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YouTube Red hasn’t quite reached the point at which its original programming is forcing itself into the mainstream critical discussion, but it’s getting closer.
A couple weeks back, YouTube Red premiered Lifetime, a time travel thriller executive produced by Dwayne Johnson and starring Friday Night Lights star Zach Gilford. The pilot of Lifeline suffers from major logical problems and its budgetary limitations are instantly evident, and it’s trying to tell an hourlong drama story in a half-hour time window. But it has some conceptual imagination, which is no small feat in a fall of broadcast TV creative deficits.
Air date: Oct 25, 2017
On Wednesday, YouTube Red launches the comedic crime procedural Ryan Hansen Solves Crimes on Television and, again, my response is either damning with faint praise or, more accurately, praising while damning. Ryan Hansen Solves Crimes on Television is bloated and sloppy and amateurish in a way that occasionally rises to the level of “gleeful,” but it’s occasionally hilarious and delivers a much more scathing, granular and detailed satire of the television business and Hollywood fame than the facile yuks of Showtime’s departed, overpraised Episodes. If anything, Ryan Hansen Solves Crimes on Television is too inside baseball and too far up its own butt, but if you’re a small- screen obsessive, there’s definitely amusement in this industry colonoscopy.
As hard as it may be to believe, there are actually some people out there who haven’t seen Veronica Mars or Party Down, which gives Hansen a very specific level of fame. If you know who he is, you probably have a lot of affection for his ability to play self-centered to an extreme that it somehow engenders affection. There’s a reason why his character in the streaming music industry comedy Rockville CA was simply known as The Douche. This is something he does tremendously well and with a great willingness to be treated with derision. But there’s also a chance that a majority of TV viewers don’t have a clue who Ryan Hansen even is beyond “That guy from that thing.”
Therein lies the core of Ryan Hansen Solves Crimes on Television. For reasons best taken on faith, the LAPD has decided to launch a Celebrity Vice Squad, utilizing mid-level celebrities as investigators or police liaisons, tied to a show that will air on YouTube Red, which all and sundry have to frequently emphasize is not, in fact, a porn channel. The version of Hansen on display here has Hansen’s credits and a status that leads to him being recognized as other actors, while scurrying for auditions for a potential breakout role. Hansen is partnered with ultra-serious Detective Jessica Mathers (Samira Wiley), whose reaction when meeting Ryan Hansen is, “That literally means nothing to me.”
Rawson Marshall Thurber (Dodgeball) created the series and directed the first couple episodes, followed by Community veteran Tristram Shapeero, and the three episodes sent to critics really do get better, probably in proportion to how, despite a rising body count for the episodic crimes, the procedural aspect of the story becomes a narrative afterthought. I have internal conflict on this, because a frustration with the first two episodes was that the relentless in-joking made it hard to invest in the mystery plot that was taking up a lot of time, but by the third episode my opinion had shifted to something more along the lines of, “If the nonstop referencing is what the show does best, might as well steer into it,” and I think the writers came to agree.
“Man, you guys really need to figure out your format,” Mathers says in the pilot. She’s not wrong.
Ryan Hansen Solves Crimes on Television is relentless, convinced that if one joke about YouTube Red being a porn site is clever, five jokes on the subject are even funnier, pacing be damned. Don’t get me started on the number of jokes about YouTube Red pricing policy and whether or not it’s a good business model to try charging people for something they mostly get for free. Let’s just say Ryan Hansen Solves Crimes on Television has a lot of opinions on the subject. And if a few breaking-the-fourth wall direct addresses to the audience are amusing, Ryan Hansen Solves Crimes on Television figures 20-or-so must be hilarious, storytelling be damned. Often, the show is right. A running joke about the precinct’s Angry Black Captain is a smart genre deconstruction and repeated references to formal elements of the genre — an aside about the cost of a crane shot is followed with “It’s not a very high crane. It’s more of a jib arm” — hit pretty reliably. I don’t know if there’s a massive audience out there to laugh at jokes about how Hansen has been in Bad Santa, Bad Judge and Bad Teacher, but I’m certainly a part of that audience. I’m also part of the audience that would be really into Thurber’s choice to approach Hansen’s personal life through the medium of a multicam sitcom in which his wife is played by Aly Michalka and his neighbor is played by a beloved network comedy star, who enters to a roar from the studio audience.
Playing his apparently trademarked brand of exuberant, well-meaning obnoxiousness, Hansen is the perfect actor to star in Ryan Hansen Solves Crimes on Television, but the show is even meta enough to explore that in the third episode, in which waning ratings cause a temporary recasting with a guest star who proves quite excellent at being Ryan Hansen. I don’t think Wiley is giving a great performance as Hansen’s sidekick, but it’s so much fun to see the Orange Is the New Black and Handmaid’s Tale veteran in this context that it hardly matters. Of the many cameos, Donald Faison’s appearance in the third episode is the best, right down to the heated protestation, “I was the black male lead in Pitch Perfect!”
When it isn’t drawing attention to its walk-and-talks or to an extended one-shot in the True Detective vein, Ryan Hansen Solves Crimes on Television isn’t very visually interesting and when it isn’t lampooning convoluted TV crime drama plots, the episodic investigations aren’t very engaging. A lot of the supporting performances seem to be coming from PAs and their relatives and every episode feels like it could have had five minutes trimmed. Still, I’m not going to apologize for getting an appreciative kick out of a show that can name-check Roland Emmerich’s Anonymous, extensively parody Party Down and reference Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink. If you can get that combination anywhere other than Ryan Hansen Solves Crimes on Television, then you can continue not to know whether YouTube Red is a porn service.
Network: YouTube Red
Cast: Ryan Hansen, Samira Wiley
Creator: Rawson Marshall Thurber
Episodes premiere Wednesdays on YouTube Red, which is not a porn site.
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