TV Review: A&E's 'Steven Seagal: Lawman'
It may not be quite as funny as 'Modern Family' or '30 Rock,' but Steven Seagal's reality show is full of laughs
Life is tough for washed up action movie stars.
If you're a "serious actor," a Chris O'Donnell or a Thomas Jane or a Joseph Fiennes, after a few failed movies, you can always come back to TV. Casting directors will always assume that just because you had no presence on the big screen, you might become a star in the "minor leagues." That's a retrograde kind of thinking, since it turns out that Joseph Fiennes is no better an actor on "FlashForward" than he was in the many motion picture duds he's done since "Shakespeare in Love." In fact, he may be worse, because "FlashForward" is asking us to spend 22 hours watching him this season, something even Andy Warhol wouldn't have been sadistic to ask in a movie.
Anyway, if you're a "serious actor" who can't cut it on the big screen, your next step is clear. But what do you do if you're Steven Seagal? What do you do if you were a huge star for a brief period, but none of your movies have been released in the States for a decade? Showtime isn't about to offer you a pilot and no matter how desperate Broadway promoters get, nobody's going to ask you to join the 1000th revolving cast of "Chicago," because no matter how low Ashlee Simpson's star wattage may be, she's credible on the Great White Way and you're not.
Fortunately, it seems that Steven Seagal has already had a secondary career in the works. For the past 20 years, Seagal has been a deputy in the Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office in Louisiana.
As the opening credits of A&E's new series "Steven Seagal: Lawman" tell us, this is "a job he's kept out of the limelight... until now."
Yes, starting on Wednesday (Dec. 2), Steven Seagal is a movie star (if you happen to have caught 2009's "Driven to Kill" or "The Keeper"), a lawman and a reality TV star. And, if the first two episodes of "Steven Seagal: Lawman" are any indication, he's also well on his way to becoming a comedy icon.
"Steven Seagal: Lawman" may not give you any deep insight into Mr. Seagal and it certainly won't give you any deep insight into the workings of a small regional police force, but as an unintentional laugh-getter? It's off-the-charts.
[Full review of "Steve Seagal: Lawman" after the break...]
One thing for which Steven Seagal has to be given credit upfront: This isn't something he takes lightly. Actually, Steven Seagal seems to take precious little lightly, but that is to say that "Steven Seagal: Lawman" isn't like CBS' "Armed & Famous," where somebody thought it was a clever idea to let Erik Estrada, Jack Osbourne and La Toya Jackson pretend to be police officers for a few weeks. This is what Steven Seagal does, at least when Steven Seagal isn't leaving the good people of Jefferson Parish behind for weeks or months at a time to shoot direct-to-video (I'm not even sure Steven Seagal movies go direct-to-DVD) in some corner of Eastern Europe.
Episodes of "Steven Seagal: Lawman" (a title so great you wouldn't dare shorten it to something as parochial as "Lawman") begin with Seagal growling, "My name is Steven Seagal. That's right. Steven Seagal, Deputy Sheriff" and in his on-screen chyron, Steven Seagal (a full name so great you wouldn't dare shorten it to "Steven" or "Seagal") is identified as "Reserve Dep. Chief Steve Seagal," which sounds much better than "Steven Seagal, Movie Star 1988-199?." In addition, Steven Seagal wears a wide variety of glasses, both when he's on patrol and when he's at precinct meetings, very much aware of how much more seriously we take action stars when they wear glasses. It's my assumption that Jean-Claude Van Damme wears spectacles when he moonlights as a small-town librarian and that Wesley Snipes will even wear bifocals when he's next spotted performing community service.
"Steven Seagal: Lawman" is mostly an amorphous fly-on-the-wall police drama very much in the mold of FOX's venerable "COPS." That is to say that we ride along with officers (mostly Steven Seagal and whoever he's sharing an SUV) with. Most of the other cops in the department are portrayed as slightly star-struck, Keystone Kops-esque boobs, but since they have the star of "Above the Law" with them, they feel confident. They cruise crime-ridden neighborhoods looking for action, which is extra-easy when Steven Seagal is on-board, because Steven Seagal has special powers.
"As a life-long practitioner of the martial arts, I'm trained to remain calm in the face of adversity and danger," Seagal explains. "Where the world is speeding by for others, I see things for what they are."
The series visualizes this Seagal-o-Vision with an ultra-cheesy effect that blurs the word around a potential perp, focusing in only on the hypothetical misdeeds that only Steven Seagal can spot. Cinema fans will wonder where this magical eye was when Steven Seagal was attempting to direct 1994's "On Deadly Ground."
"The martial art that I practice is called aikido, which is literally translated as 'the way of peace and harmony,'" he explains in each episode. "When we patrol the neighborhoods that are infamous for burglaries, shootings and narcotics, what we're really trying to do is take away the bad guys, take away the violence and restore harmony."
Incidentally, Steven Seagal doesn't explain this to us in a voice-over or in some sort of confessional room as reality convention dictates. He explains from the passenger seat of the squad SUV. Seagal explains a lot of things to us from that passenger side, mostly truisms like "Intelligence is golden. The more we know about what's happening out there, the safer we are." and "You've always gotta really stay on your toes." and "Awareness is the key to survive. If you can't anticipate an attack, you can't defend against it." By the end of two half-hour episodes, I was pitying Steven Seagal's partner and not just because Steven Seagal is a really obnoxious backseat driver in car-chase scenarios.
And yes, there are car chases in "Steven Seagal: Lawman" and there are even chases on foot, as the "COPS" formula almost mandates that no criminal surrender peacefully. The big difference is that "COPS" focuses on cops and criminals who generate inherent drama. "Steven Seagal: Lawman" focuses on cops and criminals who happen to be proximate to Steven Seagal [Lawman].
Steven Seagal is, as you may have heard, a life-long practitioner of the martial arts and I've already given you one quote explaining the advantages of that training in his new career. Want more?
*** "Being a life-long practitioner of the martial arts, I try to teach everyone not to fight the recoil of the weapon, but more to become one with the weapon and let it be an extension of their body."
*** "Criminals usually prey on weakness. They can smell it. Those of us who studied the martial arts as long as I have, we can usually see those kind of predators."
*** "I've studied the martial arts most of my life, so I have a lot of confidence in myself, but I really worry about my own team members sometimes."
That lack of confidence in his team members is probably why Steven Seagal spends so much time in the first two episodes attempting to raise his peers to his level. In the premiere, he coaches a young captain on how to operate his firearm. And, truthfully, Steven Seagal appears to be a tremendous marksman. And in the second episode, he spends much of his time leading hand-to-hand training courses. And, truthfully, Steven Seagal appears to be a tremendous martial artist.
"You can look at me as a movie star," he tells his fellow officers. "Or you can think 'Steven Seagal can save my life.'"
One thing that you may not believe Steven Seagal is so tremendous at is the actual policing. In the second episode, for example, Steven Seagal's Seagal-o-Vision correctly identifies a group of young black youths as potential wrongdoers (based only on instinct), but after arresting them and terrifying them, it turns out that they weren't committing any crimes. Steven Seagal, it turns out, isn't above racial profiling. We don't blame Steven Seagal for this, though, because in "Steven Seagal: Lawman," the vast majority of perps actually breaking the law and featured on camera are young, shirtless black males with pixelated faces.
Most of Steven Seagal's best work is done in training anyway. Once he's out on the streets, he's hampered by the fact that everybody recognizes him. Perhaps attempting to disguise his instantly identifiable visage, Steven Seagal addresses suspects in broken English with a near-Cajun patois he probably didn't acquire in his Michigan childhood or in his years in Hollywood. I dare you not to laugh as Steven Seagal drawls, "Just relax. We tryin' to help you. Everybody goin' for a ride."
Really, I dare you not to laugh at "Steven Seagal: Lawman." I don't know if the A&E brass thought they were producing a candidate for the year's funniest new show, but sometimes serendipity occurs when you work with Steven Seagal.
"Steven Seagal: Lawman" premieres on Wednesday, Dec. 2 on A&E at 10 p.m.