Shawn Ryan is one of the most prolific showrunners in the television landscape today, but more than that, he is one of the most creative and intelligent ones, consistently delivering groundbreaking and gritty dramas that keep viewers on the edge of their seats but also keep the gears of their mind spinning. His newest police (more than a procedural) piece, The Chicago Code, may have only aired a few episodes to date but it has already more than made its mark, taking on corruption and politics among those who are supposed to set examples for their citizens.
The idea is not new, nor is it new to Ryan himself, who perhaps most memorably created waves with The Shield, which also dealt with those in power doing some dastardly deeds. Or, in his own words, “The Shield had some cops who did some bad things, but what was fun was watching them on the road to mayhem,” which is the same vibe viewers will get with The Chicago Code’s Alderman (Delroy Lindo).
Ryan is an extremely smart writer in not only plot and story but that he thinks about each episode from an audience perspective, too. All of his years in this business has taught him that no two people will watch television the same way or gravitate towards the same types of moments in a series– dramatic, procedural, or some combination of both. So instead of alienating part of an audience, he instead set out to become a master of it all.
“I would say that I specialize in a little bit of a hybrid,” Ryan pointed out on a conference call with reporters last week. “[For example, the third] episode has a story line about a bank robbery that starts and gets results within the episode, but it also has an ongoing story line that picks up the Gibbons/Theresa relationship. I like those episodes that get to do both things—that get to propel you forward in other episodes. It’s a challenge, I think in all TV but especially network TV, if you talk to the research people, even those people who declare to be big fans of your show, they’ll only watch one in four episodes…So I have to presume they haven’t seen all the previous episodes. There is an on-going story I want to tell, but I have to do so in a way that won’t be too confusing to new viewers…I enjoy that balancing act: finding out how to entice new viewers and still reward longtime viewers.”
And somehow the show manages to do that while still feeling fresh and unique week after week. We chalk its early success up to a few very key things:
The Chicago Code, though it is portraying a real place with some very true-to-life scenarios, never pretends to be a documentary or ripped from the headlines in any way. It knows its fictional, and it knows its limitations.
“We wanted to fictionalize. We also don’t have a Mayor Daley!” Ryan laughed. “There’s certain things you want to keep real and certain things you want to fictionalize. Every time you dive head first into a community that you spend a lot of time in…we do our best; we have our scripts vetted by a homicide detective– a guy who lives in the city and was raised there.
The Chicago Code is out to reflect the societal, political, race, and even gender issues of our world today, most notably by having a female Superintendent.
“When institutions change, there’s a lot of upheaval; there’s a lot of questioning; there’s people who were in power who get scared and lash out. Having the female presence…in the police force is something that not too long ago never would have happened. So it challenges…it brings a lot of raw nerves to the surface.”
The Chicago Code has a showrunner who truly understands the way life, politics, and even crime in such a city works.
“I’ve always been interested in Aldermen. I grew up in Rockford which is a similar political system as Chicago…I had an uncle who was an Alderman…I did the research. Everyone knows the history but you have a couple of cops who are trying to stand down corruption in Chicago; you have to have a pretty good example of it in the series. Delroy and I spent a lot of time talking about the reality of the situation. Delroy always likes to talk about how this guy did not start the political system in Chicago: Gibbons is perverted by it.”
Shawn Ryan knows how to use his colorful characters to push the story along.
“I asked some of the cops with whom I was lucky enough to go out on rides ‘In your ideal world what would your Superintendent do?’ And they said ‘I’d really respect someone who I saw a lot, who made an effort to be down at these crime scenes and who really made an effort to get involved with these cases.’ [So that’s what Theresa does]; it’s kind of an idealized relationship.”
More than just about the cases, The Chicago Code focuses on those relationships and doesn’t just draw the line at the on-the-job partners. It explores longer-term friendships and business relationships and how elements of the past still affect the characters today.
“We won’t flash back [to Theresa and Jarek as partners] in any way in that regard, but we do have some interaction between them where we learn more about what their partnership was like, and you learn that he was the one that ended it. She still bristles about that. We do delve into some back story.”
The first season of The Chicago Code was written and filmed entirely before even the first episode aired, which allowed Ryan’s story lines to stay pure of critical influence. It was a creative vacuum, so to speak.
“I don’t want to give away too much [about where the arc ends up in the finale] but I would say we went with the idea that we created that we felt best about. If that turns out to be a series finale, you know, our characters don’t fall through some wormhole and end in some other world in some huge cliffhanger fashion. Obviously we hope we’ll be going beyond the first season.”
Ryan never stops coming up with clever ideas for future stories, so should The Chicago Code get a second season, he already knows where it will go.
“Now I have the time to think about what season two would be. I read this one article in a newspaper in Chicago about….people placing objects and furniture in the street to save parking spots after snowstorms. That idea could be the basis of an episode. These kinds of ideas come all the time!”
Have you tuned in yet?? The Chicago Code airs on Monday nights at 9pm only on FOX.