In 2017, there’s a show for everyone, and typically that’s a good thing. There’s so much demand for fresh content and so many content providers looking to stand out, fresh stories from distinct voices populate an ever-diversifying television landscape. In other words, this is a world that could easily have room for a show where Jean-Claude Van Damme plays Jean-Claude Van Damme, a movie star who’s also a highly trained international spy.
But for as nutty as “Jean-Claude Van Johnson” sounds, its execution feels too familiar to earn its spot. Though the story-building in the pilot is clever enough to provide ample opportunity for good old-fashioned fun, too many easy jokes and half-baked movie homages keep the six-episode first season from fulfilling its potential as the sharp meta successor to “Episodes,” “The Comedians,” or even Van Damme’s 2008 film, “JCVD.”
For starters, “Jean-Claude Van Johnson” has nothing to say about the industry, the culture, or the world at large outside of Jean-Claude Van Damme himself. It’s a show about Jean-Claude Van Damme made for Jean-Claude Van Damme fans. That’s fine, or it would be if the self-deconstruction was as intricately studied as Van Damme’s leg kick.
The pilot finds Van Damme coming out of retirement, both as an actor and an undercover operative. Why? He’s getting back in the game(s) for a woman, Vanessa (Kat Foster), of course. The two used to work together and even fell in love, but he broke her heart and that was the end of everything for Van Damme. When he decides to win her back, Van Damme contacts his old handler (played by the great Phylicia Rashad) and works his way into Vanessa’s latest assignment.
During the day, he’ll star in a modern action adaptation of “Huckleberry Finn” (a silly conceit worth a few chuckles), and by night he’s tracking a new drug to its source. In other words, he’s always kicking, and that can get pretty exhausting. His job involves everything from stealth infiltrations of dark factories to blindfolded street races — and that’s just his night gig. Van Damme has to get back into shape on set and off if he hopes to pull off the mission… and win Vanessa’s heart.
The premise is an easy — almost too easy — way to get Van Damme spin-kicking and doing the splits as often as humanly possible. By making the real Van Damme into a character from his movies (both literally and figuratively), they’re able to play up his innate action star appeal by beating up bad guys a few times an episode. That’s great, considering it’s what everyone wants, but the series does little to juxtapose what we want from Van Damme and what can be surprising about the character; he’s too much like who we expect him to be from his movies, which makes him a one-note punchline (even when he plays more than one part — “Timecop” is heavily referenced).
In “Episodes,” Matt LeBlanc thrived at playing Matt LeBlanc because he was a lot like Joey — an actor, ladies man, and kind of a dumb-dumb — but his antihero qualities also made him the anti-Joey. (Joey was never a jerk.) In “The Comedians,” Josh Gad and Billy Crystal played off each other’s perceived pluses and minuses; namely, Gad’s early success and Crystal’s legendary status were contradicted by the other character, with Gad calling out Crystal’s fading star and Crystal mocking Gad’s numerous flops. (The sheer number of “1600 Penn” jokes is outstanding.)
And in “JCVD,” when Van Damme played himself and was later thrust into a real-life bank robbery, the Van Damme onscreen was shown to be pensive, frustrated by his perceived persona, and distinctly human. He wasn’t the unstoppable action hero that people perceived. He was a man living the life of an aging action star, and that was evident from the (stunning) opening one-shot where he acts out a lengthy, complicated action scene to the unimpressed bemusement of his director. It’s obviously very difficult to do what he does, and no one appreciates him. That raises the question, “Are we appreciating Van Damme as a performer?” and the movie then answers that query with confident action and surprising pathos.
In “Jean-Claude Van Johnson,” he’s just the action star. The attempts at characterization — including a secret emu farm from his past and a standard love interest — are mainly played for laughs. Again, that’s not necessarily a problem. “JCVJ” shouldn’t be faulted for not being “JCVD.” It’s just that the comedy isn’t enough to sustain a silly series. The repeated dead-on references to Van Damme’s movies grow tiring, and the smirks, chuckles, and nods never translate into satisfying laughter. It’s an onslaught of “I see what you did there.”
Creator, writer, and executive producer Dave Callaham co-wrote the original “Expendables” movie and is only credited for the characters in “The Expendables 2,” where Van Damme plays the villain, “Jean-Vilain.” But based on “JCVJ,” it’s as though he saw “The Expendables 2” and thought, “That’s what ‘The Expendables’ should’ve been!” And thus, “JCVJ” was born.
Sadly, no self-respecting action fan would want more of the sequel’s painfully forced references. “JCVJ” does a better job of playfully incorporating its homages, but they still don’t build to anything more meaningful. Van Damme himself has a bit of fun playing another character, but exhibits little enthusiasm as “himself.” All in all, it’s a rather forgettable, and even if “JCVJ” finds an audience, this diversion could’ve resonated with a wider niche.
“Jean-Claude Van Johnson” premieres Friday, Dec. 15 on Amazon.