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The Untold Truth Of The Shield

When The Shield premiered on FX in 2002, basic cable was the go-to place for syndicated reruns, classic movies, and retro gameshows. The program was not only a huge risk for the network, it traversed uncharted territory, exploring what should and shouldn't be allowed on television. The gamble paid off: The Shield ran for a total of seven seasons, ending its run in 2008 — the same year Mad Men and Breaking Bad surfaced on AMC. While most look to those two series as the beginning of TV's modern Golden Age, it'd be a drastic mistake to not recognize the importance of this cop drama.

The Shield told the story of Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis), the corrupt officer in charge of an experimental anti-gang unit within the L.A.P.D. — comprised of Shane Vendrell (Walton Goggins), Curtis "Lem" Lemansky (Kenny Johnson), and Ronnie Gardocki (David Rees Snell) — which was based on L.A.'s equally experimental and controversial Rampart division. Created by Shawn Ryan (Lie to Me, Terriers), the Emmy-winning series not only changed the game for cop dramas, it pushed the programming envelope across the medium, ultimately helping spark a small-screen revolution. It's been over a decade and a half since the series premiered, which makes this the perfect time to look back. This is the untold truth of The Shield.

A TV risk that paid off

Before 2002, FX was known mostly for its odd variety shows — Bobcat's Big Ass Show and The New Movie Show with Chris Gore come to mind. In fact, the only other original series on the network at the time was the Baywatch parody Son of the Beach. This all changed once The Shield joined the lineup. Not only did the series break fresh ground on the FX schedule, it pushed the boundaries of cable programming in general, testing the limits for violence, nudity, and language on a regular basis. 

Soon after FX proved themselves with The Shield, the network brought shows like Nip/Tuck, Damages, and Rescue Me to the fold, continuing to expand on the small screen as a unique source for edgy, worthwhile storytelling. "I think the face of basic cable was changed forever," Michael Chiklis told TV Week. "It made a lot of people think, 'Why can't we?' I think a lot of people made a lot of phone calls and tried to find out what we were doing and the formula behind that." In short, cable television was changed forever.

Shawn Ryan, ad man

Storytelling is a universal art, whether you're penning the next big blockbuster or sharing some poetic musings on social media. At the end of the day, it's all about that human connection between the person telling the story and their audience. This is a truth worth noting when referencing The Shield's creator Shawn Ryan. Since cutting his teeth on the small screen with that game-changing FX series, Ryan has brought shows like Fox's Lie to Me, FX's Terriers, Amazon's Mad Dogs, and NBC's Timeless to life. However, according to AdWeek, the prolific showrunner almost skipped TV entirely for a career in advertising.

After graduating from Vermont's Middlebury University, Ryan landed a job at a Top 40 radio station in the city of Burlington. "There are a lot of things where it was simply, 'We're having a mattress sale this weekend, everything is 30 percent off, sleep better, come in.' Just-the-facts-ma'am ads. But every now and then, you'd get a chance where the client would be like, 'Write something! Present it!'" Ryan recalled, continuing, "In a strange way, it was the beginning of being a showrunner. There's different aspects to the job, and it's working with talent, and writing."

Kurt Sutter's humble beginnings

Kurt Sutter originally wanted to be an actor. It was only after he lost weight, slimming down from his 400-pound peak, and moved to Los Angeles, that he shifted his focus and began putting pen to paper. According to The Hollywood Reporter, "An S&M version of Ally McBeal got him some early Hollywood meetings, but it was a West Wing spec script he sent around in 2001 that caught the right person's attention." That person was Shawn Ryan, who set a meeting with Sutter based on his take on Aaron Sorkin's classic drama. 

Over the span of The Shield, Sutter went from staff writer to executive producer. And once the show made its final bow, Sutter brought his own program to the network: the motorcycle club drama Sons of Anarchy. The series ran seven seasons, with the spinoff series Mayans M premiering in the fall of 2018 — and Sutter signed a new overall deal with the network in the bargain. Not bad for a guy who never intended to make a living as a TV writer.

A Walking Dead connection

In 2007, writer-director Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption) took a break from big-budget filmmaking to direct an episode of The Shield. "Chasing Ghosts" was the sixth episode of the sixth season and not only signified a noteworthy pivot in the show's story, setting up the game-changing conflict between Vic Mackey (Chiklis) and Shane Vendrell (Goggins), it piqued Darabont's interest in television's longform possibilities. IGN celebrated the episode's "great material." Unbeknownst to many, Darabont had a more material in the works — namely, The Walking Dead.

While developing that series, Darabont continued to work, directing the pilot for Fox's short-lived Jeff Goldblum cop drama Raines and adapting Stephen King's The Mist for the big screen. But all the while, Darabont was still aiming to bring the comic-derived zombie tale to television — and fighting an uphill battle with network execs, some of whom even suggested pursuing a crime procedural instead.

When AMC greenlit Walking Dead, Darabont remembered his roots, he enlisting some of The Shield's production team, including Charles H. Eglee, Adam Fierro, and future showrunner Glen Mazzara.

The transformation of Michael Chiklis

Before his Emmy-winning turn as Vic Mackey, Michael Chiklis was known for playing more cuddly, comedic characters — such as Tony Scali, the unimposing police officer in ABC's The Commish. The actor grew tired of being typecast, explaining to The OC Register that his wife was the one who inspired his career transformation. "I had been in a string of shows playing the affable guy, and after one show called Daddio, I was really frustrated. I never got a shot at playing the smart, nuanced, grown-up roles," Chiklis recalled. "It was my wife who said, 'It's incumbent on you to re-invent yourself. It's not incumbent upon the networks to re-invent you.'"

How did Chiklis transform himself to portray edgier roles like hard-boiled cop Vic Mackey? He relied on "healthy, portion-controlled meals ordered from a delivery service," according to Men's Journal. "Chiklis trained six days per week for six months to make the initial transformation. He also ran seven miles per day."

The work paid off. Once The Shield role surfaced on Chiklis' radar, he pursued the part. "We were so close to not even reading Michael Chiklis to play Vic Mackey," Shawn Ryan told Digital Spy, "and then he comes along and defines that role and wins an Emmy. I would argue that in the argument between fate and free will, there's something about the origins of The Shield that argues a little bit for fate." 

Walton Goggins almost didn't make the cut

Until The Shield took TV by storm, Walton Goggins was known mainly for bit parts in '90s programs like In the Heat of the Night and NYPD Blue. Taking on the role of Shane Vendrell put the future star in the spotlight, but according to Goggins, he was almost fired from the show. "The brass at FX saw the pilot, and they thought, 'Who is this f***in' guy? I don't know — is he irritating? I just, I can't read him,'" Goggins told Nashville Scene. "And Shawn didn't tell me this until we were doing the DVD commentary for Season 1 of The Shield — thank God he didn't tell me."

If Goggins never played Shane in The Shield, would we ever gotten memorable characters like Justified's Boyd Crowder or The Hateful Eight's Chris Mannix? What a horrifying thought. Speculation aside, it's worth noting Shawn Ryan's loyalty to his story and character. "He said to them, 'No, no: This guy is my guy, this guy is very special. And, just, leave it to me,'" Goggins continued. "And he knew — and this is something I didn't know — that episode 2 of The Shield had to be about Shane Vendrell, and he wrote it as such. And it was after FX saw that that they began to understand what Shawn saw from the very beginning. The rest was played out before the audience."

An unfortunate video game tie-in

In 2006, Fox teamed with Sony to release 24: The Game for the PlayStation 2. Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) fans were given the opportunity to step into the shoes of the terrorist-fighting CTU agent, while waiting for new episodes to hit the small screen. Sales must have been healthy, because just a year later, a game based on The Shield arrived for the PlayStation and PC.

Much like the 24 game, The Shield was a third person shooter. And while 24: The Game bridged the gap between the second and third seasons of the Fox show, The Shield video game also picked up its TV counterpart's story slack, taking place between season 3 and 4. The game ended up exploring the gang war between rival crews the Byz-Lats and the One-Niners. Unfortunately, the release wasn't well-received. "If you're a fan of the show," IGN said in its review, "you'd be better off avoiding this one, as it makes great strides to damage the otherwise high-quality of the franchise."

A murderous reality

For the duration of the series, actor Michael Jace played the role of Officer Julien Lowe. His character, a strict Christian who hid his homosexuality from his wife and crew, provided an intriguing plot for the already layered FX series. After the show ended, Jace went on to work on programs like Burn Notice and Southland.

His career came to an violent halt in 2014, though, when Jace was arrested for murdering his wife, April Jace, in front of their two sons. According to CNN, prosecutors argued that the killing was motivated by jealousy, describing Jace as angered by April's request for a divorce and convinced that she was already dating someone else.

The Mirror shared part of the trial's transcript, claiming "Jace admitted he was 'angry' at the time, and said: 'All I intended to do was shoot her in the leg. And then I shot her in the leg, and that was it.'" Jace was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 40 years to life in prison.

A Shield reunion?

TV reboots are all the rage, and more than a few Shield fans have wondered whether the show might ever return with new episodes. It's something Shawn Ryan has regularly mulled over since the show's end in 2008. As he told EW, "There was a time a few years after The Shield ended where I was having some talks with Fox's movie division about something Shield-related."

While that project never happened, Ryan expressed his enduring interest in the Vic Mackey story at 2016's ATX Television Festival. Per The Hollywood Reporter, he was joined on the panel by some of the show's original writing staff, including Glen Mazzara, Kurt Sutter, Charles "Chic" Eglee, and Scott "Skeeter" Rosenbaum. "I have some ideas where Vic Mackey is," Ryan admitted, "but I don't know where Vic Mackey is until someone puts me in a writers' room with a group of these people and some people that aren't here and give us a week to sort it out."

Could we get more Vic Mackey in the future? Anything is possible. "I never want to close the door to it continuing in some way," Ryan explained to EW, "but I never want to give unnecessary hope to the fans. I don't know what the future holds. I've never definitively decided what Vic Mackey is doing now. As a fan of The Shield, I am interested in seeing that."