Once again, Amazon has unleashed several new pilots as part of its ongoing Pilot Season, allowing viewers to cast their votes for which programs should go to series. This time around, they’ve got three to chose from. The much-anticipated revamp of Bed Edlund’s The Tick has been reviewed elsewhere here on the Dot. (We love it.) What about the remaining two pilots?
First up is Jean-Claude Van Johnson, starring Jean-Claude Van Damme as himself… sort of. (Don’t worry, we’ll get to the Johnson.) JCVJ was directed by Key & Peele veteran Peter Atencio and written by Expendables screenwriter David Callaham, a dude who knows a thing or two about revitalizing aging action heroes. That’s just what we get in Jean-Claude Van Johnson, in which Van Damme—the one-time “Muscles from Brussels”—is enjoying a thoroughly depressing retirement.
He lives in a lavish house, but every square inch of it is decorated with mementos of his faded glory. He eats too many Pop-Tarts. He rides a Segway down the driveway to retrieve the paper. And sure, he wakes up with a naked model half his age, but he takes no enjoyment from it because he’s still hung up on the girl that got away: his ex, Vanessa (Kat Foster).
Desperate for a change, he decides it’s time to return to the job—but not the job you might expect. See, it turns out that, during all those years spent spin-kicking people on the silver screen, Van Damme was also secretly spin-kicking people for real. He used his movies as a cover for honest-to-gosh black ops, working under the code name “Johnson.” But that was a long time ago. Can a 55-year-old retired Van Damme still find his inner Kickboxer and survive in the brutal world of international wetworks?
The pilot opens with a typical Van Damme-style action sequence, with the hero facing off against some generic Eastern European bad guys that you just know he’s going to wipe the floor with. But then, when he tries to duck under the swing of a nightstick with one of his patented splits, age catches up with him, his legs lock up, and he takes the blow right across the kisser. Much of the fun of Jean-Claude Van Johnson is watching both the star and the script undercut all the tropes that made Van Damme an ‘80s action icon, from the gratuitous splits, to the inevitable training montage, to the cliche of bad guys always attacking the lone hero one at a time. (“One at a time or you could run into each other! It could get confusing!”)
It could easily be a one-note joke, but the script is sharp and funny, full of sly industry satire such as Van Damme’s agent trying to coax him into signing on for an action reboot of Rikki-Tikki-Tavi wherein Channing Tatum would play the mongoose. (If only that actually seemed outside the realm of possibility.) The film Van Damme winds up working to cover his op in Bulgaria is even funnier, but we won’t spoil the surprise. There’s also a running joke about Timecop that actually factors into the plot in a clever way.
Through it all, Van Damme is a fine sport, proving to have decent comic chops and lampooning his own image without mercy. It remains to be seen if Van Damme and company could mine the concept for enough material to keep us laughing for a full season, but the pilot is definitely promising.
Also on deck from Amazon Pilot Season is I Love Dick, starring Kathryn Hahn, Griffin Dunne, and Kevin Bacon (as the Dick in question). Based on Chris Kraus’ cult 1997 book which blended fiction and memoir (femoir?), I Love Dick follows filmmaker Chris (Hahn) as her Holocaust scholar husband, Sylvere (Dunne), begins a residency in the quirky artistic community of Marfa, Texas. What should have been a brief stopover becomes somewhat more permanent after her latest film is rejected from the Venice Film Festival over a music rights issue (one it turns out she was aware of, but ignored). Needless to say, Chris is not thrilled to find her dreams sidelined and herself being described by the locals as “the Holocaust wife.” And then she meets Dick.
Dick is the reason Sylvere got the residency, essentially the artistic patron saint of the strange little burgh that is Marfa. He’s blunt. He’s opinionated. He’s gorgeous. And he immediately becomes an object of fascination and revulsion for Chris after he catches her eye and then brutally questions her commitment to—or talent at—her chosen art. It’s a Dick move that infuriates her, but which also launches an obsession that bounces between wanting to bed him and wanting to best him at post-dinner banter. Chris begins writing a series of letters to Dick, ones she has no plans of him ever seeing, wherein she lays out her frustrations and deepening compulsion to figure out why she can’t stop thinking about Dick.
The core trio of are all top notch, especially Hahn’s irritation at her own increasing infatuation and Bacon’s slow-burn arrogance and charisma as Dick. Directed by Jill Soloway (Transparent, Six Feet Under), the end result is compelling and watchable. Amazon describes I Love Dick as being about “the unraveling of a marriage, the awakening of an artist, and the deification of a reluctant messiah.” Hopefully that messiah will return for a full season, because this is one church we could happily spend more time attending.