James Van Der Beek’s oddball lead performance is a highlight in a Viceland comedy still trying to find its own identity.
The title of Viceland’s new comedy What Would Diplo Do? comes close to asking the correct question, but a large percentage of viewers will be asking a somewhat modified, “What did Diplo do (to deserve this show)?”
It’s a loaded question with an interpretation that varies depending on your emphasis.
Some older audiences will surely be pondering “What did Diplo DO (to deserve this show)?” There’s something generational to knowing Diplo for only one or two facets of a career that includes writing, producing, deejaying, supporting Bernie Sanders, rooting for the Los Angeles Clippers and dating famous women. He’s a musical superstar on many levels, and yet I’d be hard-pressed to properly describe Diplo and his level of fame to a casual observer.
Sympathetic Diplo fans might instead wonder, “What did Diplo do (to DESERVE this show)?” As played by James Van Der Beek, Diplo is depicted as something of a self-obsessed dim bulb with a very specific window of expertise and an almost divinely granted streak of good fortune. You will not come away from What Would Diplo Do? able to better quantify his gifts, but you’ll sure laugh at his goofball enunciation and spaciness.
Finally, grumpy TV critics might put the emphasis as, “What did Diplo do (to deserve THIS show)?” or maybe “What did I do to be watching it?”
That would be harsh.
Viceland’s first foray into the scripted space is an odd and absurd and initially inconsistent show. It also marks a worthwhile career step for Van Der Beek, who makes a leap into writing and showrunning and cements an ongoing career transition into character comedy.
In interviews, the real Diplo comes across as a bit dazed and dreamy, but probably well-meaning in a way that I’d compare to a Channing Tatum movie character. In Van Der Beek’s interpretation, he’s a much stranger guy, comfortable energizing a roaring crowd (through artistry that’s barely hinted at), but much less comfortable being alone, where he’s prone to persecution fantasies of being attacked by ninjas and where he responds to isolation by instigating Twitter feuds with the likes of Calvin Harris.
He’s got assorted employees and hangers-on, but through the two episodes made available to critics, the supporting cast is thin. Bobby Lee plays his manager, and he’s slightly funny because he’s Bobby Lee. Dillon Francis plays his childhood best friend Jasper, who functions as an excessively dim-bulb counterpoint to make Diplo look like a genius. He also has a German business manager who’s funny because he has a German accent. Dora Madison (who was Madison Burge when she was on Friday Night Lights) plays Diplo’s Gal Friday Karen, a straight-out-of-a-sitcom disapproving sidekick who’s constantly running errands for Diplo and acting exasperated when he does what Diplo does.
What Diplo does, episode-to-episode, has proven to be either blandly conventional or interestingly boundary-free. In the first episode, he confuses Karen’s nephew with a Make-a-Wish kid and takes him on a wacky day of hijinks, complete with bickering with Calvin Harris and learning a lesson. Every beat is predictable, but it’s kinda funny. In the second episode, he somehow stumbles into playing in a Dominican professional baseball game and does business while exhibiting his unnerving ability to manifest success out of nothing on the field. I admired its experimental formlessness and the production values director Brandon Dermer was getting on what I assume was a minuscule budget, but it wasn’t funny and the limitations of the ensemble began to bug me.
I still can’t tell if there’s a really good version of What Would Diplo Do? out there that blends the strengths of the first two episodes. It’s not a musical parody, it’s not a Curb Your Enthusiasm-style comedy of anxiety and it’s not really a post-Entourage look at the price of consequence-free success. And it needn’t be any of those things. Viceland dropped a Louie comparison. It’s not that either.
I can say that Van Der Beek is weird and watchable throughout, and he’s often inspired. After The Rules of Attraction and Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23, it isn’t surprising anymore that Van Der Beek is extremely funny and possessed of intense focus (a focus he once brought to a tire swing in Varsity Blues). Sporting a Diplo-appropriate hipster/sexual predator mustache, a wandering accent and cadences that imply he’s better at speaking in hooks than sentences, Van Der Beek offers a portrait of a bro who’s probably enigmatic until the moment you realize he isn’t actually hiding anything.
Is Diplo brilliant? Is Diplo addled? Is Diplo a dick? Is Diplo a digital messiah? Is Diplo somewhere on the autism spectrum? Is Diplo something like Dougie on the new Twin Peaks or Chance the gardener in Being There? Are any of the members of his entourage actually real or are they projections of a sad DJ’s need for connection? Maybe it’s called What Would Diplo Do? because viewers are never supposed to be sure? If I’m wondering these things, it’s because in a comedy that hasn’t quite found its identity yet, Van Der Beek has crafted a character out of uncertainty and given me a reason to want to check in on this show a few episodes down the road.
Cast: James Van Der Beek, Dillon Francis, H. Michael Croner, Dora Madison, Jamar Neighbors, Bobby Lee
Creator: James Van Der Beek
Premieres: Thursday, 10 p.m. ET/PT (Viceland)