Dread Shield ap­peal

Herald Sun - Switched On - - Pay-tv - MAU­REEN RYAN and DAR­REN DEVLYN

THERE was a time, Michael Chik­lis says, when he started to lose faith in his abil­ity to carve a ca­reer as an ac­tor.

Film roles were scarce and Chik­lis wasn’t crazy about tele­vi­sion work.

‘‘I’ve been through a pe­riod when ev­ery­thing looked very grim,’’ Chik­lis says.

‘‘At one stage I just felt tired of play­ing roly-poly, af­fa­ble guys.’’

Chik­lis, renowned for play­ing the lead in TV drama The Com­mish, says the turn­ing point came when his wife told him to stop feel­ing sorry for him­self.

He re­sponded by get­ting in shape, then winning the role of Vic Mackey in re­spected cop drama The Shield, a show which has de­fied ex­pec­ta­tions.

No one was more sur­prised about that than show cre­ator Shawn Ryan. He as­sumed each sea­son might be The Shield’s last, de­spite the crit­i­cal ac­claim and over­seas rat­ings suc­cess it en­joyed when it pre­miered six years ago.

Well be­fore that daz­zling de­but, how­ever, Ryan had an even big­ger shock when the FX ca­ble net­work in the US de­cided to make his un­com­pro­mis­ing pi­lot script in the first place.

‘‘I didn’t think any­one would make it the way I was writ­ing it. I thought maybe some­body might like it and make me change it to be net­work-friendly,’’ he says. He wasn’t alone in that be­lief. Da­mon Lin­de­lof, the ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer of Lost, re­called read­ing Ryan’s Shield script when it was mak­ing the Hol­ly­wood rounds al­most 10 years ago.

‘‘Mackey mur­ders an In­ter­nal Af­fairs rat in cold blood. He kills a cop. Shoots him in the head,’’ Lin­de­lof says. ‘‘And when I read that, I thought to my­self, ‘Shawn Ryan will never get this end­ing on the air’. Well, I stand cor­rected.’’

Not only did FX shoot that shock­ing end­ing, Peter Liguori and Kevin Reilly — then the top ex­ec­u­tives at FX and now the heads of the Fox net­work — put Ryan, 34, in charge.

Ryan says: ‘‘I think one thing that helped me was, frankly, my ig­no­rance. I had not done a lot of TV pro­duc­ing at that point. I had writ­ten for a cou­ple of shows, ( An­gel and Nash Bridges) but I wasn’t in­volved in a lot of pro­duc­tion de­ci­sions. I didn’t have any kind of pre­con­ceived no­tions about how th­ese things were sup­posed to be done.’’

Money was tight. In its first two years, the show’s bud­get was $1.5 mil­lion an episode, mi­nus­cule com­pared with many net­work bud­gets, he says.

As they tried to keep the peace on vi­o­lent streets, Mackey and his strike team found them­selves in cor­ner stores, messy apart­ments, claus­tro­pho­bic in­ter­ro­ga­tion rooms and in­nu­mer­able al­leys.

De­spite, or per­haps be­cause of, its un­con­ven­tional de­pic­tion of life in the big city, The Shield was no­ticed, and not just by awards­giv­ing or­gan­i­sa­tions and crit­ics. In 2003 and 2004, Ryan says, there were calls from other TV pro­duc­ers and ex­ec­u­tives who wanted to know how they made a show that won Chik­lis an Emmy and gar­nered truck­loads of praise, all on a ca­ble-TV bud­get.

But the show’s bud­get dic­tated de­vi­a­tions from the usual TV for­mu­las. Com­pli­cated lighting took too long to set up, so ar­ti­fi­cial lighting was kept to a min­i­mum. Shoot­ing in small rooms ne­ces­si­tated the use of small, hand-held cam­eras. Chik­lis, who shaved his head be­fore start­ing work on The Shield, brought a fe­ro­cious vigour to the role of Mackey, which won him an Emmy in 2002.

‘‘Some roles are ex­haust­ing phys­i­cally, some are ex­haust­ing men­tally,’’ Chik­lis says. ‘‘Some are re­ally dev­as­tat­ing psy­cho­log­i­cally. (Mackey) is all of that. You ever take a face cloth and soak it and wring it out? That’s me, at the end of the day. I’m a wrung-out wash­cloth. An over­cooked noo­dle.’’

Ul­ti­mately, the ge­nius of The Shield is that it’s im­pos­si­ble to think of Chik­lis’s Mackey as purely evil. He’s con­vinced he’s do­ing the right thing.

Turn­ing point:

Michael Chik­lis has brought a fe­ro­cious vigour to The Shield.

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