Take a fresh look at your lifestyle.

- Advertisement -

Shawn Ryan Opens Up About WGA Negotiations, Netflix’s ‘Night Agent’ and How ‘Terriers’ Was Ahead of Its Time

Welcome to the 207th episode of TV’s Top 5, The Hollywood Reporter’s TV podcast.

Every week, hosts Lesley Goldberg (West Coast TV editor) and Daniel Fienberg (chief TV critic) break down the latest TV news with context from the business and critical sides, welcome showrunners, executives and other guests, and provide a critical guide of what to watch (or skip, as the case may be).

Joining us this week is Shawn Ryan, the creator of one of television’s best dramas, The Shield. In addition to the FX series starring Michael Chiklis, Ryan’s impressive résumé also includes Lie to Me, The Unit, Timeless, cult favorite Terriers and SWAT, which is currently awaiting word on a potential seventh season on CBS. And given the current negotiations between the Writers Guild and studios and streamers, we should also note that Ryan in 2020 co-chaired the WGA’s Negotiating Committee. He has served on a total of five of the WGA’s Negotiating Committees and joins us this week tied to the debut of his new Netflix series, The Night Agent.

Other topics during this week’s TV’s Top 5 include headlines of the week (featuring Julie Plec, Bel-Air, Grey’s Anatomy, Heidi Fleiss, James Patterson and Robin Thede), and a jam-packed Critic’s Corner in which Dan reviews season two of Showtime’s Yellowjackets, the final season of HBO’s Succession, Kiefer Sutherland’s new Paramount+ show Rabbit Hole and Netflix’s The Night Agent, among others.

But first, read on for a condensed portion of our interview with Ryan.

Your new Netflix drama, about an FBI agent who uncovers a Washington conspiracy debuted March 23. What was it about Matthew Quick’s novel — on which the show is based — appealed to you?

The book has an incredible hook. I love the idea of an underdog. I love to watch kick-ass stuff as much as everyone else. But to me, it’s not as interesting to write the indestructible guy, the John Wicks of the world, the Jason Bournes that can take on 20 people at once. I like the idea of an underdog, someone who is the least important person in a very important place, in this case, a low-level FBI agent who works in a windowless room in the basement of the White House. Everyone around him is more important than him. He stumbles onto this thing and he’s suddenly, like in classic Hitchcock movies, somebody who is an ordinary person thrust into an extraordinary situation.

The thing that made it personal for me was that I love the idea that Peter was a man who had unanswered questions about his deceased father. My father died unexpectedly in 2015. And when my brother and I went to go clean out his house, we found some newspaper articles he had saved, that without going into too much detail, brought up all sorts of questions I wanted to ask him. I was so devastated that I would never get to ask him these questions. So the idea of being able to tell a story about a guy who has all these unanswered questions about his father, and is so desperate to discover what the truth was about his father really resonated with me.

You’ve done a lot of serialized shows and they’ve all had a procedural or episodic engine. Even Terriers and The Shield, there was still a case of the week. The Night Agent doesn’t have that. Was that a big transition for you to make?

I was born and raised as a writer on three seasons of Nash Bridges and one season of Angel, writing long seasons of television and making sure each episode stood on its own. The closest thing I’ve done to this is probably Mad Dogs on Amazon. I would never have wanted to write this story and try to keep it alive for 40-50 episodes. When I pitched the show, I said each season is going to tell a self-contained story, that has a beginning, middle and an end. We might leave a couple of things to pursue in future seasons. We raise a lot of questions in the first couple episodes of The Night Agent and we will give you the answers to those questions. And we will resolve this crisis over these 10 episodes. Could I have kept this particular story alive for 13 or 15 or 22 episodes? Probably not.

Netflix global head of TV Bela Bajaria recently did a now infamous cover story with the New Yorker in which she described the types of shows that she wants as “gourmet cheeseburgers.” Do you consider The Night Agent to be a “gourmet cheeseburger”? What does that description of content mean to you?

My career has been about taking genres that might be considered a little lower class and trying to class them up a little bit: The Shield in the police world, Terriers in the private detective world; and Timeless in the time travel world. I don’t eat cheeseburgers in real life — I eat cheese, I eat meat, but I don’t eat them together — so for me, we tried to make it a really good show. I don’t know that we need to use “cheeseburger” as a pejorative here; maybe there’s something in between a cheeseburger and filet mignon that that we could call it. What I know is that I work hard to make things that are high quality, but also are accessible to large audiences. And maybe that’s what Bela is trying to hit on with that term. I want the show to be really fun to watch. I do feel that some TV has gotten too niche for my taste. Maybe this is my broadcast upbringing, but I think you can make things that are really good and that appeal to a lot of people. What’s wrong with that?

Is broadcast television still the same place where you cut your teeth?

It’s not the same place; the economics are completely different. Right now, it’s up in the air whether SWAT will get picked up for a seventh season and that has nothing to do with ratings. You would never see that situation 15 years ago. SWAT is third in the demo at CBS; there’s no reason why the show shouldn’t be picked up other than the economics of the business are changing. CBS and Sony will or will not figure out a way to economically make a season seven work.

When Amazon canceled Mad Dogs, you didn’t have that “never again” experience even after you were frustrated about it because nobody knew the ratings …

Somebody at Amazon leaked the ratings to me and they indicated we should have been picked up for a second season. They had a regime in place then that isn’t there now. I was frustrated because the show was good and it was, at the time, their third highest rated show behind Man in the High Castle and Bosch and it was four or five times the viewership of Transparent but there were people there who didn’t think the show was going to succeed and then were shocked when it got good reviews and it got the viewership and did but they already had made a business decision to move on. I did a Beverly Hills Cop pilot for CBS that that wasn’t picked up for political reasons — not for quality reasons — by a guy who has now been thoroughly exposed to the industry. I don’t dwell on those things. You realize that sometimes you’re going to make a bad call and you’ve got to walk back to the dugout and get your head in the right place for your next swing at bat.

You first announced that you were adapting The Night Agent in late 2020. We’ve seen broadcast networks adapting to a year-round development process, which mirrors what has become commonplace among cable and streaming services. We know the time is beneficial to the creative but is there an economic impact for writers when it takes this long to get a show on the air?

Tremendously, especially if you’re being paid by the episode and not being paid by the week because then it just gets stretched out over time and essentially you’ve made guild minimum. That’s one of the things that the guild is very concerned about in these upcoming negotiations.

I’m fortunate in that I’m on an overall deal with Sony so I get a weekly paycheck. For people who are working on show deals — staff writers — this elongated process is difficult financially. And there’s this disbenefit of divorcing the working writers from the production and the postproduction process. When I worked at Nash Bridges and Angel I got to learn about production because I was employed during the time that the shows were filming and as episodes were being edited. But now all these writers are working on their scripts and disappear before production starts [because their deals expire]. They’re not getting the showrunner experience. We’re not training the next generation of showrunners properly. We did on The Night Agent because I’ve had enough experience to know going in to insist that the budget included money for a bunch of the writers to continue into production because I believe in having writers on set to help and to prep their episodes. These things are rare and hopefully they’re going to be among the things addressed in these upcoming negotiations. 

You’ve been in an overall deal with Sony since 2011. You’ve seen lots of executive changes at the independent studio, which does not have its own streaming service. With everything you experienced with Timeless — how Sony gave up a fraction of the show’s ownership to get the show back on the air — and in a climate where streamers want to own their content, what’s the appeal of staying at an indie?

I do think there’s a slight shift to that. Yes, I’ve seen a big change in my time at Sony from when Zack Van Amburg and Jamie Erlicht wooed me over to Sony. They said, “We want you to do anything you want to do; we would love to get one broadcast hit out of you.” They targeted CBS because in 2011, if you had a CSI, NCIS or Criminal Minds, it was a goldmine. We tried with Last Resort, Beverly Hills Cop and then gave them their hit with SWAT, which now is not the gold mine that it would have been 15 years earlier for a show that ran 120 episodes on CBS. Now [Sony] really wants to be in the streaming space. The incentives in my contract are much more to sell to the streamers than to broadcast. So, it’s always been a challenge to be at an independent studio but it’s been a challenge that I’ve relished. It is harder to sell to these places from an outside studio; it’s harder to get there and become the show that they want to get behind. Having said that, you’ve got to be better than what they could make in house.

If you look at what’s working at a lot of these places — The Crown, Cobra Kai, The Boys, The Last of Us and The Night Agent are Sony shows. There’s pressure to bring costs down at these various outlets and now they don’t want to do all their stuff in house; they want to have some outside partners to share the burden with.

What I’ve loved about working with Sony is that I can come up with an idea first, and then determine where the best place to sell it is. We targeted Netflix with The Night Agent. One of the reasons I left 20th Television was I’d made The Chicago Code and they had to pitch this to Kevin Reilly at Fox. It was sold Fox and it got canceled after one year. I never thought it belonged there but I had a sister studio that was insisting that it that it be first presented to its sister network, the sister network wanted it. As a result, I never got to make the case to go somewhere else and I really didn’t like that. One of the reasons why I left and went to Sony in the first place was it appealed to me that I can approach the creative first and then work to figure out where the best place to sell it rather than being pressured to service an in-house buyer.

Terriers has had a decade now of accumulating an audience. Is there any temptation to see if anyone would want to tell more stories in that world?

Well, Terriers is a property now owned by Disney. I am in a deal with Sony. I could never even get them to release a DVD of that show. I feel like there are only 50,000 people who watch Terriers and they all became TV writers or TV critics. I think Terriers was ahead of its time. That would have been a fun show to make for Netflix or Amazon or Apple and let people discover it on their own time. I blame myself for not pushing better for a better title. And I think FX would admit that they never got the marketing right on that show. I think that show happened at the wrong time, at the wrong place. Now that companies are dropping shows, I worry about how long Terriers will be up on Hulu.

As someone who’s been on WGA’s negotiating committee five times — and co-chaired the last round of negotiations — what kind of challenge do you think these negotiators face compared with previous rounds?

The AMPTP has become bigger: Apple, Netflix and Amazon have joined and, in past negotiations, they were not part of the group. Something that I felt was underreported in 2007 when everything was posed as writers vs. companies, my experience on the inside was that it was actually company vs. company disagreements. We were trying to make a deal with the AMPTP but they represent different companies that may have different priorities and different instincts about how the negotiations can go. I believe that a major reason the strike happened in 2007 was that the companies couldn’t agree among themselves what to do about the internet and future streaming. One thing I worry about here is, will Apple’s priorities match up with the priorities CBS has? Will NBCUniversal’s priorities match up with Amazon’s, etc.? These companies have had a free ride for a while on writer payment and writer payment has really been stagnant. And once you elongate the shows, you’re actually getting paid less per week.

[The AMPTP] has gotten used to, in my opinion, paying less than the going rate for writers. So to get them to pay what we think is fair won’t be easy. Once they think costs are this for making a show, it’s going to be hard to budge them. But I do believe that a lot of writers believe that the business has reached an existential point where things have to change or the business won’t work for most writers. And by the way, if the business doesn’t work for most writers, you’re not going to get the shows you think you’re going to get if you don’t develop and nurture writers.

This craft is very difficult to learn; it’s even harder to master. The shows do not write and run themselves, as much as the companies would like to believe they can and should. I always believe that investing in writers and investing in writers through production is one of the best investments you can make it a TV show. I insist on it for all of my shows because I know that whatever money we’re spending on a writer, that writer is going to save multiples of that in efficiencies. There’s been a lot of short-term decision making by people who don’t truly understand the process of how great TV is made. Some of those things have to be addressed in everyday practices at the studios, and I hope we get there because this is a wonderful business to work in. I see a lot of people coming up that that aren’t on track to have the same opportunities I had. And that’s a shame.

From your vantage point, what’s the likelihood of a strike?

No writer right now wants a strike. The ability to avoid a strike lies completely in the companies’ hands. They understand what the issues are. Are they prepared to address them? Or are they not? That doesn’t mean that writers will get everything we’re looking for. But there are certain things that have to be addressed that have gone on too long. This isn’t a story about crazy writers who are looking forward to drinking coffee on picket lines. We don’t want to strike. But we have to protect the profession. And in many ways, we have to protect the companies from themselves. That’s the short-term decision making in the way that writers are being treated and shuffled in and out of these mini-rooms. It’s not good for television, it’s not good for the consumer, it’s not good for their platforms. But this chasing quarterly profits and not looking at the big picture has blinded the studios to this reality. What we’re trying to do is for the benefit of the whole industry and viewers — and it will ultimately benefit the studios if they open their eyes enough to realize it.

For much more from Ryan, listen to the whole interview on this week’s TV’s Top 5 podcast in which the showrunner discusses if there’s additional story to tell in The Shield universe, if Terriers would have worked had it come out today and how young writers should educate themselves on the current issues at stake as the guild continues negotiations for a new contract.

Be sure to subscribe to TV’s Top 5 to never miss an episode. (Reviews welcome!) You can also email us with any topics or Mailbag questions you’d like addressed in future episodes at TVsTop5@THR.com.

!function(f, b, e, v, n, t, s) {
if (f.fbq) return;
n = f.fbq = function() {n.callMethod ? n.callMethod.apply(n, arguments) : n.queue.push(arguments);};
if (!f._fbq) f._fbq = n;
n.push = n;
n.loaded = !0;
n.version = ‘2.0’;
n.queue = [];
t = b.createElement(e);
t.async = !0;
t.src = v;
s = b.getElementsByTagName(e)[0];
s.parentNode.insertBefore(t, s);
}(window, document, ‘script’, ‘https://connect.facebook.net/en_US/fbevents.js’);
fbq(‘init’, ‘352999048212581’);
fbq(‘track’, ‘PageView’);

Leave A Reply

Your email address will not be published.