‘Last Resort’ co-creator Shawn Ryan on the series finale, ‘Beverly Hills Cop’ and more

“Last Resort” just aired its series finale, and I have a few thoughts on how things ended, and then a long interview with co-creator Shawn Ryan about these 13 episodes – and, at the end, about his “Beverly Hills Cop” pilot for CBS – all coming up just as soon as I ask who Jay-Z is…

As Ryan explains below, parts of “Controlled Flight Into Terrain” were largely as they were intended to be back when this was just going to be episode 13 out of a hypothetical 22, but large chunks of it were rewritten once ABC told them this would be the end. And it’s pretty easy to tell which is which, not just because of the finality of some of those events – Marcus sacrificing himself to ensure the Colorado didn’t fall into Chinese hands, Kylie assassinating the president (after the most incompetent Secret Service agents of all time took her dad’s orders not to frisk her), Hopper ransoming Christine from Wes (with Kylie somehow figuring out where Christine was) – but because of how incredibly rushed they were. For all that we ask for canceled shows to get an opportunity at closure, it’s not always easy to pull off in abbreviated circumstances, especially on a show with so many characters in so many different places.

And yet the section where Marcus, Sam, Grace and the COB fought back against the mutineers – which was largely what was supposed to happen, other than Marcus dying and the sub blowing up – was excellent, and was a reminder of why I was so intrigued by this show in the first place. And of the last-minute changes, Marcus’s sacrifice unsurprisingly worked the best, because… well… Andre Braugher.

So here’s Shawn Ryan, talking about where the series might have gone if the ratings had been a bit better, what regrets he has, and the most important factor that could make “Beverly Hills Cop” the show that breaks his recent cancellations lump:

I wanted to start out by asking how much of what was in the finale was going to be in there before you found out there wouldn’t be a back-nine and this would be it for the show.

Shawn Ryan: I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of this is a series that got interrupted, versus ultimately a miniseries, and how important are the intentions when you begin, in terms of what the final product is. In the movie world, “American Beauty” started off as a movie about two kids on trial for the murder of Kevin Spacey’s character, and then it shifted. And yet movies aren’t under the burden of what they started out, but what they end up as. I’m happy to talk to you about what was intended, but at the end of the day, I hope it’s judged as a 13-episode miniseries. I know it won’t be, because it’s been deemed a series since May.

But to answer your question, the episode was always about the mutineers attempting to take over the sub, it was always about Marcus and Sam really being at odds, and in fighting against the mutiny, coming back together. The stuff that got rewritten once we found out it would be the final episode: we rescued Christine and returned her to the States, we accelerated and really minimized a story that was going to play bigger in subsequent episodes with James and Tani and these prospectors that were on the island and starting to mistreat people from Tani’s tribe. That was going to play out as a much bigger thing. If there are some rough scenes in the final episode, I would say that story was. We didn’t feel we could totally ignore James and Tani in the last episode. But that wasn’t a thing we were playing in the original scripts. And then the culmination of the story is pretty much all new. In the original version that we wrote, it was going to be the end of Josh Brannan, he was going to die in the gunfight on the sub, that was going to be our big emotional loss before Sam and Marcus retook the sub. All the act four stuff is new, and the culmination, the ending, is new.

So before this turned into a series finale, Marcus and Sam were going to reconcile and retake control of the sub. Where was the story going to go from there? How much did you talk about the back-nine that never came?

Shawn Ryan: We talked a lot about the back-nine. We pitched it to the network back in September or October. That pitch was very well-received. We were about to dissolve the American blockade. In many ways, a lot of the first 13 episodes were about survival, and we were going to transfer in the last 9 to, “If survival isn’t the main issue, if we’re being left alone, what is this place?” we were going to do the opposite, where all of a sudden, things are open on the island, and they’ve become icons for a certain segment of the world’s population. All of a sudden, these boats arrive with people who want to be part of this movement. And what do you do about those people? Can those people be trusted? Is there an assassin among those people? One of those people was going to be Marcus’s surviving son, who had always disagreed with him politically, but who now looked upon Marcus’s actions as something admirable, even though Marcus thinks that his son was misconstruing that. There was going to be a woman with his son who would be a foil for Marcus, philosophically and romantically.  We were going to do a much bigger story about how Christine gets saved. We were going to deal with the island and the fact that there were valuable minerals on it that needed to be saved, things like that. We had definite plans on where we were going to go.

One of the things you had to race through in the final act was Kylie shooting the president. Were you aiming to set up an arc where she goes undercover in the president’s cabal after the coup fails?

Shawn Ryan: We actually were going to take her on a journey where she was more conflicted, and trying to be the good daughter to her father, and in many ways would start to work against Marcus and Sam and Christine before having some qualms. We were going to muddy up that character some more, and only given the final episode, we had to do it in a much more black-and-white way.

Was anything significant changed about the next-to-last episode, or only the finale?

Shawn Ryan: I’m trying to think. There may have been some minor dialogue tweaks. I can’t remember what they were.

The reason I ask is that there were certain scenes in that episode – Admiral Shepard calling Grace, or the reasons why Ernie Hudson killed himself – that felt like they might have been fleshed out more in a regular episode 13, rather than the one you had to make. 

Shawn Ryan: In fact, you just reminded me. We had a whole storyline where Admiral Shepard was going to go on trial, and put a lot of pressure on Grace. Was there anything she could do from afar to try to save him? That was going to have some tragic circumstances.

Once you knew you were ending the show with this episode, how and why did you decide that Marcus would go down with the ship?

Shawn Ryan: There are a lot of choices to be made there. We felt he was someone who would go down with the ship, for whom there wasn’t much left back home. And as long as there was a purpose to staying behind – in this case, to make sure that the sub wouldn’t fall into Chinese hands – it felt like the noble thing for him to do. I always felt like his actions, whether you agreed with them or not, came from a place of nobility and principle, and he was someone I thought would sacrifice himself for that nobility and principle.

Well, cancellation gives you a freedom to kill your main character in a way you couldn’t do if the show was continuing.

Shawn Ryan: (Laughs) It certainly does!

Was there any pause from either ABC or Sony about that decision, or did they just say, “Well, the show’s ending anyway, you and Karl do whatever you want”?

Shawn Ryan: I have to say that they really let us do what we wanted from the very beginning. Any qualms that anyone has about the show can certainly be placed at my feet and Karl’s feet. There was no panicky network, “Ohmigod, we’ve got to do this” notes. They would occasionally remind us that they were a network that was strong in female viewers, and that we should be careful that there were stories and characters that their female viewership could plug into, but ultimately, maybe we failed at that. But other than that, we said, “Here’s what we want to do,” and they said, “Great.”

We talked about this in the summer, and Paul Lee was fairly open about this: this show was not an ideal fit for ABC’s brand. Given all that, is there anything you could have done with the show – forget about quality for a second, but in terms of making it fit in more with the brand to maybe make it more successful?

Shawn Ryan: Probably. But nothing that I could have lived with creatively. In retrospect, probably the thing I could have done was sell it to NBC and have them air it after “The Voice.”

Okay, so let’s talk creative now. This is a show that had a lot of moving pieces, and every new show has a learning curve. In terms of making these 13 the best they could be, is there anything that in hindsight, you wish you had done a little bit differently, or better than you did?

Shawn Ryan: I think we struggled a little bit in the first couple of episodes after the pilot to find a strong, simple throughline for the story. I liked those first couple of episodes, but I didn’t love ’em. I felt like we really got into a groove starting around episode 5. But by then, the ratings future was already written. Really, the ratings future was written on the pilot. When you start off at a 2.2 (demo rating), it’s tough to maintain that. Yeah, I see all sorts of things I would change. It was a very, very complicated show. It was a very difficult production, being orchestrated from afar between Los Angeles and Hawaii, a very large cast, very sprawling story, and a large percentage of the 13 episodes, I would defend vigorously. And other stuff, I would acknowledge could have been better.

One of the issues I had and that a number of my readers had was the idea of Serrat continuing to exist and be out in the world, not only after he killed some of Marcus’s sailors, but after he participated in a chemical attack on his own people. How did you feel the material with him worked out?

Shawn Ryan: I love the actor, and I loved him as a bad guy, and I guess you could say maybe we were guilty of falling in love with our bad guy too much, if that’s the way you felt. In the third episode, he kind of lays out the case for why he feels he’s untouchable by them in terms of having the people loyal to him, and death by a thousand cuts. In my mind, that was always something that lived in Marcus’s head: that going directly after this guy might provide some momentary satisfaction, but might create real long-term problems at a time when they already had a very formidable episode in the United States on another flank. I guess my argument would be that Marcus, who we always played as a chess master of sorts, looked beyond the first move of, ‘Oh, let me just take this guy out,’ to what would the ramifications of that be, and making a more prudent move in that regards. But I understand the point you and the readers are making.

You said before that the writing was on the wall even after the pilot writings. There are a lot of industry reporters who follow the ratings who were saying, “No, the numbers aren’t good, but ABC could be doing worse, and this is an audience that ABC doesn’t normally reach. Maybe they might want to stay in business with this a little longer.” At what point was it clear to you that this was not going to happen? How quickly did you know there wouldn’t be more episodes?

Shawn Ryan: You always hope, and you see shows like “Fringe” lasting for five years, and you think, ‘Why not us?’ So I knew probably from episode 3 or 4 on that it was dire, but I really loved the show and maintained a lot of hope that it would continue. I didn’t fluff my followers on Twitter with hopes that I myself didn’t believe in. I believed that if we could solidify at a certain number, and we had some very good episodes coming up, in my opinion, and that we had a network that really loved the show – Paul Lee, creatively, really loved the show, and so did his execs, and we were on time and we were on budget, so we had a lot of goodwill over there. ABC wasn’t looking to get rid of us, and Paul was a little heartbroken that America didn’t discover it. I knew things were dire early on, and I just kept working and controlling what I could control.

You’ve been through a few of these cancellations in a row now, with this and “Chicago Code” and “Terriers.” Does it get any easier?

Shawn Ryan: Listen, I have a bit of a Zen attitude about things. I try not to get too up when things are going well and too down when things aren’g going well. I tend to be more disappointed for others than I am for myself. I feel bad for the crew, who really worked their asses off, and who now don’t have a job. I feel bad for the cast. In my mind, I know that I gave everything I could to the show, and I gave my best with it. I’m very proud of the show. My employers probably wouldn’t like to hear this, but I’d rather be proud of a show that failed than not be proud of a show that succeeded.

Well, this ends a few days after CBS bought your “Beverly Hills Cop” pilot. It’s a beloved pre-existing property. What can you say about it? And what are things you can look at with this show that fill you with confidence that maybe this time, after the last few, something will be different.

Shawn Ryan: The biggest piece of confidence I have is that I’ve really been wrecked three different times: once on “Lie to Me,” when I ran it for a year, then “Chicago Code” and now “Last Resort,” where I’ve had to go up against my friend Bill Prady’s show “Big Bang Theory.” The best thing I can say about this is it would be on CBS, so they can’t put me on against that show. So I feel good about that. When we sold the show in the summer, I still had high hopes that “Last Resort” would be successful. In my mind, this was going to be a palate cleanser from that, very different. I always try to do things that are different from other things I’ve done in the past. And you could say this is another cop show, and I’ve done “The Shield” and “Chicago Code.” But this is very different tonally. I’ve always wanted to do something more comedic, I’ve tried to sell several sitcoms in the last 6-7 years and couldn’t get them made. This is sort of a backdoor way in which the studio and network feels comfortable, because of my resume, to give me a shot at doing something more comedic.

Shawn Ryan: I think you and I are both fans of a certain genre of movies in the 1980s, the “Beverly Hills Cop,” “Midnight Run” kinda thing. And this is my shot at doing that on TV. Can you do visceral realistic grounded police work and action intermixed with real grounded, funny humor? A lot of movies and TV shows skew too comedic in my mind, and as a result, they feel too light and don’t have stakes, and the bullets don’t feel real and the stakes don’t feel real. This is my attempt to get that alchemy right. This is another high-wire act. I never seem to give myself easy tasks in that regard, and living up to an iconic movie like that is going to be very difficult. But I like the high degree of difficulty tasks. I think we’ve got a real star in Brandon Jackson. I really really dig him and his acting and his sense of humor. I really bonded with him the last couple of months. It’s the first time I’ve written a script where we already had the lead. It’s a lot like a movie in a way, where you’re crafting the character to the actor. I really enjoyed that.

Listen, it’s going to be a CBS procedural. We’re going to solve a case every week, but we’re going to do it with a lot of humor and a lot of fun. And I would say the stealth thing I would like to get in is, in a day and age when income inequality and class inequities dominate a lot of the country, this is going to be an opportunity to put a young working-class kid in Detroit in the middle of Beverly Hills, you can do a lot of stealth social commentary.

What people remember about “Beverly Hills Cop” is the banana in the tail pipe, and Bronson Pinchot, and Axel making a big scene at the hotel check-in desk. A lot of that movie is really dark and really violent.

Shawn Ryan: Well, it was supposed to be a Sylvester Stallone movie until about three weeks before it started shooting.

So how are you going to approach that balance?

Shawn Ryan: My approach is to update it and make it feel modern and 2013. The pilot opens with a 4-5 minute sequence which I think is really harrowing and really dangerous, that would be something that you might have seen on “Chicago Code” or “The Shield.” I want it to feel grounded in that way. There’ll be some opportunities for laughs after that. It’s not a laughs come first show. What I loved about the movie, when I talked with Eddie Murphy a lot about what he thought worked about it, is that when he would walk into a scene, you really didn’t have an idea, 10 seconds in, whether it was going to be funny or dangerous or violent or silly. It could go in any direction. They didn’t tip it. And a lot of the comedy in that movie is played in two shots without a lot of cutting. They just let it play. They don’t use the cutting to accentuate the humor, which a lot of modern-day comedy does. It just played. If it played funny, it was funny, and if it played less funny, the audience didn’t notice the strain of trying to make you laugh. That’s a lot of what I’m going to try to bring to this. Obviously, we have to hire a director, and the director will be a huge part of how this plays tonally, but there’s a lot to admire from that era, but there’s also a lot that could be updated and modernized as well.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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