind word or thought for Aceveda in this episode, do they? Huggins dubs him "Mr. Asses-veda," and Claudette wouldn't even dream of telling this clown about her illness in the way she opens herself up to Dutch. Dial back seven years (three years in show time), and I think she would have much more readily told David about the lupus than Dutch-boy.

• All the major personal stuff obscured the Beltran takedown, but it did give Vic an opportunity for one last bit of creative problem-solving -- sticking Santi's head into the poisonous snake's habitat to make him talk -- and there were some other nice action/character beats throughout, particularly Ronnie's desire to finish what they started, and Ronnie possibly saving Vic's life by warning him about the gunman in the warehouse. (Look how happy Ronnie seems when he starts talking about cowboys, and how heartbroken Vic looks when Ronnie's back is turned. Vic is a bastard for selling out his friend, but at least he has enough self-awareness to recognize what he did.) Hell of a moment from David Rees Snell as Ronnie's being dragged away by the uniforms and the entire precinct is glaring at Vic with disdain. (Also, loved his disbelief as he asked Vic, "You told them... all of it?")

• Before we screened this episode a few weeks back, everyone -- the critics, the FX publicist, everybody but Shawn Ryan -- kept getting the title confused and calling it "Family Matters." Finally, Ryan cracked, "Just call it 'Urkel.'"

• Hands up, everybody who took one look at Olivia back in the season premiere and assumed, based on the show's past history, that Vic would wind up sleeping with her. Ryan said he knew that would be the expectation, which is one of the reasons he went with an attractive blonde for Vic's ICE contact. One of the things that jumped out at me when giving the episode a second view is how often Olivia reminds Vic to report to her office at 9 a.m. sharp tomorrow, making it clear how much she's looking forward to giving him some slight comeuppance for what he did to her.

• Have I mentioned yet how much I loved this episode?

If you have the time (say, if you have a long Thanksgiving flight ahead of you) and aren't ready to let the show go just yet, don't forget to take a look at the Shawn Ryan Q&A, which addresses, among other points, his thoughts on doing some kind of "Shield" movie down the road.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at asepinwall@starledger.com
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The Shield: Shawn Ryan post-finale Q&A

The following transcript comes from two different conversations with "The Shield" creator Shawn Ryan: a two-hour-plus chat he had with FX president John Landgraf and a half-dozen TV critics immediately after we watched the series finale (click here for the finale review), and then a solo phone interview last week that ran about an hour. Because Shawn talked for so long, and because both conversations bounced around frequently, I'm combining the two and rearranging the Q&A by topic rather than by chronology. All questions from the group chat are paraphrased and appear in italics; questions from the phone interview will be italicized and bolded.

THE ENDING

When did you come up with the endings for Vic and Shane?

We spent a lot of time figuring out, and I would say, right around the third or fourth episode of this season, how we wanted to end it. I've actually had in my head for a couple of years, the idea of Vic in a suit, in an office somewhere, consigned to Hell. I knew that, but I had no idea how to get there. But we figured out the Shane stuff, and the family stuff, and we had to figure out how to get there.

The thing I kept talking to the writers about, once Shane and Mara went on the run, was for Shane and Mara to become closer. In a strange way, it becomes a romantic tale between them, while Vic and Corrine get torn apart. They meet different fates.

That's a really uncompromising choice on Shane and his family.

You don't do something like that idly. I have two kids. But there are people who do that, and they think they do it for the right reasons. We were writing that in the summer and fall of last year, and there was that wrestler last year, sort of steroided out. It's such a f---ed-up mindset that exists in some people, that we're better off together than torn apart in this world. In a way, I'm sort of glad we were on strike (when the finale was shot), because I would have had to go watch that scene. It was tough. Walton was so seminal to the show.

There was a lot of discussion about Shane and how his fate would end. We figured out around episode 3 or 4 what we wanted to do, and we got on a call with John (Landgraf) and the people with Fox TV, our studio.

I do remember that, that's the first moment I thought, "Well, this could work." Because in the bubble of the writers room, you usually have a pretty good idea whether something works or not, but the ones that are really out there, until you expose them to some people you're not sure. And this was a pretty heavy thing: "We want Shane and Mara to go on the run, and ultimately he takes his own life and he takes their lives in an effort to keep them from being captured and to keep them tog as a family."

What was it like to watch those episodes again with us?

It's obviously been a special show for me, but it's nervousness, even knowing what's coming, and I'm really impressed with the actors in this, like that scene with Claudette and Vic at the end, where she lays the photos out, I still get goosebumps watching that. Michael barely says a word in that scene. In fact, I'm not sure he says a single word, but just watching his face and reaction to all that (was incredible).

I've always been incredibly lucky, I take great pride in the scripts, and the writers and I work very hard on the scripts, but these episodes turn out better than the scripts because you can't just write, "Vic gives a mesmerizing look for 30 seconds." You have to trust your actor to do that, and we're just so lucky to have all them and to see them play, and then to have someone like Andre Benjamin come for this episode and play that stuff, that was great.

Is all of Andre's talk about "a new paradigm" supposed to be a mission statement for the series?

We've never tried to comment too much but you give yourself maybe a little license in the finale to say something through a character. A lot of that story was inspired and helped by Chick Eglee, who is the old pro on our staff who really came up with a lot of that stuff. We all know there's something wrong with how the system works and different people have different ideas what to do about it, but his was an interesting, occasionally rational voice.

Why doesn't Dutch get a win?

Don't you think Dutch is going to win with that kid at the end, do we have to see it?

We cast his wife in real life, Julia Campbell (as Billings' lawyer). That was my little hint that that should work out well for Dutch.

What were the songs used at the beginning and end of the finale?

Those were two LA bands: X's "Los Angeles" at the beginning, and then Concrete Blonde at the end, that song is called "Long Time Ago." I'd always envisioned that Concrete Blonde song ending the show, and the first cut I sent John, the first cut I did that I sent him, I started that Concrete Blonde song over like the last 5 seconds that you saw Vic putting on his jacket and leaving, and I did it because over last 3 years I thought I want to end the show on that song, that song has always spoken to me in terms of this show.

It's really shocking to see those moments of intense silence, like Vic sitting at the interrogation room table before he confesses.

We have done it before. The thing I always say is that if you have a real breakneck pace show, which we tend to have, that those moments when you decide to slow down and just live with someone, they stand out more. My guess is they're probably not as long as you think, but because show usually goes rip-roaring along, when we do slow down for something like that, that they stand out.

Do you view what happens to Vic as a fate worse than death?

As a shark and a survivor, no, I think as long as a shark's alive it can find some place to swim to, I think this is a bad situation for him, and I don't think he's gonna enjoy those three years. The tank's very tiny at the moment.

The other thing, and I've always had this in mind for a number of years because, some people would write, whether it was fans or some critics, about "How many bad things can these cops do and not get caught?" I realize, you do research, there was a group of Chicago cops, one tried to put a hit out on another cop because he was afraid that the guy might turn, and I read about a guy who was doing this kind of stuff for like 11 years. And there was always one common ending to those stories that I found, and that was one of the cops eventually turned on the other cops, to lessen their own load. And so I always had in my mind that as much as a team guy that Vic would be -- and he would not do this until it was his last resort, but he would do it -- is that he would sacrifice somebody like Ronnie for his own freedom and safety. And of all the police corruption scandals I investigated, they all end with one of the cops eventually turning on another.

And he winds up betraying Ronnie.

He's the classic scorpion on the frog, Vic. I think that they can work this way, they can talk any frog into the trip across the river, but then he stings and in some cases he does that in an episode and in other cases it takes 7 seasons to do it.

I don't think he relished doing it, I think he felt bad about doing it, but ultimately there is a real kind of selfishness that exists there.

Vic had the opportunity early in that second to last episode to screw him, and didn't. It was only when he had to make a choice with the mother of his child, that's when he screwed him. I don't think Vic would do it out of simple self-preservation; he would have run. But he knows his autistic kids can't run, his family can't run.

And he gets away with everything.

That's why I like that ending, is he kinda does and he kinda doesn't.

But everybody knows what he's done.

Yes, and his self-image is important to him, but he's not in a cell next to Antwon Mitchell, like Ronnie is. He's not dead by his own hand, the way that Shane is. He's not dead by the hand of another team member, the way that Lem is.

I never had any doubt if there was one person to skate on the whole thing, that it would be Vic, that Vic was just that step ahead of everyone else.

Had you envisioned any other endings earlier? Did you ever consider Vic dead or Vic in jail or even Vic, somehow, someway, keeping his badge and triumphing completely?

We talked about a lot of things, because you want to explore all possibilities. Even though I had that thought of Vic caged in some office, I wasn't sure if there would be a good way to get there. While it was a place I could see as a signpost ahead. The way the story broke for us, it seemed the right way to go.

But would you have been okay with a version where Vic died, or where he got away with it?

That's a tough one. I'm just trying to go through my mind, the various blind alleys we went down. I really kind of felt like we let the story discover itself. We didn't try too hard to pigeonhole an ending and work towards that. If we found something that worked for us -- I investigated briefly the idea does Vic die but appears to die heroically, and the image the city is left with from a PR standpoint is sort of "Hero cop gives life for toddler in burning house," or whatever the equivalent would be. I thought there was an interesting possibility there, that the way we're remembered isn't the way that we were. But that didn't feel as good. But if the right story came where Vic got away with it, or went to jail, or died in the line of fire, I wouldn't have been afraid to do that.

So it's fair to say that you weren't trying to make a thematic point, but just let the story and the characters dictate where things should go?

That's a good way of putting it, yes.

Vic's confession just goes on forever, doesn't it?

In the first draft there were more, and then we cut them back, seriously it went on longer. But it was just from a plot point of view: we needed to clear him, so he had to say them all. I mean, the audience has seen everything he's done, they know that there's a litany.

I remember when I first saw the cut, like this is something an actor does that you just don't script, but when we came back from commercial break and Vic's remembering, and he has that little laugh, the way that you would remember how your kid threw up on an amusement park ride, "Oh, yeah," but he's talking about some awful things. It's such a great moment for Michael.

THE SHIELD: THE MOVIE?

The series ends with Vic alive and relatively free, and while you strongly hint at what's to come for Claudette and Dutch and some of the others, could you ever see yourself revisiting this world in some form a few years down the road?

Possibly. I might be interested in where Vic Mackey is when that three years with ICE is up. I don't think it would be as a TV series. I don't know if anyone would want to make a movie of it. Again, we're not a "Sopranos," "Sex and the City"-esque hit, but we've also made our shows cheap and dirty and it's done well overseas, so that's something I could investigate.

But if anything came out of it, it would only be after giving FX the ending the series deserved. We did not leave anything out in order to preserve the opportunity to do something like that.

So do you ever think about what the characters are up to after the events of the finale?

I do. I envision Ronnie with a shaved head, probably having to sidle up to some of the white supremacist crowd to stay alive, so that might be interesting to see.

GOOD GUYS AND BAD GUYS

We talked a lot over the years about how some fans refused to judge Vic and Shane no matter what they did. And it felt like this season, there was a concerted effort on your part to make their actions so extreme that there would be no doubt left as to exactly who and what they were. Was that your intention?

I'm not sure I agree with you. I'm sure there will be plenty of fans who will work hard to find ambiguity. I don't want to dictate how people think about Vic Mackey. I had my ideas, and those ideas worked their way into the writing, but there's ways for people to watch and argue and have different opinions, but it just felt like the story demanded more desperate measures on both their parts. Obviously, those guys are capable of it, and this season they were placed in a position where they had to do that.

I think the reaction was specifically strong after we got to the episode where we found out that Vic was ready to kill not only Shane, but Mara and the unborn baby.

Would he have? He had the shot, but you could see that he was hesitating. it was a tough one. I talked with Michael a lot about that moment, and how it should play. "Is he certain, is there some element of doubt?" What was fun was putting Vic and Shane in a position of, "It's you or me." There really wasn't a way for both of them to get out of this.

If Vic doesn't taunt Shane about going to visit Jackson while Shane is in prison, does Shane do what he does to his family?

Possibly not. And that was intentional, and I think that's part of what goes through Vic's head as he's going through those (crime scene) photos later in the episode. I think one of the things that people always liked about Vic was that he had a code and that he was true to that code, and that the code allowed for a lot of creative rules and breaking of laws, but oftentimes there was a greater good there. I think Vic -- you're getting me to talk about this more than I would like to -- Vic has a harder time at that table justifying his code when he looks at those photos and thinks about that phone call. But he lives with it for a minute and then he turns it off. And then he looks at the camera and realizes he probably let someone see something he didn't want to be seen, and he compartmentalizes again and turns it off.

I know you don't like to talk about what it all means, but one of things that struck me in watching this season, there were a lot of moments where Vic and Ronnie and Shane are busy cleaning up one mess after another with the Armenians and the Mexicans, and there's Julien in the background getting actual work done, to the point where it becomes a problem for them with their extra-curricular activities. Were you trying to make some kind of point about what the strike team could have been if they hadn't been caught up in all this other stuff?

I think that was a byproduct. I don't think I'd call that an intention. It seemed like that's the cop Julien would be. I think it was episode six where the attempted hit on Shane and the Armenians went down, they were counting on being with Julien and not getting much done, and Julien kept coming up with clues. What was always fun about "The Shield" was you could tell those stories, and you don't see those stories on "Law & Order" and "Without a Trace." Those are the best stories to tell: Julien's just getting a little too much done. That's a conflict you don't see on other shows. We were always trying to look for those things: what were those stories you can see on "The Shield" and don't see on any other show? When you take those dynamics, the rogue band of cops, you look for those stories that those characters open up that you won't see anywhere else.

MISSED OPPORTUNITIES

You've said often that you wrote the pilot without ever
expecting it would be made, and that you made it without ever expecting it would go to series, let alone a series that would run this long. With 20/20 hindsight, if you had known what the show would become, is there anything you would have done differently with that pilot?


Boy, I don't know. I know you and I have had conversations about, "Is the Vic Mackey who shot Terry Crowley in the pilot the same Vic Mackey who exists in the series afterwards?" Different people have different opinions about that. I think it worked. Maybe I would have held it back in episode two if I knew we would be on, but when we made that pilot, you have no such assurances. You have to establish who your character is and what the dilemma is. If we had some assurance, it would have been cool to have Reed Diamond on the show for four or five episodes and see Vic and Shane wrestle with what to do. Certainly, there could have been a very good story to tell about that -- maybe they try to set Terry up so he loses his job before he can rat on them. But that's just me thinking right now about it.

Since this is the final time we're going to discuss this, was there any point in the run of the series where you said to yourself, "Man, I wish I hadn't made Vic kill a cop way back when, because it kind of gets in the way of the point I want to make here?"

No.

Any stories or other decisions you wish you had a mulligan on? Stories you wish you'd spent more time on?

I know (John) Landgraf disagrees with this, but I still don't know that we gave a total 10 to the Glenn Close character and situation. She was so good that I figured a lot of people rolled with it and there were some good episodes in that season. But when I look at what a clear take we had on season five with Forest's character, or the clear take we had in this final season, or season one, or the money train storyline, I don't think we ever had as full a grasp of exactly what we wanted to do with Glenn. It was a great character, I think, we got off to a good start. We weren't trying to make her a mortal enemy of Vic, the way we did with Forest Whitaker, the way we were able to do in the final season with Shane, and it made the storytelling tougher. I'm honest enough with myself to know that we didn't have as complete a clear take as we did in other seasons. I don't know that audience members would agree with that, but that's my take, if I'm being brutally honest with myself.

Were there any people you wanted to bring back for this final season but couldn't?

The one person that I wanted to use in this season that I couldn't was Franka Potente. We had a little mini story arc that was going to deal with her character, but she was stuck in the jungles of Bolivia or something filming "Che" for Steven Soderbergh, in like this never ending film session, she really wanted to come back, we had like a 2-3 episode thing that was gonna incorporate her, it would have complicated the Armenian-Mexican thing, it would've made you so happy, Alan.

We were always looking for excuses to bring Anthony Anderson back but there was just no right story this year. We've been talking about bringing Army back, Michael Pena, and he had wanted to do it for awhile but people keep hiring him to do movies so we haven't been able to get him.

People still ask about Julien's struggle with his sexuality and Dutch strangling the cat. Why did you decide to move away from both of those stories?

Julien, we covered that a lot in the first two seasons. And I felt like at that point, we'd investigated every alley we could with that. The place we got with Julien -- married, being a stepfather to this kid, really clinging to his religious convictions -- it seemed to me like this was a guy who would live that life for 8-10 years before it all came crashing down. In the storytime we were telling everything else, it didn't seem real that he would backslide so quickly. I'd done a lot of research on these people who come out of the closet after 20 years of marriage. That seemed to be the real thing. I really took very seriously Julien's issues of faith, and it felt to me in some ways he was a very strong guy, in some ways, he was weak, but one way he seemed strong was I thought he would resist this for a while. I do read the forums, and I know people ask what's going on, and I did want to throw that little ode, in the finale, you see him watching those two gay men holding hands and walking to that thing, that was my acknowledgment that that struggle and that chapter isn't closed just because the show's ending. It's a small grace note that casual fans may miss, but the hardcore fans might not ignore it.

As for Dutch and the cat, I always viewed that as a one-episode story. I was sort of surprised when people watched it, and most people really loved it. Dutch strangling the cat and Aceveda getting sexually assaulted are the two things people always bring up to me on the show, or Lem's death. I think it was so impactful for a lot of people, and they're so used to impactful things on "The Shield" carrying over, that I realized after the fact that people were expecting that, and by then, we'd moved on. I just saw it as Dutch stuck in an interrogation room with Clark Gregg, thinking he's manipulating this guy, but Clark Gregg's manipulating him and using Dutch's insatiable desire to understand these people. I thought it was clear the way Jay played it that he felt used at the end. I never felt like it was played as, "Oh, I'm really getting juice out of this." People have compared Dutch to Bayliss (from "Homicide"), and they did a storyline on "Homicide" near the end where he got really fascinated with that stuff and killed someone, and I didn't want to cover any territory that Tom Fontana and those people did so well.

THE BARN TIMELINE

What kind of timespan did all these events take place over?

What we started figuring out was that a typical "Shield" season would take place in about 3-4 weeks time. We did our best to try to make sure that everything was accurate, time-wise.

Were Vic's kids played by the same actors all the way through?

Believe it or not the only contract dispute that I was unable to successfully resolve in my history with "The Shield" was for the kid playing his son Matthew, and we recast that. I think it was season 3, sort of like "The Partridge Family" swapping out drummers. Obviously the kids have grown, that's an area where you could probably catch us if you went back.

But we did figure out, we referenced it at the end, it was about 2 1/2-3 year period, the total scope of the show.

Then Aceveda had a really meteoric rise in that time, from new precinct captain to mayoral frontrunner.

Or Barack Obama in that time.

WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN, AND HOW DO WE GET THERE?

(Landgraf gives a long monologue comparing The Shield with Shakespeare.)

I think John gives me a little too much credit, I mean the reason why I think John and I have a good relationship is, you see how smart John is right there.

I tend to be much more of am instinctual writer, and I think where the partnership was really good for us is that he really thought in these terms, and he really pushed me to see the series as a five-act Shakespearean kind of drama and where would that go. I don't think I would've thought of that in my own terms.

I always just would sit in the writers room and think, "What's cool?" And I don't mean what's cool like what's trendy, what's "Gossip Girl"-y. I mean "what's cool" is what gives me a little jolt in my heart watching something on TV, what feels right, what feels authentic, what feels surprising, and to sort of take that instinct, which I think myself and the writers were good at getting, and filtering it through a plan that John suggested to us, of thinking of it as five-act tragedy, is what led me there.

I will take credit for one decision I made early on that I think benefited the show tremendously, and that was after that first season where we got a lot of praise, we won some awards, my first instinct at beginning of the second season was I said, "I think the success of the show will come from going smaller rather than trying to go bigger."

Meaning, that, there was a lot of ass-kicking and out there sort of stuff. And it's not that the show didn't do that again, but the show to me became more and more and more personal to the characters over the years, and that's why I think we were able to keep it going. And it got to that point of being so personal that literally in these final two episodes you have whole segments which is just the camera on an unspeaking character and yet you've lived with them and gone through the journey with them for so many seasons that you understand what they're thinking, even if you don't necessarily empathize with them.

And I think that was a key to the longevity of the show, was not trying to say, "Boy, you know, we did all this outrageous stuff, what can we do that's more outrageous?" I think the show became less outrageous over the years, and I think if we had gone the other direction I think we would have flamed out quicker.

Vic sometimes seems like a superman, doesn't he?

There is definitely a heightened aspect to it, and this is the difference I think between "The Wire" and "The Shield," "The Wire" strives to be utterly sort of journalistic. I've always come from a place as a fan of TV from looking for that I like to say cool, sort of entertaining thing. And so I fully acknowledge there are aspects of Vic that we always tried to keep in the believable, but were in the high portion of the believable and of what was cool. But Chiklis will tell you, once every couple of months somebody would come up to him and say, "I'm a police officer and I know a guy like that!"

But he needs no sleep, has instant recall of everything, and has a Huggy Bear on every corner to provide him with tips.

But the Huggy Bears on the corner allowed us to tell the story the way that I wanted to tell it. There's very little exposition on the show a lot of times. And you get to a place where you just assume, Vic knows someone, I don't need to know the three steps. There were a couple scenes that got cut from finale, and I don't think you missed them, because you're used to going along with Vic for a ride, and you assume that when Vic walks into a bar and there's the bad guy that he wants to talk to, you don't wonder, "Well how does he find him?" You figure, "Well, he took two or three steps, I just didn't see it," and we trust that he's that guy.

But it's also a shortcut storytelling wise, it's how we were able to show so much plot, that you don't need to see every single step, I'm not saying it's a bad thing, but on "CSI" or "Law & Order," they take you A-B-C-D-E, you know, all the way down, but to me their episodes end on F or G. Our episode goes from A to Z, but we're skipping letters of the alphabet, which I really think is cool

We showed Vic doing the laundry once and I didn't get a lot of fan mail, so never again.

This is a difference I think between this show and "The Sopranos," and if there's one reason I avoided those kind of stories, it's because I didn't think I could tell those kinds of stories as well as David Chase and company did. I can't tell -- it's not I can't, maybe I could, but it's not my strong suit -- 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."

Late in the run, Vic tells Beltran a story about his grandparents, and before he gives his confession, we hear his full name for the first time ever. We really knew very little about these characters' lives before the series began. Why was that?

David Mamet always talks about backstory being bulls--t in his mind, but I definitely had adopted that attitude before I heard it out of David's mouth. As a storyteller I think I'm a little bit like a shark -- I'm about going forward. And there are certain ways that I ran the show, I would like to think a lot more benevolently than how Vic operated in that world, but the way I ran the show was very similar to the way Vic approached things, and that's where a lot of those stories came from. You know a lot of our episodes, the stories were broken at 11 o'clock at night with deadlines, that "We gotta do this, failure is not an option, what we have is only mediocre right now, you turn it on and you get it done." And those scenes of reflection, you always talk about Vic not liking to be self-reflective, I guess I didn't as a storyteller like to look back too much to the past.

Was it difficult to write the last episode?

This last episode was by far the easiest thing to write on "The Shield," ever, and I don't mean that in some sort of glib way. It's the building up and setting up to get there. I wrote the entire Shane and Mara story in about 2 hours, at my house. The way we always ran "The Shield" is we would tackle the stories, we'd never try to write in order. So I wrote the entire Shane and Mara saga as one document, the entire Vic-Beltran drug takedown as another. Some of my writers contributed scenes in some of those because we were heading towards a deadline, and the one thing I tend to be very good at is figuring out how to integrate them together, how to put them together, within an episode. So once all those dominoes were put in place, that last one went very quick. It just felt like I just had to push the first one and it all fell.

It's those middle episodes where you're trying to conclude the Armenian-Mexican business and you're launching Shane and Vic, and what are we doing with them in The Barn, how are we getting there, those are hard. But once we knew where we were going, we had everything set up, now you've just got to write, you can have fun with it, and write this long scene where he has to wipe her off after going to the bathroom.

I didn't mean to be glib, it's always hard to write things, but that one was easier than most, I think

IN THE BEGINNING

Other than him being physically different from the "Harrison Ford type" image you had in your head, how did the casting of Michael change your original conception of Mackey?

More charismatic. Obviously, you're looking for a charismatic star to play a role. But he made Vic more likable than I thought of him. I thought of him as more of a hard-edged guy, not the guy who would smirk and crack a joke. That inspired me to write Vic that way going forward. He could be hard as nails, but when he wanted to charm you, he could charm you. It's what made people root for him even when they shouldn't.

Charles Wyms became Claudette Wyms when you cast CCH Pounder. Were any other characters changed significantly, either through casting or just over time?

A lot of the times, the casting informed me of who they were. Shane did not have much to do in the pilot, and I give credit to Kevin Reilly at FX. I had initially put forward a different actor for Shane to be approved. He was more a straight ahead looking guy, since I thought Vic would be the Harrison Ford kinda guy, maybe we need that kind of guy but younger as Shane. But Kevin rightly said, "The character doesn't have a lot to do in the pilot, we want someone who'll be an instant character," and we said, "We had this guy who was really good, but there was something a little off about him." That was Walton.

I had no idea how good Walton was when we cast him. Then I saw "The Accountant," the short film he made with his friends that would go on to win an Oscar. I realized this guy is really good, and we wrote him a real big thing in the second episode where Aceveda's interrogating him about Terry's death, and it's that sort of kismet that has really helped the show.

What was the purpose of the B and C stories and Dutch and Claudette, and Danny and Julien? Was it just to lighten the load on Chiklis by making it more of an ensemble show, or was there a thematic point you were trying to make by switching from Vic's latest shenanigans to the work of cops who, for the most part, played by the rules?

It was partly that. It's funny, you probably don't pick up on this, but the show is pretty similar structure-wise to "Nash Bridges," which is where I got my start. The execution may be different, but on "Nash," I got very good at was breaking stories, and sort of balancing, "Nash is over here in the A story, Joe is in the B, and this is how they intersect." I always loved that way of storytelling. I felt like the strike team stories had the impact they had because they weren't taking up an hour of story with them. I see a lot of procedural stories on TV where they have the one case they're trying to solve for the hour, and there are always scenes that drag, that you need to fill out an hour of television but aren't interesting. We always looked at it as, what's the fewest number of beats we need to tell the story?

Also, I wanted to have some balance to these police officers, for every Vic and Shane, there's a Dutch and Julien and Claudette. I was interested in telling those stories as well, how good well-meaning cops can get the job done or not get the job done.

One of my readers suggested there are basically two distinct arcs to the series: everything before Vic robs from the money train, and everything after. That before the theft, Vic is ascendant, can do anything he wants, is largely breaking the law to make money to provide for his family, and after the theft, he's just caught in this downward spiral of trying to cover for the last bad thing he or Shane did. Would you say that's accurate?

I should have had that guy on staff, probably. It's an astute observation, and not one I was aware of at the time. Them looking at the money on the table, and the look of concern coming over their faces of what it all means was a huge turning point. But they still could have gotten away with it, so maybe you extend it to Lem burning the money, where that's the team coming apart, it's all sort of out there and up for grabs, and by season four, Shane's off working on his own and gets tied in with Antwon Mitchell.

I did think that there was an expiration date that we had to be careful of with the Strike Team just blithely going around kicking ass. If you look at real-life incidents like the Rampart scandal, one in Chicago, these guys did pull it off for a number of years. I read about the Chicago cop who was on this 12 year run of taking bullwhips to suspects. I never got the bullwhip into the show.

In real life, there's enough people wiping things under the carpet and enough getting done or however. But I did feel that at a certain point, Vic had to go a little from being a hunter to being the hunted.

THE GREAT ESCAPES

Which came first: the jeopardy, or the escape from it? When you would write Vic into these various messes, particularly the season-long ones, did you always know going in how he would get out of it, or was part of the fun to figure it out at the same pace as Vic?

We figured out the problem first, and then we'd spend three days trying to figure out how to get out of it. What's the tightest box you can get into, what's the biggest moral dilemma you can put your character into? David Mamet keeps talking about -- and I realize I'm quoting Mamet a lot lately -- how good drama and conflict isn't choosing between right and wrong, it's choosing between two wrongs. We did a lot of that on "The Shield." I think a lot of times, choosing between right and wrong, Vic would choose the right. But he wasn't afraid of choosing between two wrongs.

I don't know that we're quite as bad as what I hear about "24," they really write themselves into a situation and then have to figure out how to get out of it at the last possible minute. We were a little bit of that: What's the situation we want to put Vic into, how do we get him out of it, how does it fit into the larger arc of the season? That's why Vic's a compelling character: it takes a group of writers three days to figure out how to get out of a situation, and it takes him ten minutes of screen time to do it.

THE SHIELD: IT'S SO WRONG

When you said you wanted to offer people something they couldn't see anywhere else -- is that what led to some of the more graphic imagery and storylines?

I could blame Kurt Sutter for that stuff. Believe me, there's a lot more pitched, more explicit that we talked about in the room than we put on screen. But it really came from a place of me encouraging the writers, "Don't censor yourself. I'll be here to censor you if you go too far. Just try to come up with the best story, and if it requires us to do something that feels a little shocking, and we can justify and earn it, then we can do it." The writers probably relished it, and would push a little too far in early drafts, and I thought I had a pretty good head for pulling it back. Or we had a really cool idea and thought we had to build up to it and earn it. Vic burning Armadillo's face against a stove in season two, we really built up Armadillo as a really vicious villain where we got to this place of Vic doing it. I would not have done that story of Vic burning a guy's face on a grill if it was just some guy.

When did Chiklis coin the whole "The Shield: It's so wrong" catchphrase?

That was mainly an actor thing, not a writer thing. When Clark (Johnson) directed a batch of two episodes that aired as numbers 3 and 4, while Clark was back filming again, they came up with that. That was a phrase I would hear bandied about on set a lot more than in the writers room. I never wanted to take the attitude that we were trying to be wrong for the sake of being wrong. It amused me that Michael and the actors used that phrase, it was their way of embracing whatever the script sent them.

Were there ever moments, either from the actors on set or from Cathy at home, where people would seem taken aback by the nature of the material?

Only in the first season, before anyone saw any episodes. I remember Catherine Dent almost got physically ill over the "Cherrypoppers" episode, about underage prostitution. No one had seen anything, and she was, like, "You can't do this on TV." I just tried to calm her down and said, "Listen, your job is to act, my job is to write, and you have to trust me." And she came back to me a couple of months later, once everyone was seeing the episodes, and said, "Oh, I get it now."

WHO KNEW WHAT AND WHEN?

How far in advance did the actors know about what was going to happen to their characters?

Usually when they got the scripts for the episodes where those things happened. I would get accused of being overly secretive. But there were two reasons for doing that. One was, I'd often change my mind about where a story would go. I didn't want to promise an actor, "Oh, this moment's going to happen," and it didn't. And also, it's difficult sometimes for actors in an ongoing serialized kind of show. There are certain things where I felt it was important to say, "We're building towards this in a few episodes," but I didn't let Walton know his character was going to do what he was going to do. He read it in a script -- that was a little different because he was in Italy filming the Spike Lee movie - and I think, as great an actor as Walton is, it would have been more difficult to play those scenes squatting in the house, playing the piano and barbecuing burgers, if he knew he was going to kill his family and himself. Michael, in the final episode, has the scene where he stops by the house and says goodbye to the kids, he doesn't know that's the last time he'd see them. But Michael had read the script, and there was a couple of takes where he played it a little bigger, even though Vic is supposed to have no idea that this was a goodbye.

What was Walton's reaction when he got the finale script?

Very moved, and thought it was completely appropriate.

These actors want to play great stuff. They want to play Macbeth, they want to play Hamlet. They don't worry that Hamlet dies in the end. It was tougher for Kenny (Johnson) knowing that the show was going to go on without him.

THE SHIELD VS. THE SOPRANOS

You don't end this show with people eating onion rings and listening to Journey.

It's important, anytime, if anyone writes a big thing about "The Shield," I don't think you can write it without referencing "The Sopranos." This show would not be on TV if not for "The Sopranos," and if not for the success it had creatively and economically, it's the show that I believe gave the courage to FX to try this show. And so I always will have a great debt to that show.

That show was a huge moldbreaker, and opened the way for us, and then I think we opened the way for "Battlestar Galactica," and "the Closer" and "Damages" and "Nip/Tuck." And now a show like "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia," which I adore, is going to open up comedy things for people I think, because it's telling comedic stories in different ways.

I always just had a little jealous love-hate relationship with "Sopranos," in all honesty. It's hard not to. We felt like we made a great show, we felt like our show was comparable to them, and we got about a fifth of the attention and about a 20th of the awards, and you get a little jealous.

I've been able to sort of put that away over the years, and realize that I'm grateful for what I have. But maybe I watched the show with a little harder eye in the later season because I had some jealousy.

But if not for them we wouldn't be on the air, we never would've been on the air. But I don't think that anyone was putting David Chase's feet to the fire in the way that John (Landgraf) would with me if something wasn't coming (out right). And I think we benefited by that.

When they did something well, I think they did it better than anyone, including us, a lot of times, but it wasn't as high a batting average as I would've liked to have seen from them.

THE SHIELD: A GREAT PLACE TO WORK

(Landgraf observes that, for a show with such dysfunctional character relationships, everyone on "The Shield" cast and crew got along remarkably well.)

I always used to joke about "The Shield" vs. "Grey's Anatomy," because we were on same lot. Our drama would be on screen, and theirs would be off screen.

They took over our sets. They ripped down The Barn now, and that's McDreamy's house.

We had to film things so quickly that it just didn't leave a lot of time for actors to sulk in trailers and things like that. Most episodes were filmed in 7 days, we had a little extra time on the finale. We could give ourselves a couple 8-day episodes each year, but for the most part, you'd just do it quick.

And in a strange way, when award attention dropped off after the first couple years, it kind of freed us not to worry about, "What's Michael's Emmy episode going to be?" We never had to worry about that sort of stuff, just focus on, "We'll be the show that's listed in the 'who got robbed this year,' and that's okay." We just knew that's who we were.

Why did the Emmys largely ignore you after Chiklis' one and only win?

I don't necessarily think there was any evil intention behind it. Fewer people watch "The Shield" than watch "Grey's Anatomy" and "House" and "24," and so when you have more people watching those shows, you're going to have more people voting for those shows.

Is it true that you picketed your wife's final scene on the show?

She was upset that I wasn't going to be there, so I said "Well, I guess I could be there if I picketed." So I set up a one-person picket at that point, the scene in the house where Vic's checking in on her and the kids and doesn't realize that will be the last time that he sees them.

(At the end of a long discussion of how Ryan's two best friends are Jay Karnes and David Rees Snell, and how Snell appeared in the pilot as a favor to Ryan because they needed someone to fill a non-speaking role as the fourth strike team member:)

I love what he does in the finale when he finds out Vic has betrayed him. To see your friend go from background extra in the pilot to this big scene in the finale, this great arc over 6, 7 years, was great.

You've said that one day you want to show "The Shield" to your kids so they can understand what Mommy and Daddy were up to when they were growing up. How old do you think they'll have to be before you can have that screening?

It might vary depending on the kid. My guess is junior or senior in high school, freshman in college, but it's as much about emotional maturity as age.

What will be interesting is how the show holds up later. I'm hoping that it holds up well. We made an effort not to put too many pop culture references into the show. I don't think there's a ton of stuff that will date it. There was a Britney Spears reference in the pilot, but we tried not to do too much of that. I'm hoping the story will end intact.

Alan Sepinwall can be reached at asepinwall@starledger.com
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