'People were repulsed and fascinated': An oral history of The Shield
"Good cop and bad cop left for the day. I'm a different kind of cop."
Detective Vic Mackey issued that warning moments before he beat a suspect with a phone book in the 2002 pilot of The Shield. By the end of the episode, he'd murder a fellow cop. And that was just the beginning of his crimes — and a game-changing, Emmy-winning run for a show that came to define FX, basic-cable programming, and a new era of television.
To celebrate 20 years of arresting audiences, Shield stars Michael Chiklis, Walton Goggins, Glenn Close, Anthony Anderson, and more reflect on the trailblazing drama.
Originally hired to write a sitcom pilot, Nash Bridges writer Shawn Ryan instead became inspired by a Los Angeles Police Department corruption scandal — and concerns about protecting his newborn daughter. His one-hour drama spec script, then titled The Barn, followed an experimental LAPD division in the fictional Farmington district, a community terrorized by gang violence and drug trafficking. At the center was Det. Vic Mackey, the charismatic leader of the precinct's Strike Team, which often engaged in the same transgressions they were tasked with stopping. That's why, seemingly unbeknownst to Mackey, Capt. David Aceveda embedded Det. Terry Crowley into the squad to expose them. But Mackey was one step ahead, ending the first episode by killing a drug dealer on a raid and then using the dead man's gun to shoot Crowley in the head.
SHAWN RYAN (CREATOR): I had gone on a couple ride-alongs for my work on Nash Bridges and was seeing and hearing things not appropriate for a CBS procedural. And I was having all these disaster fantasies about, "Oh my god, how do I protect this little girl from the world?" I really wrote that pilot script thinking that I would just get it out of my system, so it was almost more a writing exercise for me than anything else. I wasn't a very experienced TV writer at this point; it didn't even occur to me that someone would want to make this. I was just hoping it would be a good enough sample that it might help me get my next staff job.
PETER LIGUORI (FORMER FX PRESIDENT): It was a miracle; it never should have happened. His script had been randomly in a stack of other spec scripts. Every page was electric. When I called Shawn to say we wanted to make his pilot, he thought we were joking.
CLARK JOHNSON (DIRECTOR): Shawn's writing was so on point. Neither of us had done a pilot and we really bonded. I teased him: "Nash Bridges, really?" I let him know, "I starred on Homicide: Life of the Street, buddy!"
GLEN MAZZARA (WRITER): This was Homicide meets Sopranos. Shawn and I were both big fans of Homicide and the work of Tom Fontana. We wrote a number of scripts together, and I was not the best match for Nash Bridges. I was pitching grittier, more realistic, crime-driven material than CBS could handle. The seeds of The Shield are in Nash Bridges. It was an opening of an episode in which Nash (Don Johnson) and Joe (Cheech Marin) are getting the typical perfunctory information that you would at a crime scene. It was really a boring scene. They put the Kid Rock song ["Bawitdaba"] over this teaser — and it worked. Don loved it and said, "That's what I'm talking about! That feels like the old days, like Miami Vice." And so then that song got stuck in Shawn's head as he was writing The Shield and became the famous ending of the pilot.
RYAN: One of the pilot's story lines is, a girl goes missing, and who do you want to try to find her? The by-the-book cops, Dutch and Claudette, or somebody like Vic Mackey? The answer is somewhere in between — but don't be surprised when you make a deal with the devil and he turns around and shoots a cop that's investigating him.
MAZZARA: When I read the script, I did say, "I can't imagine someone's going to let you get away with this ending." So when he told me, "FX wants that ending," I was very surprised and happy.
LIGUORI: There was a moment when [former FX executive] Kevin Reilly asked if we might want to shoot two endings, just for safety. I said, "I don't want to do anything for safety — this is why we love it."
RYAN: I remember going to see Donnie Brasco, and I liked it but didn't love it. Part of me wished the Al Pacino character was a bit smarter as to what was going on with Johnny Depp. Two-thirds of the way through, I thought, "Wouldn't it be the most badass thing if Pacino just turned around and shot him in the face?" And you realize, "Oh s---, he knew this whole time that this guy was onto him!" That idea stuck with me for a long time, and I never did anything with it until I got to The Shield pilot. I wanted someone recognizable. We got Reed Diamond and insisted the network let us put him in the credits to make it feel, in part, like this show is about him.
REED DIAMOND (TERRY CROWLEY): Clark and I had played partners on Homicide, and I'd just finished doing many years on Homicide and the last thing I wanted was to be a series regular. How stupid was that? [Laughs] So when Clark calls me and says, "We're going to make it seem like you're on the show and then you're going to get killed," I was like, "This is perfect!" It was easier to keep secrets then; no one knew about it. Now, no one is safe, every show does it. But this was that Ned Stark moment. You're like, "Wow, anything can happen on this show." It was such a radical, ballsy move. It's a great way to announce your new network.
KENNY JOHNSON (CURTIS "LEM" LEMANSKY): [The Baywatch spoof show] Son of the Beach was the only original series. The rumor was that when they chose to go with The Shield, Rupert Murdoch told [Liguori and Reilly], "If this thing fails, you're both gone."
LIGUORI: Our strategy was "Why should HBO and Showtime have a monopoly on premium, challenging content?" We wanted to come out of the gate with something that announced that FX was different.
RYAN: We were having trouble getting people to consider us. There was a lot of skepticism about original programming on FX. There was a real belief that this is going to be some cheap cable thing. Frankly, I think a lot of it was driven by agents.
CATHERINE DENT (DANNY SOFER): My agents told me to turn it down. Nobody knew what FX was, the money was not great. But I'd been pounding the pavement for years and it was a big deal for me. I was like, "F---ing A, I got a job!"
KENNY JOHNSON: I thought I had the worst audition in the world. I didn't hear anything for almost a month and my manager called and said, "They're hiring you as Lem," and I hung up on them because I thought they were joking. They called me back three times. I said, "Listen, you guys call me one more time, I'm going to fire you."
CATHY RYAN (CORINNE MACKEY): Corinne had maybe three lines in the pilot, and my own daughter was baby Megan in the pilot. So I felt like it was safe to just stick me in there and I was easily replaceable if they hated me.
JAY KARNES (DUTCH WAGENBACH): Shawn and I met right out of college at a playwriting retreat and lived together in a studio apartment in our early days in Hollywood. He was the best man at my wedding and I was the best man at his wedding, so the story line where I'm dating Cathy was a weird time! But I was getting ready to go do a play in New York and his pilot had gotten picked up, and I called him and said, "Hey, before I accept this job, is there anything for me?" I loved it when I read it but I didn't see myself in any of the roles. He said, "What about Dutch? Let me take a pass at it with you in mind." And he sent me something close to what Dutch eventually became and the first thing that popped into my head was, "What does Shawn really think of me?" To be fair, I immediately had an affinity for him.
MICHAEL CHIKLIS (VIC MACKEY): I was in a very particular place in my life and was looking to change the trajectory of my career. I'd been relegated to playing affable, roly-poly guys. And I'd just gone through a shattering experience on Daddio, so I was, honestly, frustrated. I wanted to do something smart, hard-hitting, and adult. My wife is the one who said to me, "It's not incumbent on the studios reinvent you, it's incumbent upon you to reinvent yourself." She was basically saying, get in the gym, change your physique, and we'll do whatever we need to do as a family until we either invent that role or it materializes. At the time, we were developing a feature film about a rogue cop, essentially a Vic Mackey-type. I worked out three hours a day, shaved my head. And all of a sudden my wife dragged me to a Gymboree class for our toddler and there was Cathy Ryan, who she went to preschool with in Miami. She introduced us to her husband, Shawn, and we started talking, and he said, "I have this show with FX," which I had no idea what FX was. He sent it to me, and I flipped out over the script.
RYAN: I thought it would be a little rude if we ran into them at some point and I'm the guy you wanted to audition for but said no. I was certainly aware of [Chiklis' past network series] The Commish and Daddio, but they weren't shows I watched, so it was in his favor that I didn't have something burned in my mind of him.
CLARK JOHNSON: Shawn said something like, "This guy is my next-door neighbor, I can't go to the barbecue unless I let him read." [Laughs]
SHAWN RYAN: There was resistance amongst our casting folks when they heard he wanted to come and audition, like, "He's really wrong for this." I told them, "Listen, anyone who's willing, we should let them audition." Michael had the foresight to realize he was going to have to knock down the door and force people to see him in this. And he quickly changed the perception we had about the role. It was the first time the words I'd written sounded good to my ear. We have this idea of movie cops, and then you realize as you're looking at him, "Yeah, he looks exactly like the cop that pulls me over for speeding." Now, I still had doubts. Once we started considering him, I got more aware of The Commish and Daddio, and was like, "Am I really going to do this?" But Clark, [producer Scott Brazil], and I encouraged each other to make the best artistic choices and not worry about the commercial side.
CLARK JOHNSON: Chiklis came in the room, started talking, and I said, "That's the guy." He just embodied him.
LIGUORI: The fact that we cast the Commish to play the most testosterone-driven badass possibly in the history of TV was another miracle. When your bosses know what the script is about and what you're going to do, and then you approach them and say, "By the way, we're going to cast Michael Chiklis" and the first answer is, "The Commish?!" It takes a special amount of fortitude.
SHAWN RYAN: Only after the fact did I realize how inspired I was by L.A. Confidential and how much I loved that I didn't know who Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce were when the movie came out. Other than Michael and CCH [Pounder], who were kind of known, everyone else was unknown. And seeing Walton Goggins play Shane, when you didn't really know who Walton Goggins was, it just allowed him to be that guy.
WALTON GOGGINS (SHANE VENDRELL): I was doing pretty well in movies but trying to break into TV. Looking the way I did, sounding the way I did, there wasn't really room for me on network TV; they didn't know what to do with me. And so I read this and it read like one of the greatest cop films ever. I called my agent and said, "Are you sure this is for TV?" It had been a long time since someone had told a story about Los Angeles in this way. Shane has, like, two lines in the pilot, but I felt it could be special — and I knew Shane was part of the original sin. Little did I know, after that pilot, the executives wanted to fire me. Shawn didn't tell me until the end of season 1 during a DVD commentary recording, and I said, "How?! I had two lines!" He said to them, "I know what this guy's capable of, let me prove it," and he focused the second episode on Shane. I'm glad he didn't tell me because I may have f---ed that up.
KENNY JOHNSON: When they hired everybody, Shawn had a party at his house, probably 100 people. I kept thinking, "Oh, they got the Commish, how's this going to work?" And this guy walks into the room, shaved head, looks like a pit bull, and I had no idea why but he looked across the room and starts coming at me, pushing people out of the way. I'm looking around, thinking, "Where's this guy going?" He grabs me and starts shaking me and says, "How f---ing old are you, motherf---er?" I'm like, "F--- you, dude. How old are you?" He goes, "How old are you?" I go, "How f---ing old are you?" And we started wrestling, and we didn't even know each other. We had this instant connection right from the beginning. Walton, Chiklis, and myself, we just had a synergy that worked. We could finish each other's sentences, we knew what we were thinking, everybody trusted each other.
DIAMOND: I remember thinking, These guys are all really nice and they're getting along...there's no way this show's going to be good." [Laughs] Because when I was at Homicide, part of the mystique there was that a lot of the tension on-set made for such a great show.
CHIKLIS: It was very odd that, from the first day, we looked at each other and knew we had something. We had no clue whether anyone would see it. We shot the pilot in June 2001; it was picked up on my birthday, Aug. 30. And then 9/11 happened.
LIGUORI: There was some hesitation. I was very close to an ex-NYPD detective, Sonny Graso from The French Connection, and he called me up and said, "Pete, please don't put this on, cops are finally getting their due."
RYAN: There was an immediate question of, "Wait a second, policemen are heroes, will anyone want to watch this?" I have wondered, if their deadline to pick it up had been Sept. 30 and not Aug. 31, would there have been a different decision? We'll never know. But Training Day came out in October and exceeded expectations, Denzel [Washington] won an Oscar for it. It made the powers that be feel more comfortable. But from tragedy came a real thirst for justice and a sense of, wherever we have to go, whatever we have to do, we're going to do it.
LIGUORI: Fortunately, Training Day came out before The Shield, and we looked at how the audience and press responded, they got that this is fiction and drama. We knew this was not an indictment of police officers.
CHIKLIS: The thematic question posed by The Shield was always, what are we willing to accept from law enforcement to keep us safe? And when we had the phone conversation about whether we were going to go through with this after what happened, Shawn said, "I think it becomes even more relevant."
KURT SUTTER (WRITER): Mackey thrived in a post-9/11 environment. People felt, "I'm willing to turn the other way if I know my kids are going to sleep safely." To have that be the end of your pilot and say to an audience, "Show up next week and root for this guy," is tricky. I don't think that may have been embraced at another time in history. People were willing to get behind a guy like Mackey.
On March 12, 2002, The Shield became the highest-rated scripted premiere in basic-cable history. Season 1 earned Chiklis an Emmy and the show a Golden Globe for Best Drama, a first for basic cable. But the writers and cast maintained their gritty, underdog edge — even as they were joined by A-listers, including Forest Whitaker, Anthony Anderson, and Glenn Close.
CHIKLIS: When Shawn finished the final edit on the pilot, I was having a pool party and he brought it over on VHS. As it ended, everybody was frozen. Then one of my friends went, "Holy s---, you're a f---ing bad guy!" And another went, "Hold on a second, that guy was a rat!" I listened to them argue and thought, "Oh boy, we're onto something."
JOHN LANDGRAF (FX CHAIRMAN): The reason I came to FX was because of The Shield. It represented everything I'd been trying to achieve as a producer. I felt the same about Nip/Tuck. I was like, "What is in the water over there that those are their first two shows?" It was all authenticity, heart, bravery, sharp angles — everything that I admire and prize.
CCH POUNDER (CLAUDETTE WYMS): Until five minutes before The Shield started, we were still doing good guy/bad guy, black and white, all was well at the end of your 40-minutes. The Shield changed that. We got a character that we loved to hate and love at the same time. He created a conflict for so many. When people recognized me, they'd holler, "Leave Mackey alone," or, "When you gonna get him, girl?!"
DAVID MARCIANO (STEVE BILLINGS): I told Shawn, "Vic Mackey, that's the perfect name because he's so Machiavellian. Is that how you came up with it?" He said, "No, I was just looking for some hard confidence." [Laughs]
CHIKLIS: I imagined Vic as that guy on the wall that Jack Nicholson talks about in A Few Good Men. The person who civilians need but will never understand. To me, it's pretty unambiguous who he was and what he was, as evidenced by what happens to Reed Diamond. It's miraculous that people observe that as anything else.
RYAN: It's always more fun to write the nasty stuff. A big part of my job was swatting away pitches of, "Here's a person Vic can kill this episode." At some point in season 1, I had to say to the writers, "That's not sustainable — he's not a serial killer. Even the worst people spend 98 percent of their time not doing evil s---. We've got to find balance. How could he in the morning save a drowning baby and risk his life to do so, and in the afternoon steal drugs off a drug dealer?"
SUTTER: I would not have a career if Shawn was not my first showrunner. He knew who I was, what bumpers to put up, and really allowed me to find my voice and my brand. It's why I stayed on for all seven years. A lot of other writers were thinking about what they should develop or making moves so that they could advance their career, and every hiatus I thought, "What other show would I want to write on?" And there wasn't one.
MAZZARA: It felt like we were a young band trying to come out with something that was going to shake up the world. So there was a rebelliousness. We constantly savaged each other's material, to make sure whatever actually stuck was the best possible material. Now, once the material went out into the world — to the set, to the executives — we were a unified team. If somebody didn't like a script, we all took it personally and were ready to go after that person and tell them why they were completely wrong and had no idea what they were talking about. We felt like we went through a war together.
LANDGRAF: There wasn't a playbook for how to make a serialized drama. If you just made Vic and the Strike Team extremely effective crime fighters and told serialized stories about the way they used corrupt and unorthodox methods to catch criminals, you really weren't following through on the promise and premise of the pilot. He murders an undercover cop, so, by definition, the show is a tragedy. It should be about the wages of crime and morality and race and corruption. And when Shawn and I talked about it, he was right in deciding that the best version of the show was when it began to peel the veneer back from Vic and the Strike Team, really show the moral rot that lay underneath that character, that team. To do that, you had to make it darker, you had to start to examine the fact that this guy is not a good guy.
SHAWN RYAN: As we got more episodes in, it was about exploring different facets of him and picking our spots for him to do something pretty despicable. By that point, I realized the power of the camera and how people are naturally empathetic to who you point the camera at. When we got to season 5 and brought Forest Whitaker in to play [Internal Affairs Lt. Jon] Kavanaugh, I thought, "Well, this could be a real moral dilemma for the audience, because Kavanaugh's right that Vic has done all these things," and I was completely wrong,
CHIKLIS: No one's all bad or all good. Vic absolutely has qualities about him that are relatable and make him appealing. Obviously he's gregarious, and outwardly he's got that cockiness and bravado, and a certain level of charm in that. He's viciously protective of his family, yet he's incredibly duplicitous. I'll never forget Forest Whitaker coming in one day during the fifth season, just despondent, dismayed. I was like, "What's the matter, man?" He's like, "They love you and hate me. You're a murderer!" It really is fascinating; perception is an amazing thing.
BENITO MARTINEZ (DAVID ACEVEDA): Forest, when he joined the team, he'd just come from filming The Last King of Scotland [for which he'd win the Oscar for Best Actor], and we had this beautiful opening couple of days. Between scenes, Forest said, "I got to ask you, Vic Mackey's a POS, why do people love him so much?" And I said, "Thank you!" [Laughs] For years I've been wondering this. My character doesn't break the law, do anything wrong, and people hate me!
DIAMOND: Macbeth's an asshole too and we root for him. It's fantastic writing and an incredible performance. If another person had played Vic, you might have felt differently. Who Michael Chiklis is as a person and as an actor, even when he's an evil motherf---er, he's likable.
MAZZARA: Writing Vic Mackey was a lot of fun. There's a lot of dark humor in that character in the same way there is with Tony Soprano. He knew you knew he was guilty and would give you a wink and a smile and cheat in front of you. And Michael is such an extraordinary actor that we had to keep coming up with situations to keep up with him.
BENITO MARTINEZ: When we began on the show, Clark came up to me and said, "Remember, this is your kingdom. You're the top dog. This is your precinct. Nobody is more important than you." And then he goes to Chiklis and I hear him say, "Remember, you're the top dog. And nobody…" [Laughs] So every time he and I had scenes together we were carrying that energy and it always was an electric battle.
CHIKLIS: It's one thing to be a franchise player on a bad team, but it's great to be a really good player on a championship team. I got to look right and left of me every day and see Walton Goggins and CCH Pounder and Kenny Johnson and Jay Karnes and Benito Martinez. These are all superb actors. So I never felt alone; I felt totally backed up.
LANDGRAF: We had a problem where the ratings fell off considerably in season 3 and entered a trajectory that likely would've yielded a cancellation. We thought about bringing in a movie star and identified Glenn Close [to play the new captain]. She gave us a boost that allowed us to get to the end.
GLENN CLOSE (MONICA RAWLING): My agent said, "You have to take this meeting," and I said, "I don't want to do television." TV still was a poor cousin to feature films, but John, Peter, and Shawn came to my apartment — and I don't think I'd even seen the show, but John made me curious and want to proceed. He was very articulate about his philosophy on how you nurture and support creative minds.
ANTHONY ANDERSON (ANTWON MITCHELL): Growing up in Compton, knowing what those Rampart officers were about, I was a fan of the show and Michael Chiklis before I auditioned. Coming off of silly slapstick stuff like Kangaroo Jack, Big Momma's House, it was a conscious choice to find roles like this, so I could show the flip-side of what I can do, because Hollywood can by myopic in their thinking at times. The Shield was at its height, they were bringing in Glenn Close, so everybody who's ever been the villain in any type of film was at this audition. I was given the job in the room, and two days later Shawn gave me a call to say, "Anthony, you're my choice, but the network wants you to come back in." I'm like, "Shawn, you do know you gave me the job two days ago?" He goes, "I know, I'm not bringing anybody else in. You're my choice, it's the network." I knew it was a matter of an executive or two being like, "Yeah, he's funny, but can he really do this?" I went back in and a couple hours later Shawn called me to say the job was mine. And so I made it my mission to do the best work that I've done in my career for every waking moment that I was on the set of The Shield. I wanted to make Glenn Close and Michael Chiklis' characters as uncomfortable as I possibly could — and I believe that's what I did.
MAZZARA: It was a remarkably consistent cast. I did this other show, The Walking Dead, and look at the cast now compared to the original cast. We had that core group and kept mining more and more depth to those characters. We never sat on anything. If we had a good idea, we would lead with it. The actors were so fantastic that they inspired us to always find something new to say. I was inspired by Walton's performance and the character of Shane, and then people started writing more for that character. We burned a lot of story, but these characters were traumatized and we were able to explore the trauma.
GOGGINS: From the second episode of season 1, until the finale of season 7, we'd all get the script, go into our trailers, immediately read it, because no one could stand not knowing what's going to happen, and, one by one, we would walk out of our trailers and look at each other and say, "Are you f---ing kidding me? Am I really going to do that to you? Are you really going to do that to me?" And that kind of joy and childlike enthusiasm that doesn't wane over time is one of the great exceptions in life.
KENNY JOHNSON: We couldn't believe we were getting paid to do this with people we loved and writing that was so off the charts. We were having the time of our lives.
DENT: Wearing these cop uniforms for the first time, I didn't even know how to walk. It was just cumbersome and weird, and Clark Johnson just kept going, "What the f--- are you doing? Tough cop, look like you know some s---!" I was a debutante from the South, I didn't know cop stuff, so it was really fun to mess around and play, and learn the lingo, and learn the body language.
CLOSE: It was challenging to go into such a testosterone-laden set as the commander. The person who really helped me was Theresa Shortell, who, at that point, was the only female commanding officer in New York City. I was at Christopher Reeve's memorial and my driver was an ex-undercover narc, and he just was schmoozing with one of the other drivers, an off-duty policeman, and they heard I was going to be playing a cop and he said, "She has to meet Theresa." I remember asking her, "What's most difficult about this job for you?" She said, "Being a woman and not letting it matter," which I thought was really interesting. She told me to strengthen her image as a commanding officer she wore her uniform all the time, even though she didn't have to. I said to Theresa, "I'm going to be you, and if you're watching the show and you see something that isn't authentic, I want to hear about it." The writers and producers were really smart, because it was only in my third episode that I took command, so, me as the actress, going into that company that were so close and mostly guys, me as the character had a chance to suss out the situation and observe, and then take command. That was just genius for me.
CATHY RYAN: It was the perfect job for me. Every year on that show, I felt challenged as an actor. I feel like I'm a better actor because of it. I knew I was very fortunate. I remember saying to Shawn, "If I do nothing else, this has exceeded my dreams."
KARNES: We had such a good time shooting, generally speaking, that the darkness of it is held at bay a lot by the humor and the fun and the camaraderie. But, periodically, the darkness of that show did get through. It was not easy.
KENNY JOHNSON: I started living the character 24/7. I'd get home and write 20, 30 pages of a diary as Lem. Whatever I felt as Lem, I would get out. So three, four years in, I started feeling very mixed about stuff and Shawn those guys wrote to that. Sometimes I had dreams at night where I murdered someone and hid the body on the property, and I've got this guilty feeling that they're going to find out. It felt horrible; I started getting a lot of stomach ulcers.
DENT: As dark as this show was, was how much fun we were having when the camera stopped. I think it was a survival thing for us.
GOGGINS: We did it for nothing. We were the cheapest show on TV. When we started, the wrap party was literally six people from the network, their wives, and eight of us. It was foul.
CLARK JOHNSON: No one gave a f--- about us. We'd book extras off the street, we just ran around. Chiklis was chasing a guy through a store and we didn't even tell anyone we were going to be running through with cameras.
CHIKLIS: We didn't have a dolly, we shot the show in seven days. The schedule lent something in terms of the manic pace of it.
MARTINEZ: When Glenn joined, she was like, "How many scenes do you do a day?" I'm like, "All of them." You have to build up that stamina.
CLOSE: I loved it. A lot of times you weren't given marks because the camera was moving so much, and it really made for a wonderful chemistry with the actors, because it flowed so seamlessly.
CLARK JOHNSON: I was heavily influenced by the way we shot Homicide. You were always on stage, because you never knew when the camera was going to turn and look at you. I wanted the camera to feel like it was a character on the team.
KARNES: I started as a stage actor and got a late start in front of the camera. From day one, CC knew what she doing, so I was learning from her, not by anything she was necessarily saying to me, but by watching and trying to understand. And that's very similar to the dynamic that Dutch has with Claudette, so that was easy for me to play. The Shield was my school.
MARTINEZ: All of us had this theater-mentality. So since we were very like-minded in that approach, we came with our A-game every day. It was an incredible atmosphere on that set.
SUTTER: It was a lot of "Let's do whatever the f--- we can do" energy. Chiklis had a lot to prove. Shawn had a lot to prove. I had a lot to prove. Under different circumstances, it would not have had the same drive.
GOGGINS: There wasn't a template for what we were doing. Because of that, we enjoyed so much freedom and creativity. We'd come home exhausted but feeling we did the best work we could do. Everybody pushed each other, and it never stopped for seven years.
LANDGRAF: I have never seen a group of people take such pride in their work. It was awe-inspiring to me. They made the lack of resources into part of the show's strength, in terms of its grit and grittiness.
ANDERSON: It was a dream to be able to be in scenes with these accomplished actors and volley back and forth. I have one regret ever as an actor. There's a scene in the interrogation room with Glenn Close, Michael Chiklis, and myself, and she lets me know that my son, who's in prison, had consensual sex with other inmates, whereas I was under the impression he was forced to do that; she threw that in my face. This was all improv: I stood up, turned, and punched the wall behind me. This is a real building, a real room, and it's a thin layer of concrete I punched through. As Antwon Mitchell, I just mustered up this power. I then turned back and sat in my seat, and I realized that the skin rolled up into my fingers and I was bleeding profusely throughout the rest of the scene. I kept my hand under the table because I didn't want to ruin the take, not thinking that it would only have enhanced it. We shut production down for a little bit and I had to go to the infirmary and get stitched up. But that's one thing I regret never doing, putting my hand on the table between Glenn Close and myself and having the real blood trickle out and pool on the table, letting Glenn and the world see that this is real s--- we're doing on this show.
CHIKLIS: I liken it to the early days of Sundance. It's amazing when a place has no resources how necessity is the mother of invention. We had two really smart executives in Peter Liguori and Kevin Reilly, who basically said, you've got this much money and this much time, go and make the show. Then they essentially left us alone. They had some notes, but they were always very intelligent and astute notes. Once I was offered the role, one of the things I said to Peter going into it was, "I'm not interested in doing the boiled version of this. If I go to set and the pink pages come and it's boiled and homogenized, I'm out." And he said, "Oh, if anything, we'll go further."
KENNY JOHNSON: We were on the streets probably 90 percent of the time and there was something very real about it. When the show became a big hit, it didn't faze us. We just kept doing what we were doing. I remember sitting there at the Golden Globes and we're thinking, "What are we doing here?" And Samuel L. Jackson came up to our table and goes, "I just wanted to shake every one of your hands because you're going to motherf---ing win. I guarantee it." We all looked at him, like, "Okay, that would be kind of cool, right?" And then they got to Best Drama: The Shield.
The freedom they experienced is evident in the boundary-pushing story lines that often scared the actors just as much as the audience. The goosebumps started in the sixth episode of season 1, "Cherrypoppers," with the discovery of an underage prostitution ring, and continued with everything from a cat strangulation, to a graphic sexual assault, to a fan-favorite's brutal murder.
SUTTER: Every insane pitch that would've got me thrown out of every studio in Hollywood, I got to put into The Shield. [Laughs] Shawn said at my wedding that it was such a dark and violent and different world that everyone would sort of dip their toe into it, but I basically did a cannonball into the middle of the pool.
RYAN: These writers often made me feel like a prude.
POUNDER: I was horrified they could come up with such evil things. We had no idea what would be next.
MAZZARA: Whenever we did something shocking or bleak or crazy or unusual, we'd go, "Ah, it's so wrong!" And yet, it was The Shield way.
LANDGRAF: I was frequently scared, to be honest. You never knew what the tolerance of the audience was going to be. As someone whose job was to make sure we were making commercially-viable and responsible business decisions, working with these guys was not for this faint of heart. But what gave me comfort was I always felt that, yes, they took risks, and, yes, they pushed the envelope, but they worked really hard to earn the right to do that. I don't think they ever did go off the rails.
CATHY RYAN: "Cherrypoppers," you're almost embarrassed, like, it's my husband!
DENT: I thought I was going to get fired. "Cherrypoppers" came down the pipe and we were like, "Holy s---." It was new and raw and scary. We were all afraid. Some of us spoke up more than others.
SHAWN RYAN: While our actors had seen the pilot episode, they were now making a number of episodes they hadn't yet seen. Catherine, I love her, but she was very offended by the "Cherrypoppers" script. She was like, "We can't do this on TV," and I had to explain to her, "We can do it and we're going to do it. We're trying something different and you've got to get your head around the idea that this is what the show is." Everyone was conditioned at that point to know what had been allowed on TV. I didn't know if it would work, but I understood the show we were trying to make.
MAZZARA: Michael was very protective of us. We were really pushing the boundaries, and where other cast members were getting nervous, he told them, "Let them figure it out and do their thing."
KARNES: Shooting the "cuddler rapist," it's horrible. You come in, here's an elderly woman lying naked on the ground with fake semen on her stomach, and as a human being you want to say, "Can we get her something? A cup of tea and a warm robe?" That was challenging. Also, when a fetus was cut out of a pregnant woman's stomach and CC and I find the umbilical cord in the teaser and the fetus at the end, you don't see it on camera, but I saw it! And it was a pretty good mockup. It just about broke me.
CATHY RYAN: The dogs having sex, remember that?
MAZZARA: The season 2 premiere, Vic barges into a hotel looking for his wife, thinking she's having sex with this guy who's behind her. FX was very careful about how many thrusts we could show and felt it was too explicit. In that same episode, the guys go to Mexico and in the background a stray dog started humping another. To get back at FX, we used that take. [Laughs] They never noticed.
KARNES: "Shoot the dog" became a mantra for us. Whatever's happening around us, even if it's not in the scene, we'd grab a shot of it.
MAZZARA: There was an episode called "Cupid & Psycho," and the team comes across these frat guys and we wanted a sheep to be there, as if the guys were hazing each other and making them have sex with the sheep. The executives were like, "We cannot have anyone standing near the sheep. We cannot promote bestiality on the show." They even sent an executive to the set to make sure that it was blocked appropriately. We thought that was ridiculous because other times they kept asking for "more of a Shield moment." And then we would give them a Shield moment, something shocking, and once in a blue moon, they would balk. But, for the most part, they realized that's what was defining that show.
KARNES: I imagine you can probably guess one of the things I was really uncomfortable with. [Laughs] We'd have a meeting with the writers before each season, and Scott Rosenbaum, who wrote a lot of Dutch's stuff, turned to me and said, "Can I ask you a question: What would make Dutch strangle a cat while in his underwear?" I looked at him and said, "You're joking, right?" At a later point, Shawn says to me, "I have good news and bad news. The good news is, David Mamet is going to be directing a Dutch-heavy episode. The bad news is, you're going to be strangling a cat in that episode."
SHAWN RYAN: We'd been playing around the edges of Dutch's fascination with serial killers for a couple of years, and how far would he go? It was a really interesting topper to that story that Dutch buys into this idea that you can see the face of God in the eyes of a creature — either feline or human — that's on the precipice of dying, and that he's so into his work that he does this, and then realizes that there was nothing there and I've just done this horrible thing. People were repulsed and fascinated; we made a PETA top 10 worst list.
CHIKLIS: It was the only argument, if you're going to call it that. I was adamantly against it. Mamet and I got into it. I was like, "You can't have Dutch choke a f---ing cat!" It was crazy to me. And Mamet was just, "The cat dies." [Laughs] We called in Shawn and I was outvoted. It's powerful, there's no doubt. It shapes his character moving forward. They don't really address it per se, not that you would. What would he do? It's not like he's going to confess.
SHAWN RYAN: The audience wanted more. It was a great moment for that episode, but, as a writer, I didn't have anything further to explore about it.
KARNES: I was always afraid they were going to. For me, it was so human and real. Here's a guy who did something that he's now deeply ashamed of, and he's shoved it down deep and doing his best to move on and forget about it. I mean, how human is that? There were a lot of things on The Shield that were picked up and dropped; little things that you think, "Oh, well this is going to be something," and then it just kind of goes away, often like in life.
SHAWN RYAN: A lot of pitches felt like they were just for shock appeal. I'd be okay if an episode didn't have a "Shield moment," if none presented themselves. A great example of this is the sexual assault of David Aceveda; that was the last aspect of the story that came to us. We didn't start off by saying, "How cool would it be to sexually assault one of our main characters?!" We had this whole story and Aceveda was going to end up alone with criminals and the guy was going to beat him up. The story was mostly good but I'd seen that aspect before and I made the suggestion, "Instead of beating him up, what would happen if he sexually assaulted him, in a very prison kind of way?" The room got very excited about that
KENNY JOHNSON: When we read it, no one could look at Bennie for a week.
CATHY RYAN: I thought, "Women have been getting raped on TV for a really long time."
LANDGRAF: If the storytelling is sloppy, and if Aceveda's sexual assault feels like a gratuitous thing that's put in there for shock value, then, frankly, you deserve to be pilloried for taking a show there and putting that in millions of homes. But, of course, Aceveda's sexual assault is absolutely critical to the unfolding of the narrative of The Shield. It's a thing that haunts him and makes him vulnerable and is used against him for a long time.
MARTINEZ: I had to separate Benito from David. So I checked with my mother and she said, "This is very brave storytelling. And Shawn has been such a great storyteller, if you were to do something like this, this is the best place for it. So you have to ask yourself, Benito, what do you want to see out of this journey?" I was like, "Oh, great question." The Sopranos had just done something similar a few months before with Lorraine Bracco's character being raped. And instead of her going through her journey, it kind of gets passed over to Tony and he handles it. They never really go back to the trauma for her character. So I asked, if this happens, I would really like it that it becomes just a David thing — not a Vic Mackey thing — and is about his trauma and his hell. I then went to the rape counseling center in West Hollywood, which had done a lot of work with actors, but this was the first time they were dealing with male rape. The counselor said, "If you're really going to explore the psychological trauma, and you're doing it with respect, then this could be a healing thing for people, because you're showing the full weight of something like this." It's going to change someone forever.
MAZZARA: When you have actors that are so brave to do this material, they want to be pushed. And once you start giving material like this to some of them, other cast are saying, "Where's my trauma?"
MARCIANO: Shane killing Lem, whew.
DENT: When they cut Kenny loose from the show, we were devastated. We felt like we were losing a brother.
POUNDER: We were ready to mutiny. And yet, it was a brave move, because it created a reality that made everyone dispensable. There's no way to do that kind of job and not have somebody get hurt.
KENNY JOHNSON: One of my managers caught wind somewhere through the grapevine. I remember Shawn saying, "If anyone ever dies on the show, we're going to tell you before the season." No one had said a word, and I called Glen, asking. "Am I going to get killed?" He's going, "No, no, no, of course not." I had a weird gut feeling, and all of a sudden the phone rings and it's Mazzara again. He goes, "Look, I feel like hell. I lied to you. Shawn's going to come down and talk to you, but you can't say anything to anybody." I'm sitting there in shock. Shawn came to my trailer the next day and says, "I want to end my show in seven seasons and I need something to catapult it into an ending. I didn't want to say anything because I wanted to wait until I felt like we as writers earned that. If we don't, if I feel like we haven't gotten there, I'm not going to kill your character, because it's got to be worth it to do it." And I said, "Obviously I love Michael and Walton, and we always envisioned riding to the end, but it's a genius script and genius series, so whatever's good for the show, I'm okay with." As time went by, Chiklis somehow found out and had an uproar about it. Walton asked me, because he knows me inside and out, and he just knew something was up. I didn't answer him, and I knew that was enough for him to know what they were going to do. He started crying, got in his car, and took off.
GOGGINS: I didn't see the writing on the wall. In hindsight, I must have been the dumbest guy in the room, because, of course, that's where it needed to go. I went on a tirade. Everybody had a guy to champion them and Glen was my guy. I said to him, "F--- you. F--- all of you. I'm not f---ing doing it. You're going to take what we built for five years and our best friend is not going to be on the show? F--- you." That lasted a minute, and they sat me down and walked me through it — and they did contemplate killing me, but in their eyes, wisely, it wouldn't have had the same impact, because Lem was so loved.
KENNY JOHNSON: When they first told me, I got home and seemed to be fine, and I started going up the stairs, and I don't know what happened, but it hit me and I collapsed on my knees and started weeping uncontrollably, like I'd never done in my life. And then this calm came over me, almost this godlike thing said, "You're going to be all right." Once that death happened, I had to disconnect, I couldn't watch the show. My brain wouldn't allow me to know anything that went on past that. It took me about 10 years to be able to watch, and one day I just sat down and watched [seasons] 6 and 7 together.
SHAWN RYAN: When we came up with the idea, I was really intoxicated with it, but it came into conflict with my love and appreciation for Kenny Johnson. This is where doing a TV show is very hard, because my biggest memories are of family — and who kills somebody in their family?! That's an awful thing. So one of the reasons Kenny found out very late is that I would not 100 percent commit to it for a while. I spent a lot of time looking for an alternate path, whereby we wouldn't have to lose Kenny. We were only a couple episodes away from filming it when I realized, we're not going to come up with something better, this is going to be it. Not having the opportunity to tell Kenny is a regret of mine. It was tough in terms of, what takes precedent: the creative fictional world, or the real world that you live in? Because there were sad real-world results of that decision that I still have very mixed feelings about, but it was definitely the best creative decision. I felt bad for Kenny and felt guilty, but I also felt that if there was a point that I couldn't do what was best creatively for the show then I should probably leave and let somebody else do it. Hopefully I made it up to Kenny by having him on S.W.A.T. Financially, I think he came out ahead.
The seven-season run concluded on Nov. 25, 2008, with "Family Meeting," widely considered one of the greatest series finales in TV history — a feat all the more impressive considering its creator couldn't be on set due to the Writers Guild strike. Still, the drama off screen paled in comparison with that on screen. With their crimes catching up to them, Shane kills his family and then himself, while Vic avoids prosecution via a deal with ICE but gets the ultimate punishment: desk duty. In the final moments, as he works alone in the ICE office, Vic hears a siren outside, prompting him to grab his gun and likely head back to where he belongs — the streets.
SHAWN RYAN: I watched a lot of big series finales, both acclaimed and ridiculed. I was interested in seeing how iconic shows chose to end things, going as far back as The Mary Tyler Moore Show. What I realized is that often the ones that failed usually failed because they tried to do something very different than what their core competency was. Seinfeld, as an example. The first thing I said was "We're just making another episode of The Shield."
SUTTER: Not that we were taking cues from other shows, but I know Shawn wanted to see how The Sopranos was going to end, because we didn't want to mirror that in any way. Not that anyone's quite sure how The Sopranos ended.
SHAWN RYAN: We benefited by having a clear plan. I was very moved by John Landgraf; he talked about how he viewed The Shield in Shakespearean terms and that all of Shakespeare's great tragedies had this three-act structure. He really nudged me to look in that way, like, what is the third and final act of The Shield tragedy? Without those conversations, we wouldn't have come up with the ending that we did. Thinking about it in terms of King Lear, Macbeth, Hamlet, those are all stories of people with power who lose themselves, their souls, their moral compass, and commit acts of wanton evil. So that last season got dark, but I think it got dark in the finale in a way that felt satisfying and true. If I look back and put aside modesty for a second, one of the reasons the finale resonates is that it felt surprising but inevitable. There's nothing that happens that doesn't feel set up and justified by everything that came before it.
POUNDER: Every single actor wanted to be the one that nailed him.
SUTTER: In a more traditional cop show kind of way, he'd either be brought down or go out in a blaze of glory. For us, the ultimate purgatory for Vic is being handcuffed to a desk and having to wear a shirt and tie. His family's gone, so he doesn't have his rock, his humanity. And now the thing that adrenalized him — that was his distraction, his drug — has been taken away. So you've basically removed the foundation from underneath this guy. He's just floating in f---ing paperwork. To us, that seemed to be not just the most fitting but the most organic. I definitely took my cue from that when I was thinking about ending Sons of Anarchy, which ultimately brought me back to legacy and something less predictable. I really put a lot of thought into the best way to frame that ending, so as to be true to the character but also give it some sense of circumstantial and be emotionally organic. And that was the thing with The Shield. It was surprising in the simplicity and the black and whiteness of it all.
CHIKLIS: I was stunned by it. I called Shawn and went, "I can't tell you how perfect this is, to have him alone." If I was helpful at all in that process, I spent three years saying all the things it couldn't be. What Shawn did was true to what the show was about, which was shades of gray and ambiguity.
SHAWN RYAN: It didn't feel real to me that everything would get wrapped up in a bow. Vic walks off at the end and people will get that he's a shark, he's out there, and he's going to do something. We don't know what, but that's after our date of expiration. Personally, when I wrote that, I wasn't all that interested or fascinated by the specifics of what he was going to do — though it clearly has been important to the audience. I just knew, "This isn't a guy who's going to give up. He's going to constantly be looking for a way out." Whether he finds one or not, I don't know. Now, I think that's a less opaque ending than The Sopranos. For my taste, it was the perfect amount of closure, and yet, this world still goes on, in some way.
DENT: He was the cowboy in the wild west, and to stick him behind a desk, it was just poetry. As a viewer, I went, "That's it, that's the worst thing that could happen to this guy."
MARCIANO: It's a top-three series finale of all-time.
KARNES: It's really a remarkable piece of work. Where to begin? I suppose I would start with Walton Goggins' performance. I remember watching the craft of it and just thinking, "Wow." Shane Vendrell is an asshole, f---up, racist. And by the end of the finale, you care about him so deeply and feel for the tragedy that his family has gone through, that perhaps if Shane Vendrell had never met Vic Mackey, he might have come through somehow. He comes to see that what they've done is wrong and has the tragic epiphany. Vic never takes that on himself. Vic just wants to get back out on the streets, and in that final shot, maybe that's exactly what he's doing. Maybe he's going out to make a deal, make somebody's life better, make somebody's life worse, like he's been doing for seven seasons. He's learned nothing. And yet, Shane came through and has that moment of, "Oh my God, what have I done?" Even as he's making this choice to kill his whole family.
GOGGINS: I had a great opportunity to work with Spike Lee [on 2008's Miracle at St. Anna] and it conflicted with the last two episodes. And Shawn made that happen for me. Building up this, it was so painful to be in Shane's head that last season that it was a welcome break to step away for a minute, knowing what I was coming back to. I read the finale, separate from everybody, in Italy, a little town called Barga. I finished it and I didn't know what to say. I just started drinking and called Shawn. There was no other way for it to go for Shane, and for Mara (Michele Hicks), and for Jackson, and for their unborn child. And to be quite honest, I was so relieved because I didn't want to think about him for the rest of my life. I didn't want to think about where he went, what he's doing now. I didn't want that burden. It's hard enough with f---ing Boyd Crowder.
SHAWN RYAN: I'd been disturbed by the Chris Benoit story, the wrestler who killed his family and himself. Also, there was a crime in my hometown when I was 10 years old, a father who killed his kids, that had always stuck with me.
GOGGINS: When I landed, I had to work the next day, the first day of the writers' strike. And it was me, all day. And I was without my leader, Shawn. I'm a pro-union guy, and we were targeted, rightly so. I walked into this convenience store, for the scene where I buy the gifts that I'm going to give to my kid before I end their life, and it was very somber and tender. But there were people on the street, holding up signs, yelling, trying to stop production. I remember walking outside and saying, "Guys, I know you have to be here, and I support you being here, but I've worked seven years of my life for this moment. Please, just give me three minutes to get this take. I've earned this right. I know you respect that." And they said, "We got you, man. You got three minutes."
SHAWN RYAN: I was on the negotiating committee for the Writers Guild, so I recommended we go on strike. People assumed it was a huge sacrifice and I never felt that way. I already had very mixed feelings about the show ending and was in denial a bit; I probably would've been a real emotional mess in ways that might not have been good for the filming process. So the negotiating committee gave me a thing to focus on. My wife's final scene, I felt bad, so I found where they were filming it and did a one-person picket.
CATHY RYAN: It was a letdown Shawn wasn't able to be there. But he was there — across the street. He was so cute with his sign.
CLARK JOHNSON: It was nuts. Shawn would be picketing out in front of the studio, I'd get out of my car, picket with him for a little, and then drive in and go shoot. He trusted me, and the script was really, really well-defined. I didn't feel like I had to get cute with it because it was all there. Since Shawn couldn't be there, I wanted to make my [director's] cut fatter than normal, so there'd be a lot of room for him to wiggle around when he was back.
SHAWN RYAN: I was worried about whether I would get the opportunity to finish up in post-edit. During the strike, the network could have taken all the footage and tried to do that work themselves and air it — and that would've made me feel really bad. To John Landgraf's credit, he didn't do that.
LANDGRAF: All the material that was shot went into a vault and just sat there for months. We waited and waited and waited, because we waited for the strike to end, and for Shawn to come in to look at and rework those cuts. We didn't even see them until Shawn was ready to show them to us.
SHAWN RYAN: Clark and Michael told me that they really wanted to not mess up that episode for me and the other writers. They appreciated the stand we were taking and the sacrifice we were making. I was proud they made a finale that good without my active participation during filming, which was proof that we got to a point where the cast and crew really understood what the show was.
The Shield kicked off FX's two-decade run of producing beloved hit series, including Sutter's Sons of Anarchy, Close's Damages, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, American Horror Story, Atlanta, and so many more. But what is its legacy now, 20 years later, as the country reckons with repeated high-profile incidents of police violence?
KARNES: I've heard people say for many years that you couldn't make The Shield today. You could argue even then it almost didn't get made. All kinds of fantastic stuff on television right now pushes various envelopes.
POUNDER: It would have huge problems in the present. But bad is always fascinating. I haven't seen a goody-two-shoes show that has worked as well.
DENT: I love Shawn Ryan, I'll love him to the day I die, he's an amazing showrunner, the stories were un-f---ing-believable, but it was an all-male writing staff, and very macho, testosterone-driven. Women took the backseat, had to keep their mouth shut and be f---able. Could the show be made today? Probably, but not the way that it was made, not in a million years.
LANDGRAF: I don't think you could portray the level of violence perpetrated against people of color primarily by a white set of police officers. It'd just be too triggering and traumatizing. Because it was made when it was made, if somebody chooses to watch it now, I think it holds up really, really well. But do I think you could be making episodes of The Shield and putting them out original on television today? No, I don't think you can. In fact, the whole cop genre is in a bit of a crisis right now, because we just have a deeper knowledge of the complexities and racial inequities of the criminal justice system.
SHAWN RYAN: I naively thought our show might make people more interested in preventing future Vic Mackeys. I can't tell you how many cops have said to me, "I know someone like Vic Mackey on the force." And that's really tragic. Now, I don't take that to necessarily mean that they're committing murders the way he did, but that they're someone that doesn't play by the rules they're supposed to. Sadly, I think a Vic Mackey story could easily be told in the present.
SUTTER: I don't think a guy like Vic Mackey could live in that context of those stories, and, quite honestly, shouldn't. When we came out of the trauma from 9/11, we were able to unpack and deal with it. There were things we did to make ourselves feel safe that ultimately undermined our democracy. We have to acknowledge those lessons, and we now have the knowledge of those lessons. Our job as artists is to tell stories that speak to what's happening culturally. If we're going to do a cop show, it has to reflect the things we've learned. So his story would need to be a completely different one.
CHIKLIS: We've discussed a reboot, and I know it will probably make a lot of people sad, but it's unlikely. There have been ideas bandied about and maybe Shawn will wake up someday with a eureka moment. But it's so rare to have something go so well over seven years that it's hard to even contemplate. It would be a real bummer to revisit those characters and have it be subpar. I can't tell you how many fans have written me fan fiction of the way they see it. None of them know, but it's flattering that they're still questioning and guessing.
SHAWN RYAN: I have some notions of where I might go if I spent a month trying to figure it out, but I don't know definitively what I would decide on, and so, therefore, I'd argue that no one knows for sure.
DIAMOND: People come to The Shield and are still shocked by it. I was reading something on Twitter just last week about some show killed off a main character and you didn't see it coming, and for years people kept referring to that as, "He got the Reed Diamond treatment from Shield."
CLOSE: It broke new ground. You felt like you were on the cutting edge. It was such a great show and very important to my career.
MARINTEZ: Kurt re-bumped my career with Sons — I became a badass. Everyone was like, "Oh, you're that badass from Sons of Anarchy!" And other people are, like, "No, he's that a--hole from The Shield!"
SUTTER: [Robert] Altman is one of my favorite filmmakers, and he believed in a repertoire and would use the same actors all the time. I told Chiklis, "The two actors I can't really ever use on Sons, because they're too tied to The Shield and it would be hard to separate them, are you and Walton." And I said to Walton, "The only way I could ever use you on the show is if we made you a woman." That's how the whole discussion about Venus Van Dam developed, because the character was not supposed to be trans. Walton couldn't have been more down for it. And when I figured out what the end of Sons was, very quickly, I knew who would be driving the truck. The idea of having Vic Mackey be responsible for Jax Teller's death was just too tempting to me, in a beautiful meta, full-circle kind of way.
LANDGRAF: The Shield literally changed the face of TV. It lit up a whole new set of creative possibilities. It was propulsive, entertaining, surprising. For FX, it's the first pillar on which the foundation of the entire brand is laid.
ANDERSON: Aside from me being on television for the very first time, it was the one show that I would call all of my friends and family members the day it was airing. Every week for two-plus years, I'd say, "You guys got to see this! Watch and tell me what you think." Because I was just so proud of the work that we all were doing.
POUNDER: It did not do what's traditional and that's what made it brilliant.
MARTINEZ: The Shield has often been imitated but never duplicated. They take the sensationalized parts but don't follow through with the full characterizations.
CHIKLIS: A lot of people have seen it, but I'd like for a lot more to. Not for my sake, but because it's about what we created together. Some shows, they're just different. It was such an incredible bonding experience; I was talking to Kenny all day yesterday, trying to help him find a house. He was over for Thanksgiving. Walton and I talk three days a week. Shawn lives a par-five from me. The Shield was absolutely the highlight of all of our careers.
DENT: I love everybody, I miss everybody, and it was just a kickass time for all of us.
KARNES: I think one definition of nostalgia is remembering everything that was good about a particular time and forgetting everything that was awful. When I think about The Shield, I think, "People talk about it, and it was a huge time in my life, but, hey, it was just a television show." And then I think, "Yeah, that's true — but it was our television show. It was the one we did, and I'm still pretty damn proud of it."
GOGGINS: This isn't a nostalgic crew. We don't rest on our laurels, we don't look back. I've only watched every episode of The Shield once; I'm saving that for watching it with my son. It's that little box that you keep sacred things in your heart. And that's where this experience resides for all of us. It's not a show. I hate that f---ing word. It's an experience. We got to go on that ride — and what a ride it was.
Top photo credits: Frank Ockenfels/FX; Illustration by MDI Digital for EW
A version of this story appears in the March issue of Entertainment Weekly, on newsstands now. Don't forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.
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