The special agents reflected on their dilemma. They were derivative of other, more nuanced characters from other, more developed programs, but derivative or not they had a mystery to solve.
And what a humdinger of a mystery it was!
Thirteen victims, right index finger removed from each—the killer was perfect for a season like this, far enough removed from the principal character arcs to allow for honest growth and discovery while maintaining the tension and stakes necessary to keep the plot machine churning. Plus the intrigue—so grand—the slow reveal of Special Agent Arthur Hornby’s family past—the experiment having wiped some crucial part of his memory clean—and the subsequent reveals that for every revelation there was somebody for whom that which had been revealed had already been known.
It was classic appointment television, and the viewers were eating it up.
“We could’ve ridden that formula for years,” says Daniel Offsky, second and third season story editor. “I don’t know,” Offsky continues, “Ryan—” showrunner and creator of the series “—had these ideas, and who was I to ask where they went?”
Nicholas Ryan was a rising star back then. He’d produced two successful series already, and Landsend had been a breakaway hit in a field of otherwise tepidly received mid-season replacements, “A thing of beauty,” according to Us Weekly, and a People Magazine “Fall Standout.” Nobody seemed to care that the show was a retread of a short-lived UK series of the same name, which had been regarded on its own shore as sophomorically derivative of the BBC’s 1970s suspense staple Hurber Castle.
Describe the plot of Hurber Castle in any cafe and you’ll be mistaken by at least one person as describing Landsend. The prodigal son inherits the great scientific legacy of his mysteriously vanished father in the wake of Kaiser Wilhelm’s march on Oxbury. Most anything we’ve seen in the adventure-mystery category is somehow derivative of this hulk, but both the British and American versions of Landsend, like HC, focus heavily on the procedural work performed for detectives by the young heir.
Offsky doesn’t sound bitter as he describes his tenure with Ryan. Seated near the open kitchen of Janice Welkin’s newest Silver Lake restaurant, he confides that there were times when he’d considered packing it in and returning to the east coast. “Girl troubles, for one,” he says, his eyes dipping nervously to the candied scallops and fire-roasted fiddleheads between us. “Outside that I was feeling like an impostor, warming over the same old shit day in and day out. I didn’t understand where he was taking us, but it was better than staying where we were. [Ryan] was the one who convinced me to stay. He said, ‘Look, I’m killing this show, and I know it, but isn’t that great? Let’s kill it with style.’”
It’s difficult to believe Offsky almost threw in the towel, his Emmy nominated I Like-Like You having been picked up for a fourth season, but there it is. Over braised pork bellies he suggests something that I hadn’t heard often in preparation for this feature. “If you ask me, Nick’s an artist out of his time. His time hasn’t come, maybe, but he’s not wrong.”
It all came down to finding the box. People were dying. The protagonist knew why—had known why—before the accident. To solve the mystery, he had to find the box, unlock his own memory.
I’m not alone in my unbridled hatred of this device. Three seasons invested into a mystery, a world governed by rules, only to be undone by the contents of an Air Jordan ’03 shoebox: one pair of reading glasses and a single volume of the twenty-three volume fictional Encyclopedia Arcanum, bookmarked with a lavender-colored ribbon to an entry describing the experience of recognizing one’s own experiences as those portrayed within a story being read.
“I told him it wasn’t good TV.” That’s Danna Rogers, an executive producer on Landsend. I’m chatting with her by phone as I navigate the Hills in search of the estate of Ryan’s co-creator on the series. “I told him an audience wouldn’t stand for it, that we’d seen this sort of thing play out before.”
“And what did he say?” I ask.
“He asked who I was to say what was good TV. He said the phrase itself defined me as a person who thought they knew better than the people what the people would want. He said that a younger me would be embarrassed by how small-minded I’d become.”
“And your response?”
“Never got a chance. He disappeared two weeks later. The show speaks for itself, the writers trying to salvage the mess with seven episodes of the agents poring over their own Facebook profiles for clues and searching Craigslist for volume after volume of that fucking encyclopedia. It was ludicrous beyond ludicrous, and Nick Ryan was an egotistical ass for putting us in that position.”
Chris Alberd’s house deserves its own magazine spread. Co-creator of Landsend, it’s hard to believe he’s done so well for himself in the years since it imploded. “This town’s got a short memory,” he says, guiding me through a twist in the hedge maze. A table is set with brunch, an attendant nearby to refresh our mimosas. Alberd lights a hand-rolled cigar. “Coquillon,” he says. “They don’t make many of these.”
The plates cleared, the smoke dissipated, Alberd leans close, the last question hanging heavy on him. “That’s where you people get it wrong,” he whispers. “Hubris implies some wrongful sense of pride—something overblown, belittling. That’s not Nick Ryan. His pride was deserved. He was proud of his work, sure, but more than that he was proud of what it could do. And just for the sake of saying, if it wasn’t for pride, nothing and I mean nothing would ever happen in this world. Fear’s what moves the world, fear and hope for less fear. Pride gets things done. Fear is the river. Pride is the oar. We have a saying in TV: shut up and take the money, but that’s fear talking.”
I can’t help smiling. We’re eating brunch in a hedge maze on a Hollywood hillside.
“Yeah,” says Alberd. “I wasn’t too proud to take that advice, myself, but that’s the point, right. Ryan was something special.”
When the death of Nicholas Ryan was revealed as the central mystery of not only the finale but the series in total, Landsend was heralded as one of the most self-indulgent wastes of time ever conceived in popular media. Even Parade Magazine found the space to publish a jab. That the creatives behind it became its subjects, that the investigators—key to the long-running story—devolved from likable characters to existential commentators and mindless consumers bent on completing collections of bric-a-brac, that the network saw fit to publish twenty two of the twenty three volumes of the Encyclopedia Arcanum to the delight of whichever misguided fans remained: the whole affair proved a serious breach of the public trust, one for which the networks continue paying to this day.
Which only leaves the one question. What ever became of Nicholas Ryan?
Chris Alberd smiles at this. “He tied up the story. Episode 48. Here lies Nicholas Ryan.”
It’s absurd, of course, but the facts are equally absurd on their own. That Nick Ryan vanished following his death at the hands of a Landsend killer given awareness of the fact that he was only a character in a story is the sort of paradoxically bad writing one expects from Hollywood. But that no record of Ryan’s life or death can be found—no parents, no family, no friends, no paperwork—this is the sort of plot hole we seldom see when God’s running the writers’ room. All that tangibly exists of the man at this moment is a single line of Futura bold on the screen: “Created by Nicholas Ryan and Chris Alberd.” That and the finger, right index, discovered by detectives in Ryan’s Burbank apartment after two weeks of unreturned calls.
You can almost hear Special Agent Arthur Hornby’s closing sentiment as the score swells in the final scene, “Maybe he flew too close to the sun,” and his cynical partner’s response, “Maybe every one of us got burned and it’s just too soon to know.”
Casey A Childers put Shipwreck together with Amy Stephenson. He wrote this mysterious book a while back. He tweets @cachilders.
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