Anyone that saw the 2008 film JCVD knows that Jean-Claude Van Damme has no problem making fun of himself, and they also know what a compelling and sympathetic semi-fictionalized character he can make.
Yet, somehow, even knowing all of that to be true, I will bet most people that watch his new Amazon pilot, Jean-Claude Van Johnson, a dark, post-modern, existential comedy that sees the famed martial arts action star playing “himself” as a broken-down, deadly secret black-ops operative that comes out of retirement, will be stunned at just how good he–and it–is.
The basic premise of the show is that movie star Van Damme was really just a cover for his actual job as Van Johnson, “the most dangerous undercover private contractor in the world,” who returns to the job (along with the terrible movies he must star in to keep up the ruse) after running into his former colleague/love (played by Kat Foster). Although, after a couple of years away from movie sets and clandestine operations, he’s no longer in the best shape for either job (which itself is a meta joke, of the kind that permeate the show, since he is obviously in amazing shape).
The pilot was both instantly compelling and funny, presenting Van Damme as a washed up and forgotten celebrity who gets around his large but sterile house on his Segway, and whose only food is a pantry of Pop Tarts. It was also beautifully shot; if you didn’t know any better you would have thought you were watching the start of a feature-length, big-budget film instead of a half hour television show.
After the first couple of strange minutes it was clear this wasn’t going to be a normal show (which we knew when the pre-show ratings warned about adult content, adult language, graphic violence, and nudity), but it seamlessly managed to be lots of different things that come together to make something unique.
For one it’s a satire, especially of Hollywood. The awful, stupid scripts presented to Van Damme/Johnson when he came out of retirement were so funny because they might really be based on actual ideas floating around on some agent’s desk (Johnson’s is played by Phylicia Rashad, which made me say “yes!” out loud when she came on screen). The film he ends up starring in wouldn’t surprise me if it were to really be made. Great, on-the-mark jabs throughout also worked, like the pop-up “dry ramen” restaurant, or the vaping director explaining why ’80s-style movie fighting isn’t realistic (leading to an amazing payoff later).
All of that satire is presented by a show that is clearly in on the joke, but rather than wink at the audience and confirm that it knows that we know, it plays everything sincerely, making the meta-commentary funnier, and giving the jokes much more punch. The show trusts its audience, and everyone wins as a result.
At its heart, though, is Van Damme, the real and fictional version, who is allowing his entire career, both the perception of himself as an actor/martial artist and the types of movies he made, to be the basis for all of the jokes. On the show he doesn’t care about how he will look for making the world’s worst version of Huckleberry Finn; he just wants to get back the love of his life, and if that means endangering his own life then so be it. Van Damme/Johnson is just a sad, old guy who wants to be happy, and that’s why this is really a character study wrapped in a supremely intelligent comedy. This would be a good satire without any of that, but instead it is much more, and as a result much better.
I had no idea what to expect from this show when I started the episode, only that the premise sounded absurd, the kind that can land flat when mishandled (see: Snakes On a Plane). Yet within minutes I couldn’t wait to see where it was going. It was at times dark and depressing, and at other points broad and hilarious, all while managing to stay true to its own voice, and, most importantly, be really smart.
If, sadly, nothing comes of this great Jean-Claude Van Johnson pilot, it might end up standing as the best work of Van Damme’s career. It was that good.
If a pilot’s job is to set up the premise of a show, introduce us to the characters, and make us want to watch more, this first episode couldn’t have been more successful. I didn’t expect to like this as much I did, but this pilot gets all the burritos, which are infinitely better than dry ramen.