Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Greatest Show Ever Made

In the current miasma of television programming, wherein high-quality programs often gasp for fresh air while reality shows and competition hook the nation with the promise of feeding into viewers' sense of superiority, I find myself wandering the bitter cold, desperate for shelter. It's easy to lose yourself in the onslaught of Idols, Hills and Biggest Losers, caves like Arrested Development and The Wire offering only brief respite. One night, as I wondered this tundra, a bright light filled the world and the rumble turned to chanting of a euphoric nature as I have never heard in my life. Shielding my eyes, I managed to look up into this explosion and saw three words forming in flames, three words that burned away the cloying blackness of my world, three words that filled me with their fire, assuring me that I'd never be left in the cold again:

Steven Seagal. Lawman.

For 20 years, as the opening text scroll informs us, Seagal has devoted his free time to serving as a deputy sheriff in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana. Until now, the text continues, somehow taking on ominous import despite its matter-of-fact, ascetic presentation, he has never brought attention to this...pastime? Second job? I don't want to end up trivializing the police force, but I fear I may be too late from the get-go.

Seagal makes an instant impression, speaking in clipped, affected Cajun notes as he establishes the tone of the series. "My name's Steven Seagal," he drones in his usual monotone, signifying that this is all just an act or that he really does speak like that. "That's right: Steven Seagal." Can you believe it? "How could the also-ran of '80s machismo be a normal Joe keeping the streets safe in post-Katrina Louisiana?" we're meant to ask, assuming anyone can overcome the initial shock of Seagal still being alive long enough to formulate questions.

Yes, he's alive and prowling the streets of Jefferson Parish, humbly doing his part for his hometown as he drags a camera crew in tow. This is not an indictment of his ego, mind you, as without it we might never get a peek into the life of the bravest man who ever lived. Seagal lumbers about the parish, dispensing rough justice in the form of his Aikido martial arts and the occasional flash of steel. He's what Val Kilmer's Batman might be if Kilmer played him now: bloated and filled with putrefying swagger, sporting a gun that's as likely to be filled with some bizarre cocktail of buttermilk and ranch dressing to squirt on his meals as it is bullets.

Despite his dubious status in the realm of celebrity -- "cult" would be too generous a term -- he's nevertheless instantly recognizable to most of us, and indeed a number of suspects and bystanders sport that look of cautious recognition, a look magnified by their unwillingness to trust their eyes at the time of night Seagal works his beat, too tired, drunk or strung-out to place faith in their senses. The fellow officers who work alongside him have elevated the star of Under Siege into a god; "Sometimes I forget Steven's a big movie star," says one idealistic cop, whom you just want to hug sympathetically and let him keep living in his world.

Produced by Seagal himself, Steven Seagal: Lawman feeds into this sense of hero worship: we see Seagal dispensing wisdom to the officers, passing on his martial arts training with the help of ludicrous Zen aphorisms that read like mad lib fortune cookies (I kept waiting for him to use a saying invented by The Office's Michael Scott: "The hand strikes, then gives a flower"). Seagal indeed taught me a few things, chiefly that racial profiling is one of the martial arts: Lawman plasters the reminder that all suspects are innocent until proven guilty all over the place, in the opening text as well as the graphics they set up to tell us what happened to suspects (those who have not yet been sentenced receive the "IUPG" tag), yet Seagal blatantly portrays himself as someone who can sense crime before it happens. To emphasize this, video plays in slow-motion when he hones in on a potential perp -- almost always a young black male -- just before he springs into action and drags his unit with him. Naturally, all of these suspicions are proven correct, and when we are allowed to see a moment that does not progress perfectly, that moment is lessened by Seagal's indifference. He attempts to light a match with a bullet and fails, but gently reminds the doting young officer watching (and us) that he still managed to shoot the head off of it. When his hunches prove wrong, he either reminds the innocent to obey the law anyway or, in a magnanimous display, invites them to waste their day watching him once more prove his awesomeness in training exercises.

Oh, dear reader, it's beautiful, watching Seagal stumble around the place like the thick brother of Nic Cage's Terrence in Bad Lieutenant. His Cajun accent comes and goes as he pleases, always used when speaking to the locals -- as well as condescending to everyone with his insistence on using the term "brother" to instill some truth in these (again, mostly black) suspects. He uses the instances where he is wildly wrong to teach other people a lesson about making assumptions and whatnot. If and when he appears in daylight, he always wears sunglasses. He visits a children's hospital, something he claims he's done for 20 years, yet only with the cameras present does this visit provoke Seagal into using his other moonlighting gig, as a blues guitarist, to stage a benefit concert for the kids.

To say that Lawman needs to be seen rather than discussed strikes even me as a cop-out, but how do you put into words the look on Seagal's face, caught somewhere between Zen calm and constipation? How can I describe the way that his expressionless face manages to become even blanker when he realizes he messed up? I have not seen all of the episodes of the show; like Jersey Shore, I am storing episodes like berries and nuts to keep me going through the no man's land that is the first quarter of an entertainment year. Really, combining the two programs are the only way either show could be any more delightful in madness. How great would our lives be if Seagal deputized the guidos? Hell, they'd be too busy profiling themselves to give a damn about crime. A man can dream...


  1. "but how do you put into words the look on Seagal's face, caught somewhere between Zen calm and constipation?"

    Yeah, because all constipated people look the same. That's not offensive at all.

  2. Dammit, Jake, you anti-constipatite bastard!

    Seriously, Spencer: What the fuck are you talking about?