“They’re giving everyone a show now.” —Ryan Hansen, Ryan Hansen Solves Crimes on Television*
A spiritual sequel of sorts to CW Seed’s 2014 series Play It Again, Dick!—another show you probably missed—YouTube Red’s Ryan Hansen Solves Crimes on Television* premiered in October 2017 to relatively little buzz, which seemed only smaller upon the monster success of another YouTube Red series, The Karate Kid spin-off/sequel Cobra Kai earlier this year. Then, following the premiere of Cobra Kai, YouTube Red rebranded as YouTube Premium, effectively making all of Ryan Hansen’s YouTube Red/YouPorn/RedTube jokes irrelevant. On the other hand, the streaming service’s name change may be the one true way to measure Ryan Hansen’s success.
Ryan Hansen Solves Crimes on Television is, at the very least, eight 20-plus minute episodes of three shows rolled into one: It’s a failed attempt at a “famous YouTube channel,” as Ryan Hansen tries to appeal to millennials who regularly watch YouTube; it’s a single-camera fish-out-of-water procedural, which is also technically a mockumentary; and it’s a multi-camera family sitcom, with Aly Michalka playing Hansen’s wife and Jon Cryer (as himself) as the neighbor who’s always just around. The pilot even jokes about the series’ extreme tonal shifts and how the show’s producers obviously can’t figure out or agree on its format.
The second aspect—the fish-out-of-water procedural—is clearly the meat of the series, and it’s the part that’s front and center when it comes to explaining what Ryan Hansen even is. And the show within the show, Celebrity Vice Squad (CVS), explains why Ryan Hansen would solve crimes anywhere: Due to an uptick in crime in Hollywood, the mayor assigns a task force of “A-listers” to work as liaisons for the LAPD, using their connections and other actorly abilities to help solve cases. Ryan Hansen is the “A-lister celebrity” paired up with no-nonsense Cleveland transplant Det. Jessica Mathers (Samira Wiley, an actual big name). Buddy cop shenanigans ensue. So, not only is Ryan Hansen a fish-out-of-water procedural, it also actively dismantles that specific subgenre months before Carter and Take Two premiered to do the same thing much more earnestly.
Ryan Hansen plays on the fact that Hansen was one of the stars of Veronica Mars (as well another series with a cult following, Party Down), including an inevitable appearance by Kristen Bell. (Their onscreen dynamic has basically morphed into “I’m stuck with him for life” on Bell’s part.) But Ryan Hansen also recognizes that no one actually watched Veronica Mars. Seriously. Which is why it’s impressive how many times it’s been able to come back from the dead. Nor did they watch Party Down. And they definitely didn’t watch Bad Teacher or Bad Judge, two shows that didn’t have even the passionate niche audience behind them.
What people might find surprising about a series this self-deprecatingly, digitally small-time, though, is that Ryan Hansen was created by Rawson Marshall Thurber, the writer/director of Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story, Central Intelligence and, more recently, Skyscraper, which is exactly the type of movie Ryan Hansen would absolutely (and probably will in the second season) turn into a never-ending joke. The press release announcing YouTube’s Season Two renewal of Ryan Hansen even pokes fun at this turn of events, and its own low status: “Created and executive produced by an A-list Hollywood director who would prefer to remain anonymous in order to protect his reputation, Season Two of Ryan Hansen Solves Crimes on Television* will feature some of the same ‘hilarious’ hijinks that caused almost no one to watch Season One.”
Ryan Hansen may “dismantle” the fish-out-of-water procedural, but Thurber and the series evince such a great love for the genre—and television as a whole—that it actually makes sense that Thurber could do this under-the-radar program one moment and a “Die Hard in a bigger building” action blockbuster the next. What character Ryan Hansen lacks in traditional smarts, he makes up for in knowledge of obvious TV tropes, which he points out just as the audience would: Sorkin-esque walk-and-talks, the proper timing of the Law & Order chime, and the use of inappropriate (but clever) puns at the scenes of grizzly crimes, for instance.
As for the series’ limited budget—keeping in mind that the majority of the celebrity cameos are Hansen’s friends, which helps—you’d never actually know it watching the series, save for a quasi-bottle episode. Every version of the series has a specific visual language, and director Tristram Shapeero (GLOW, Childrens Hospital)—who directed every episode but the first two, which were directed by Thurber—is game to play with each of them. In fact, Ryan Hansen’s premise is centered around how game it is to play with, well, everything—which might come across like a legitimate inability to come to an agreement on the tone of the series, but instead is treated with an adeptness and self-awareness that grows as the season proceeds. In a way, it’s like a glossy version of Chris Elliot’s Action Family that made it past the first episode. Each version of the series is host to a handful (and more) of its own very specific TV clichés, and while Ryan Hansen calls them out, it always cracks more jokes at YouTube’s (and its own) expense than anything or anyone who doesn’t deserve it.
The actual Ryan Hansen’s willingness to make himself the butt of the joke, despite his genuine charm, is part of what works so much for his brand, at least beyond Veronica Mars. To be honest, that’s what made the series’ Dick Casablancas such a “fun” character, despite being reprehensible on pretty much every level. In Party Down Hansen used this power for good, turning his character, Kyle, into more of a sympathetic puppy than a vapid douche. And though the real Hansen is a successful working actor, Ryan Hansen has the fictional Hansen hang his hat on things like an unnamed role in Power Rangers Wild Force. The jokes about his career work because about 98% of the fictional Hansen’s credits—as ridiculous as they may sound—are his real life credits. Character Hansen even considers himself a “troubled protagonist” instead of a “hero,” and while that’s treated as being just as pretentious as it sounds, it’s also a proper way to view the show. Even Ryan Hansen’s opening credits—which play with the show-within-a-show aspect—acknowledge his lack of hero status, in addition to the show’s non-traditional television status, by providing a different purpose for the title’s asterisk every episode.
Hansen has, additionally, made a brand out of doing work that’s far less acclaimed than his Veronica Mars and Party Down peers, as both Play It Again, Dick and Ryan Hansen received mixed reviews. Yet both are underrated, especially in terms of their early contribution to nascent streaming platforms. Both series stretched the boundaries of CW Seed and YouTube Premium programming, and the fun of discovering a lesser-known series on novel platform is seeing it in the context of the ecosystem in which it exists and wondering if it can expand past that small corner of the pop culture world.
The success of Cobra Kai, for instance, seemed to threaten Ryan Hansen’s renewal chances, which led to videos where Hansen, in character, attempted to gain goodwill by faking an attempt at a Veronica Mars revival—which is now actually happening—and taking up the Ice Bucket and Cinnamon Challenges (albeit way too late), on the premise that they got free YouTube channels millions of views. “We’re depending on the kindness of strangers to do what science has yet been unable to do,” Hansen explains. “Get the word out for our show.” As with Veronica Mars—though on a much smaller scale—it’s fun to be framed as part of a joint effort to keep the series going. And now it will be: “Despite abysmally low ratings and a robust letter-writing campaign urging YouTube not to renew the series,” a (self-deprecating) mid-August press release revealed, “a contractual obligation with SAG coupled with the threat of legal action from Ryan Hansen himself, has forcibly compelled YouTube Premium to announce that we will be releasing Season Two of Ryan Hansen Solves Crimes on Television* at some point in the future.”
Because YouTube Red didn’t (and YouTube Premium doesn’t) have a definitive brand identity to latch onto other than “YouTube you pay for,” Ryan Hansen feels like it doesn’t quite belong, while also feeling like there’s no natural definition of what does. (The same goes for Rob Huebel’s Do You Want to See a Dead Body?, originally a Funny or Die Presents sketch, which has an eerie surrealism that prevents in-series Huebel from having the same self-aware questions about what the show’s even doing that Hansen does.) Then again, Ryan Hansen Solves Crimes on Television* openly acknowledges that it will fall through the cracks. It’s certainly not claiming to be a secret treasure. Even though it kind of is.
Season One of Ryan Hansen Solves Crimes on Television* is now streaming on YouTube Premium.
Despite her mother’s wishes, LaToya Ferguson is a writer living in Los Angeles. If you want to talk The WB’s image campaigns circa 1999-2003, LaToya’s your girl. Her writing has been featured in The A.V. Club, Indiewire, Entertainment Weekly, Complex, Consequence of Sound, and Flavorwire, among other publications. You can find her tweets about TV shows, movies, and music you completely forgot about @lafergs.