One of the highest compliments you can pay to a TV show is this: It knows exactly what kind of show it is. And that’s very much the case for “What Would Diplo Do?” the new Viceland scripted comedy showrun by and starring James Van Der Beek.
What is a Diplo? You don’t necessarily need to know the answer to enjoy the series, directed by Brandon Dermer and starring Van Der Beek as a world-famous DJ who travels the world with an eclectic crew of characters performing sick concerts and getting into hijinks. But the answer is that Diplo (born Thomas Wesley Pentz) is a real EDM artist who (theoretically) is nothing at all like Van Der Beek’s portrayal. And that fact is part of what makes the series work so well, as Van Der Beek pushes his character portrait beyond simple caricature into the most out-there realms.
Van Der Beek is a first-time showrunner here, but he has had a lot of fun in the past several years playing around with his own image. It’s fascinating to see him apply that same approach to someone else’s. The show exists in a hyper-real world that often dips into fantasy, as Diplo’s insecurities and deepest thoughts emerge from behind the bravado and branded T-shirts.
That’s a huge factor in helping us understand just what’s going on in his head. Full of ego but with no shortage of kindness to go along with it, there’s almost an innocence in Van Der Beek’s Diplo, which proves essential to making the character bearable at all.
The biggest danger “Diplo” faces is becoming too one-note, a legitimate possibility when you consider the show’s origins. The short film “A Day in the Life of Diplo,” a promo directed by Dermer, first featured Van Der Beek in his Diplo persona, along with ninjas and a horse. Sure, the joke worked for three minutes, but making it work for ten 30-minute episodes is a much bigger mountain to climb.
Fortunately, in the two episodes made available for critics, the series dodges that bullet, thanks to some smart storytelling choices and to the characters which surround Diplo (his true “fam,” if you will). They offer a nice counterbalance to Diplo’s own absurdities.
Standouts from the supporting cast include Dora Madison as Diplo’s put-upon assistant Karen, often assigned the most impossible and dangerous of tasks, and Bobby Lee as Diplo’s often rage-filled manager. (This is a notable year for Lee, who also stole many, many scenes in Judd Apatow’s “Love.”)
At the core of “What Would Diplo Do?”, though, is Diplo himself: One of the show’s strongest choices is the way that it integrates his music into each episode. Without the music, Diplo would just be “some white dude on a stage pressing buttons” (to quote the show’s second episode), and Dermer’s background as a music video director comes in handy. (He’s directed videos for Panic at the Disco, Wavves and Jon LaJoie, among others.) Each cold open sparks with both comedy and rhythm, a visual dynamism that carries on throughout the rest of the episode.
After so many narratives about tortured artists, it’s fun to simply enjoy the antics of someone who’s more talented than intelligent, featured in a show that’s not afraid to go silly or strange in the name of laughs. There seemingly isn’t anything Diplo wouldn’t do, and it’s entertaining as hell to find out what he would.
“What Would Diplo Do?” airs Thursdays at 10:00 p.m. on Viceland.