Review by C.J. Bunce
So much good television, so little time. iZombie, Killjoys, Galavant, Thirteen, Mr. Robot, Angie Tribeca–so many new television series are trying new things and stretching the boundaries of what makes fresh entertainment. While premium cable channels and innovative networks like Amazon Studios and Netflix keep trying, usually via tired formulas and weak attempts to shock viewers over providing any substance, nothing from those sources in the past few years has stood out as a truly great series. Could it be content overload? Would Daredevil and Jessica Jones have fared better if we watched them in small doses over a normal season? In a flat era of television these might take off as great shows, but seem to be easy to pass over for something else.
Amazon Studios keeps trying and may finally have a winner. Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle started off well and was rewarded with a second season beginning this December. Now Amazon is launching its own Kickstarter of sorts, letting we the audience influence what series is made next, based on three pilots, including a drama with Kevin Bacon, and another superhero series featuring The Tick. But it’s difficult to resist the third entry–a pilot called Jean-Claude Van Johnson, starring 1980s and 1990s B-movie superstar Jean-Claude Van Damme. If you’re a fan of Van Damme, then you probably would agree he has never failed to deliver a solid Van Damme action vehicle, whether it’s Bloodsport, Kickboxer, Lionheart, Double Impact, or TimeCop, or whether it’s Van Damme as a villainous voice on Kung Fu Panda 2, or star villain among a bunch of other “has-beens” in Expendables 2, Van Damme always delivers as promised. And he’s done it again.
Jean-Claude Van Damme stars as a meta-Jean-Claude Van Damme in Jean-Claude Van Johnson. Like all those great real and fictional characters interspersed in Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula series of novels, Van Damme is both real and unreal. He is a retired action hero, going through the motions, living the life we would expect of this famed, otherworldly-superhero-acrobatic-martial-artist-extraordinaire known as the “Muscles from Brussels”. He awakens to a ho-hum average day, among all the products which have licensed his name (JCVD soap, after shave, etc.), with the obligatory supermodel exiting his bed. He moves on to a Ramen noodle restaurant for lunch only to encounter a lost love, played by 38-year-old ex-Weeds and Royal Pains actress Kat Foster (Van Damme is 55). She is leaving for a gig in Bulgaria and shuns his affections. This prompts Van Damme to visit his agent, played by Phylicia Rashad. She has some lame (and quite funny) parts for him, but–no–he wants to return to his other job. It turns out Van Damme was doing what many of us dreamed about over the years–a story where these movie tough guys were actually put to the test in real life. That’s right, Van Damme was America’s answer to James Bond. And he’s back. But audiences must make it happen.
Now if you see any of this as absurd, or just have some angsty, personal inner-hatred of the actor, feel free to move along. This may not be the television series for everyone, but it’s exactly what I want. An autobiographical series about Jean-Claude Van Damme, where we learn about his secret life (Code Name: Johnson)? And it’s a half-hour comedy? That’s the kind of outside-the-box thinking we all need. Van Damme makes fun of himself throughout the series pilot, but not in any embarrassing way. Can he do all those stunts he was famous for in his heyday? No… but maybe yes. Somehow an hour-long backstory of content is crammed into the pilot’s half hour. It all works, from the motivational soundtrack, to the training montage, to Van Damme getting his physical mojo back, to Van Damme acting in a new role within the show (as Huckleberry Finn in a not-so avant-garde action flick called HUCK)–just the kind of thing to feature–and for audiences to look forward to–in each episode of a series (like all those mock sequels previewed at the end of 22 Jump Street).
Is there enough here for a full season? Some good showrunners can figure that out, and those good creators have already been brought along. It’s a nicely creative team-up/mash-up of action and comedy: Expendables series and Godzilla writer Dave Callaham, and Key and Peele and Keanu director Peter Atencio (plus David Zucker and Ridley Scott as executive producers). Like the old Dan Aykroyd/Rita Radner Saturday Night Live skit goes “It’s a floor wax, and a dessert topping.” Make no mistake: Jean-Claude Van Johnson is the dessert we all need.
Although it’s not the trailer we’d put together, here’s a preview of what you’re in for with Jean-Claude Van Johnson:
So how can audiences make it happen? Amazon Studios wants you to watch the pilots and then vote. You can watch them now online here at Amazon Studios’ promotional website and then rate them. Remember Van Damme’s famous, hilarious commercial? Who doesn’t want to see more of that?