S.W.A.T. executive producer Shawn Ryan | ©2017 CBS / Bill Inoshita

S.W.A.T. executive producer Shawn Ryan | ©2017 CBS / Bill Inoshita

Shawn Ryan is doing well right now.  One series he executive-produces and co-created (with Aaron Rahsaan Thomas), CBS’s Thursday night drama S.W.A.T., has officially been picked up for its second season. Another series Ryan executive-produces and co-created (with Eric Kripke), NBC’s time-travel series TIMELESS, is now in its second season on Sunday nights – after originally having been canceled following its first season last year.

SHAWN RYAN: We’re working on Season 1 of S.W.A.T. and Season 2 of TIMELESS concurrently right now.

ASSIGNMENT X: What was your personal TIMELESS drama like with, “We hope it’s renewed,” “It’s canceled,” “Yay, it’s back”?

RYAN: It was a very surreal forty-eight hours. If I have the timing right, I think it was a Wednesday that NBC canceled TIMELESS, and I was very depressed, because I thought we’d made a very compelling case about why the show should be back. When you included all the time-shifted viewing and everything, we were actually the fourth-highest[-rated] scripted show on all NBC, but most of it was coming after the live viewing. So I was disappointed. And then on Friday morning, I found out that S.W.A.T. was picked up, so I was unemployed for forty-eight hours [laughs], I was, “All right, one door closes, another opens, and this is just the way it’s going to be, and okay.” And then that evening, I heard the first rumor – “Don’t get excited, but maybe NBC is reconsidering, but we’ll know tomorrow.” So on Saturday morning, I got the call that they’d changed their minds. It was like, “What happened?” It literally sounded like it was just a case of [NBC executives] Bob Greenblatt and Jen Salke changing their minds. They really, truly love the show creatively, and I think a lot of weird business decisions depend on foreign deals and how much a network owns of one show and everything. The story I heard was that Bob came back to the office and said, “If canceling TIMELESS is the kind of decision we’re going to make, why are we in this?” And decided to have more talks with Sony about figuring out a way to make it work out, and they did, and all of a sudden, we’re back. And I went from unemployed two days previously to now I’ve got two shows I’ve got to make [laughs].

AX: What can you say about TIMELESS Season 2?

RYAN: There are some changes. I’m reluctant to get too specific, but there’s a whole new aspect of what our Time Team is up to. We delve deeper into the personal relationships of our series regulars. We address Wyatt [Matt Lanter]/Lucy [Abigail Spencer] in a meaningful way, we go deeper into Rufus [Malcolm Barrett] and Jiya [Claudia Doumit], and we have a whole new main set as well as our team is forced to go underground a bit. That’s as many spoilers as I want to give.

AX: On TIMELESS, the regulars encounter a lot of historical figures. What do you look for in casting the actors who play famous people from the past?

RYAN: We consider our guest casting to be more about the historical characters of the week than necessarily trying to stunt-cast actors who play them. We’re always looking for people that will fit into these iconic roles, so to this point, anyways, there’s no, “Hey, Oprah Winfrey’s going to be on the show,” something like that. We’re just always trying to cast the best people. In Season 1, who are the best people to play Bonnie and Clyde? Who’s the best person to play Jesse James? They’re not always specifically names, but Harry Houdini is an example. Those were all actors who weren’t necessarily household names, but really embody those characters, and we take the same approach in Season 2.

AX: You’ve got pretty diverse casts on both TIMELESS and S.W.A.T. …

RYAN: [On TIMELESS], we’ve got seven series regulars, two of whom are African-American, one of whom is Indian, another of whom is Middle Eastern. And a female lead.

AX: TIMELESS obviously goes around the world and explores issues of the day. S.W.A.T. is set in contemporary Los Angeles, and deals with a lot of present-day issues. When you’re depicting communities where you don’t have the representation in the regular cast, like the Filipino community, which you mentioned in an earlier discussion, do you have to be careful in writing the stories that it doesn’t appear to be a blanket statement that because something is a problem in that community, that doesn’t mean everybody in that community has the problem?

TIMELESS - Season 1 Key Art | ©2016 NBCUniversal

TIMELESS – Season 1 Key Art | ©2016 NBCUniversal

RYAN: Yeah, of course. You have to be sensitive, and you don’t ever want to shorthand a community. Having said that, we’re a crime show. S.W.A.T. deals with emergencies. But a lot of times, crimes take place within a community. Episode 2 took place in Boyle Heights, amongst the Latino community, and our main bad guy was Latino. But the victims were also Latino. The witnesses were Latino. And so if you paint a complete picture of that community where the crime is taking place, and you’re not just, ‘Well, here’s our Latino bad guy,’ and it’s only about going after him, you see how he terrorizes this community, and you see the woman and her two children who you’re trying to protect in the episode. Yeah, you’re always trying to be careful. The last thing you want to do is [stereotype a community].

Interestingly, it’s not always ethnic. Because of the nature of our S.W.A.T. team, the cast leans male, right? There are more male S.W.A.T. team members – we have one female S.W.A.T. team member, and one captain [Jessica Cortez, played by Stephanie Sigman] who’s female. So one of the things that we’ve tried to do to balance that is, any time we’re outside the S.W.A.T. offices, any time there’s a role for a doctor, a lawyer, a witness, someone, I would say that seventy-five percent of those roles we cast as women, rather than fifty-fifty or less. I’ve been made aware of these studies of how many speaking roles in movies and TV shows are men, as opposed to women. So one of the things I’ve instructed our casting director to do, every episode, that we talk about the casting of that specific episode, if it’s a fifty-fifty thing where it could be a man or a woman, almost always, we cast a woman, as a way to balance out the gender on this. The same thing with extras. I talked to the first a.d.s [assistant directors], because I’d read a story that seventy percent of extras on shows are men. Well, you’ll walk around the world, and seventy percent of the people aren’t men – it’s amazing, it’s fifty-two [percent women]/forty-eight [percent men], right? And so I give the instructions to the first a.d.s that, when you’re hiring the extras, and we’re out in the world, unless there’s some specific [reason] – we have a prison episode, it’s in a men’s prison, everyone’s male – but in the other episodes, where you’re out in the world, I want all the extras to reflect the racial diversity of this city, I want a gender diversity. So that’s something that, if you lay it out in the beginning, they’ll do it, but if you say nothing, you’ll find yourself part of those bad numbers.

AX: Los Angeles obviously has a very large LGBTQ community. Are there any interactions between the S.W.A.T. team and the community? Is there any representation on the S.W.A.T. team?

RYAN: Chris, our female member of the team, who is played by Lina Esco, when she came in to meet with us at the beginning of the year, she talked about how interested she was that the character was bisexual, and that was something that we discussed, and we ended up putting in the show. In Episode 7, Street [Alex Russell] keeps hitting on her. And finally she says, you know, you really have to lay off. I’m interested in the team, I’m not interested in being in a relationship with another cop, and he’s very respectful. And at the end of the episode, you see that she’s going out with a woman. He said, “I thought you liked men.” She says, “I do – I do love men. But I also love women. Why does a girl have to choose?” So that’s a story that we’ve told. But once again, the same way that the STAR TREK folks talked about how they didn’t lead with their characters’ sexuality, they led with the job, it was the same with us. We got six episodes in of Chris and how she operated as a S.W.A.T. officer before [discussing her sexuality]. Sexuality isn’t the main definer of her. So that’s the story that we’ve told so far.

AX: There’s also diversity of opinion on a lot of issues among the S.W.A.T. team …

RYAN: There has been a lot of conflation [in some people’s minds], I think, between support of police with patriotism. I think there’s a lot of conflation of support of police with over-protection of officers who do bad things. In many ways, the S.W.A.T. team that we reflect is a little bit sort of wish fulfillment. We write these cops as the kind of cops we’d like to see, as the kind of police officers who can take down the bad guys and keep you safe, which is absolutely a hundred percent necessary in this world [laughs], along with being respectful to the community that they police. It’s aspirational in that sense. THE SHIELD [the Emmy-winning series created by Ryan] was a cautionary police tale. The reason why I don’t feel like I’m repeating myself with this show is, THE SHIELD was always cautionary about what was going on in the underbelly in a small percentage of the police department. This is more aspirational about what can the police be. We have a whole ongoing storyline where Jessica is initiating these police reforms, and she’s going to get pushback from some cops about it. ‘Why are you picking on us? It’s the bad guys that are the problem.’ The [creators of THE GOOD FIGHT] were talking about Chicago being a very liberal town. Well, I spent a lot of time with Chicago police officers. They’re not [laughs]. And that’s something we try to stay true to.

[In an] immigration episode, the idea is that they’re giving support to an I.C.E. operation. And there’s a local rule in L.A. that cops are not supposed to participate in these sorts of raids, and they become entangled in this, where it becomes a thing that now the local politicians are upset, but one of the things we did is, we gave a couple of the cops on our team a traditionally more conservative opinion about sanctuary cities and immigration, because to me, that’s the truth for a lot of cops. Now, there are a couple of other cops, specifically the minority cops, that have a different opinion of that. And yet, can you hold together as a team, can you respect the other person’s opinion? We’re meeting a Dreamer who’s in the middle of this, whose older brother who’s not a Dreamer is arrested, and is in this I.C.E. net, and you just show the humanity of it, and it’s not about giving one side of the political aisle or the other to switch sides, it’s showing what the reality is of this disconnect between the federal government and the local government’s difference of opinions, and how these cops can get stuck in the middle. That’s how we’re telling our stories.

And I read a lot – it’s interesting. Hollywood gets painted as this sort of liberal bastion, as if the people in town check your voting record. ‘Oh, you voted the right way, you can now come work in the industry.’ Which isn’t the case at all. In the same way that the Chicago police department doesn’t have a rule that you have to be Republican to work there. It’s just that the people who are drawn to those jobs tend to think more conservatively. As TV writers, we spend a lot of time putting ourselves in the shoes and minds of other people and other characters. And when you spend a lot of time thinking about other people, you tend to sympathize with those people, and sometimes that can lead to liberal viewpoints. But that doesn’t mean that people are trying to project a political agenda on fiction. I’m interested in telling human stories.

I’ve got lots of cousins that voted for Trump. I come from the middle of the country, and I’m used to being around, and loving, people who have very different political points of view. That doesn’t mean that we can’t all get together, that doesn’t mean that we can’t bond together on the important issues for our cities, for our states, for our country. So we tell this aspirational story about this S.W.A.T. team that has different people. We learn in this episode that they have different political points of view, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t love each other, it doesn’t mean that they can’t work together, and hopefully, that just comes off as human. When they did the initial testing on S.W.A.T., Republicans and Democrats liked the show equally. And I was really proud of that, because I was interested in not preaching to the choir. First of all, I try to keep my politics relatively low-key, I don’t really talk about them on social media, because really, they don’t drive and affect the stories I tell. I’m trying to tell human stories, not political stories.

AX: What would you most like people to know about the rest of this season of S.W.A.T.?

RYAN: I think we’re getting better and better. I think we’ve learned the characters, the actors are really fitting into the thing, we try to tell a different story about the city, a different group of citizens each week.

This interview was conducted during CBS’s portion of the Winter 2018 Television Critics Association (TCA) press tour.

Related:  Interview with S.W.A.T. executive producer Shawn Ryan on Season 1 of the CBS reboot

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