There are few actors as self-aware as James Van Der Beek. Not only is this guy in on his own joke, he’s continuously taking that joke to unexpected places, even if some might describe it as stretching a thin shtick to its breaking point. Now, with What Would Diplo Do?, which premieres tonight on Viceland (it’s the channel’s first scripted show), we’ve reached peak meta Van Der Beek. The premise of Van Der Beek, former cultural whipping boy, playing current cultural whipping boy Diplo might sound like, at best, a viral comedy sketch. And in fact it kind of was—the show started its life as a three-minute YouTube video. But the execution of the conceit as a half-hour series actually works, if the first two episodes are anything to go by. As Diplo, Van Der Beek’s self-awareness is so heightened it even makes the righteous producer he plays seem charming and capable of having perspective. And who would have thought that the guy who played Dawson Leery, the world’s most melodramatic, self-serious teen, would be such an effective satirist?
We didn’t get here overnight. After Dawson’s Creek wrapped in 2003, Van Der Beek maintained a rather bland television career for several years, appearing on by-the-numbers procedurals like Criminal Minds and Law & Order. Given that he was never going to shake that “Hey, it’s Dawson!” reaction every time he appeared onscreen, it seemed as though he’d play out the rest of his career quietly on unremarkable but relatively successful TV shows.
But then something wonderful happened. Clips of James Van Der Beek crying started circulating the internet. Rather than ignore the videos (and subsequent memes) until they went away, he leaned in, hard. In 2011, he teamed up with Funny or Die, starring in a series of videos in which he poked fun at the internet’s obsession with his cry face. He also launched a tumblr called Jamesvandermemes, on which he posted GIFs of his various emotions. “Van Der Week” was such a hit that it even led to a recurring role as “James Van Der Beek” on Don’t Trust the B—- in Apt 23. James Van Der Beek, meta comedian, was born.
This career 180 wouldn’t have worked for just anyone. For starters, the conditions were just right; Dawson’s Creek was the type of cultural phenomenon where, even if you didn’t watch it you felt like you knew everything about it. What’s more is Dawson was always sort of a dweeb, with his unlikely vocabulary, extreme sensitivity, and irrepressible need to overanalyze everything. He was born, really, to be parodied. But the reason why Van Der Beek can so effectively take part in that parody is because he, like Dawson, is genuine. He isn’t trying to be slick or noncommittal or casual about it. He’s totally going for it here.
Which brings us back to What Would Diplo Do. While most actors would play this totally over the top—a cocky, out-of-touch superstar who can’t even play an instrument—Van Der Beek approaches the role with remarkable, admirable sincerity. As we watch him agonize over tweets and complain about the drop in a new Calvin Harris track, we get the sense that Van Der Beek is playing Diplo as he actually is, which makes the parody effective rather than a joke that wears out its punch line by the first commercial break. Of course Van Der Beek and Diplo are in on the joke (they’re both producers on the show), but they’re also okay with the show’s very existence being a satire of both of them. Take notes, James Franco—this is how you do meta comedy.
Michelle Williams could sleep under a banner of Barbra Streisand’s face: