A television showrunner is a unique being. He or she has to be a total package of great writer, producer and boss. “Those things rarely fit inside the same creature,” says Fox Entertainment President Kevin Reilly.
But Reilly and others agree that Lie to Me Executive Producer Shawn Ryan is “a model” for the position. Reilly first saw it when, as programming chief at FX, he commissioned The Shield, the first show Ryan created.
“That was a lot of pressure on a guy who had been a staff producer on a show but never created and ran a pilot of his own,” Reilly says. “I was knocked out by the material, and Shawn very quickly emerged as somebody who was a natural at the producing part of the game.”
Lost Executive Producer Carlton Cuse noted the same killer writer-producer combo when back in 1997 he gave Ryan his first staff writer job, on the CBS series Nash Bridges.
Cuse says Ryan blossomed into the most unusual of TV pros: “He's one of the few showrunners who is capable of multi-tasking—running and having a hand in several shows at the same time.”
That's exactly what he'll do this season. Earlier this year, Ryan took the showrunner reins of Fox's Lie to Me, which is kicking off its sophomore season. And he continues development with the show's studio, 20th Century Fox, where he has an overall deal and pilots for Fox (Ridealong) and FX(Terriers).
“He has a great skill to know when to dial in, laser in on a show, and then go work on your pilot and let other people go do their jobs,” Reilly says. “It has a lot to do with the team around you.”
Indeed, “teamwork” is a watchword for Ryan. “I always viewed [producing television] like sports,” says Ryan, who was raised playing hockey, soccer and basketball in Rockford, Ill. “At certain ages on certain teams, I was the star. Then I got to college and played soccer and was the backup. I understood both of those roles.”
Ryan first got hooked on TV when he won a trip to Los Angeles and a visit to a sitcom for a play he wrote during his senior year at Middlebury College. He scrapped the idea of graduate school for playwriting, moved West and spent a few hopeful years freelancing. After the gig with Cuse on Nash, Ryan moved to The WB's Angel.
“When I got the chance to do The Shield, I tried to bring in people who would be good teammates,” Ryan says. “Nothing makes me happier than when other writers in the room solve a problem I don't have to solve.”
Ryan is known for this egalitarian mindset throughout TV's executive ranks, too. “He's not infallible, and would like to hear from people in a respectful way and give input,” says FX Networks President and General Manager John Landgraf. “He hasn't changed the entire time I've known him.”
Ryan is not surprised to hear this. “I've heard the statement that success doesn't change you, it just reveals who you are,” he says. “Success is temporary. And I try not to let my job define me.”
He was on the writers' negotiating committee during the last strike's contentious contract talks, and made the difficult decision to abstain from producing during the dispute. So he wasn't present for filming on The Shield finale or Fox pilot The Oaks.
But tough calls are familiar terrain for Ryan, whose writing is known for exploring moral complexities. “I love it when you can put characters in a situation when there is no right answer, only less wrong answers,” he says.
Beyond that, he doesn't want to be pigeonholed, having a taste for comedy as well as drama.
“He seems to have the curiosity and appetite to try different things,” Landgraf says, adding that Ryan has the range and ability to enjoy considerable longevity.
Cuse concurs: “Shawn is going to be one of those important voices that will help determine what television is going to be like over the next several decades.”