Best of ’23: Savoring Private Ryan

When Netflix shared with the world the massive data dump of how the more than 18,000 titles in its catalogue performed during the first six months of 2023, it was for me impossible not to note what was its most popular new original series, and the fact that it achieved such an accomplishment despite the fact it was a) one 10-episode season and b) wasn’t released until late March underscores exactly how big a win this was.

But while I may have been stunned by the sheer volume of success, I’m honestly not all that surprised it came from the mind of Shawn Ryan.  And, I dare say, I called it.

Many of the ingredients that worked for THE SHIELD, the show that transformed FX and, arguably, the lives of all those associated with it (mine included), are present in THE NIGHT AGENT.  It was familiar territory for fans of quality scripted TV (political thrillers have worked well with the likes of THE AMERICANS and HOUSE OF CARDS), but for Ryan, it was breaking new ground.  And for Netflix, the timing of this success was important.  Netflix didn’t have all that successful a 2022 on the series side, and THE NIGHT AGENT dropped several months before they acquired SUITS.  And as the Evan Shapiro-doctored chart confirms, their success prior to this was being propped up by older shows and movies.

So I’m kinda proud that when I’ve been looking back on the Best of ’23, and I see what was written before the audience tallies began to register and, apparently, didn’t quite stop for months, this was a review and a tribute whose affection and consumption were in concert with quite a number of others’. 

I do bristle when so-called critics who are conducting year-end reviews aren’t quite as laudatory as they should be.  And no, neither the show nor its lead star were nominated for Emmys or Golden Globes. So the unbridled joy and accolade that Ryan (and, yes I) shared by shocking the world with upsets in those venues won’t be repeated.

Then again, I’m pretty sure it look a lot longer than three months for THE SHIELD to be collectively viewed for more than 800 million hours.  Assuming it’s even reached that level more than 20 years later.

I am unapologetically a fan of Shawn Ryan.  I’ve had the privilage of working with him at two companies, FX and Sony, where has demonstrated his talent and value for more than two decades as a showrunner, producer and visionary.  While THE SHIELD was far and away his signature series to date, literally putting FX and the idea of quality scripted dramas for basic cable on the map, he has turned out a number of other successful series since then, mostly for broadcast television.   His reimagination of S.W.A.T., along with his partner Aaron Rahsaan Thomas, has lasted three times as long as the short-lived but beloved ’70s series it was based on, one of the few shows that CBS does not fully control rights to, and he also supplied them with a well-received show, THE UNIT, which ultimately fell victim to the network choosing to renew a bubble show they did control rights to, COLD CASE, when they were essentially neck and neck for renewals.  THE UNIT was aggressively sold to several cable networks simultaneously and was one of the most consistent performers for any of its owners.  More recently, his partnership with Eric Kripke on the critically acclaimed TIMELESS was even shorter-lived, but demonstrative of the kind of urgency and character development that have been his creative signature.

And yesterday, Ryan got to break new ground both in genre and platform with the dropping of his first series for streaming television, Netflix’s THE NIGHT AGENT.  As VARIETY!’s BreAnna Bell reported, Ryan chose to try his hand at something new because, well, it’s in his DNA:

“I’m always trying to do something different than what I’ve done before,” he said. “I’ve never done a show like this before, a real serialized political thriller. I really set it as a challenge for the other writers or myself: Can we make you feel at the end of each episode, ‘Hey, I have to be at work in seven hours. But I can’t go to sleep not knowing what happens next?’”

And as he did with S.W.A.T., he’s once again inheriting pre-existing IP, in this case, Matthew Quirk’s best-selling 2019 novel.  The series follows FBI agent Peter Sutherland, who while working in the basement of the White House monitoring an emergency line that rarely rings, answers a call that plunges him into a deadly conspiracy involving a mole in America’s executive mansion.  But Ryan has once again taken liberties to flesh out the concept to include new characters and wrinkles, as Bell continued:

For instance, not only is there the addition of several new players — including Eve Harlow, who portrays Ellen, an opposing cutthroat spy — but Ryan, who serves as showrunner and executive producer, said Rose (Lucianne Buchanan) and Peter’s (Gabriel Basso) love story will be deeply explored throughout the political thriller’s 10 episodes.

When asked what inspired him to pursue the relationship angle at Monday night’s red carpet premiere, Ryan revealed the storyline wasn’t something he originally planned, but instead grew organically from the characters’ shared traumas.

“Movies have had a lot more success in the genre than TV shows, but one of the things that I think movies have a hard time with is having this love affair that happened super quick. So, a romantic relationship wasn’t at the center of our attention,” Ryan said. “As writers, what we said was, ‘Let’s put these two characters together. Let’s have them go through this crisis together — what’s happened is shared trauma — and as we go episode by episode, let’s see what happens. And if something does happen, let’s have it organically.’ So it was taking that approach that, making a 10-episode season for Netflix, you can really be patient and take your time and sort of earn any moments like that.”

I’ve come to know Ryan well enough to have a lens into his fertile mind, despite his sometimes intimidating outward demeanor.  He has a unique backgroud with experience as a Navy SEAL and a CIA contractor, and learned of this existence of the world of dirty cops he made famous on THE SHIELD while doing ridearounds with the SFPD while researching the more traditional police series NASH BRIDGES.  He’s also a devoted husband (to S.W.A.T. and THE SHIELD cast member Cathy Cahlin Ryan) and father and loyal business partner.   That kind of evolved life experience is what at least I believe has contributed greatly to his success and longevity.

So while there’s the constant drumbeat of pounding music indicative of characters, and indeed their world, in perpetual danger there is also the olive branch of finding love amidst it, as was evident with the “Lyatt” romance that played out on TIMELESS and the forbidden fruit encouplings (and enthrouplings) that entangled many of the co-workers on S.W.A.T.  And such nuance attracted recent Oscar nominee Hong Chau to the project.    Per Bell once again:

One of the questions that I asked Shawn Ryan initially was why he wanted to work on this project, because it does veer quite a bit from the book that it’s adapted from, and he gave a very interesting answer,” Chau said. “It was his desire to explore the different dynamics between men and women in a professional work environment, how they differ, how they come to work together, move forward and make progress. I thought that was a very sensitive question to always have in the back of our minds as we were shooting the show.”

And with the broadening of the storytelling there are apparently tentacles that appeal more to the Netflix audience’s sensibilties versus those of the broadcast networks Ryan has recently courted.  Witness the glowing review from THE DECIDER’s Nicole Gallucci:

The Night Agent thrusts a low-level 20-something hunk working for a U.S intelligence agency into peril and saddles him with critical responsibility.  The two leads have their fair share of similarities, but where Hendricks has a way with words, leans on charm to survive, and believes he can fake it till he makes it in the CIA, Sutherland operates off an astute gut instinct fueled by a deep desire to prove himself, protect the innocent, and defend his country. He’s more logical, more mature, and less likely to be found tossing chicken nuggets in a motel pool and peeing in the snow while singing Taylor Swift.

And all of this is happening in a pretty good week for Sony’s new creative regime.  THE LAST OF US completed a highly successful first season, and both of its rookie dramas for FOX, ACCUSED and ALERT: MISSING PERSONS UNIT, earned renewals.  A new AMC series, LUCKY HANK, representing Bob Oedenkirk’s first role since the conclusion of BETTER CALL SAUL, debuted last Sunday night.  Ryan is a strong link to the previous team I was a part of, and indeed it was Sony that came to the financial rescue of THE SHIELD when FOX’s cable production team balked at the cost of producing it.  So the chance for Ryan to get a chance in a new genre and with a first-time (for him) buyer is both timely and fortuitous.

At a time when its competitors are chasing far more crucial results with buzzier series, THE NIGHT AGENT is a solid, enjoyable and well-produced effort that should ensure that Netflix isn’t fully forgotten.  And will likely ensure that Ryan will continue to find a place for his unique voice and style to proliferate.

I’ve already addressed how much I benefitted personally from my association with Shawn–THE SHIELD bought me my dream house, and S.W.A.T. helped me keep an acceptable enough roof (to others, not me) after I could no longer afford it.  Lately, I’m simply trying to stay housed, and I need to rely on my roommate’s Netflix subscription these days to even be a fan.  So the private Ryan I know has saved me time and time again.  You should at least savor the public version.  And try to appreciate the private one as well.

Until next time…

Leave a Comment