It’s hard to imagine who exactly the audience for “Ryan Hansen Solves Crimes on Television” is. Or maybe it’s the opposite: It’s very easy to imagine the audience that might be interested in a highly self-referential TV show; it’s for people who live and work in the world of TV already. It’s just difficult to imagine that such a niche audience might be a viable market for a new comedy series. But this is television in 2017, as “Ryan Hansen Solves Crimes on Television” will never stop reminding you, with charming bemusement. Somehow even this gets an eight-episode order.
For all of its self-deprecation (and platform deprecation), “Ryan Hansen Solves Crime on Television” is a sturdy little half-hour, with a procedural template that promises a neatly tied off case at the end of each episode. Each episode follows actor Ryan Hansen — that guy from “Veronica Mars” and “Party Down” — as he shadows LAPD detective Jessica Mathers (Samira Wiley, wonderful as always), a no-nonsense cop with a distinct lack of respect for Ryan’s constant social media preening. Ryan and Jessica are filming a TV show, sort of. Except that no one they talk to believes that YouTube Red is a real thing, and Ryan keeps interrupting his own show to deliver a line differently, or suggest a sound effect for post. When the audience meets Ryan’s family, they’re on the set of a multi-camera sitcom — with a live audience, and a nosy neighbor played by Jon Cryer. There was disagreement, Ryan explains, over whether “Ryan Hansen Solves Crimes on Television” should be single- or multi-cam. So they’re just doing both.
The comedy requires the audience to be very aware of the conventions of a mediated screen experience — whether that is what it feels like to watch videos on your phone, or the recognizable beats of any crime procedural. It’s casting for a specific audience, to be sure. But if you are a member of that audience, “Ryan Hansen Solves Crimes on Television” offers a welcome, sharp awareness of what it’s like to have so many videos competing for your attention.
It would have been simpler, perhaps, if “Ryan Hansen Solves Crimes on Television” had opted to be a parody reality show — either in the mockumentary style of “The Office” or the satire of “Rock of Love.” Instead the characters conveniently “forget” or “remember” there’s a camera present, which is at times a little confusing. But this is a blurred distinction that seems thematically appropriate, too. Ryan seems always unsure of who he is if there’s not a camera capturing him from some angle. In one inspired scene in the premiere, he takes a selfie of himself holding a gun — with a phone that has his own picture on the case, presumably from some other selfie he took from some other phone. Jessica, meanwhile, has no interest in viewer satisfaction; when she accidentally stumbles into Ryan’s family’s multi-cam studio, she reflexively pulls her gun on the studio audience.
The show wouldn’t work at all without Hansen’s specific combination of good cheer and self-delusion, and to his credit, he executes it beautifully. In that curious blend only available to Hollywood wannabes, he’s both totally unself-conscious and totally too self-conscious, at the same time. He’s a mensch in auditions and intolerably self-absorbed otherwise. Jessica’s fed up with him, of course, but after working a few cases together, she discovers that Ryan’s set of insights is a useful one, especially in the industry-driven mean streets of Los Angeles. And if the spine of this show is a tried-and-true formula — that of an unlikely pair solving crimes together, and slowly coming to appreciate each other in the process — then regardless of platform, distribution, or device, YouTube Red has found a home for a classic TV formula.