I think that I’ve been guilty of selling Steven Seagal short for years. I always thought of him as a bottom-tier action star from the ’80s and ’90s. You know, the guy whose movie you groaned about having to see when the one starring Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, or JCVD was sold out.
But he’s so much more than that.
Did you know that the writer/director/action star/martial arts master/philanthropist/animal rights champion and guardian to Yabshi Pan Rinzinwangmo, the only child of the 10th Panchen Lama of Tibet, was also a recording star?
He is, and you should put his albums Songs From the Crystal Cave and Mojo Priest on your Christmas list, for they will blow your fucking mind!
He’s also an entrepreneur, with his very own energy drink—Steven Seagal’s Lightning Bolt — and an aftershave called “Scent of Action,” which is reputed to smell like a delicate — but still very masculine — blend of cherry blossom and salmon.
He’s pretty much a modern day Renaissance Man — a Kung-Fu version of Leonardo da Vinci.
However, perhaps his greatest talent is his gift for comedy, which may or may not be intentional. This talent, which we’ve seen hints of in movies like Under Siege:
and Under Siege 2, is on full display in his new A & E show, “Steven Seagal: Lawman.”
On this documentary-reality series, we find out that for the last 20 years Seagal has secretly been a Reserve Deputy Chief (they don’t bother to tell us that his rank is ceremonial) of the sheriff’s department in his home community of Jefferson Parish, Louisiana.
In a nutshell, we get to watch a kind of celebrity version of Cops, with the cameras following Seagal, now nearly 60, as he pretends to be a police officer. 3.6 million people tuned in for the debut in early December, making it the best season opener for any original A & E show.
In the intro, which shows us overhead shots of cars speeding down a street, we listen as Seagal does the voice-over. Employing his concentrated monotone — a mumbly, punch-drunk murmur that sounds kind of sleepy — he lists off all his robust career accomplishments, before revealing, “My name is Steven Seagal. That’s right: Steven Seagal, deputy sheriff.” His image is then frozen on the screen so that we’re given a moment to process this simultaneously smug and humiliating announcement.
With severely dyed hair that comes to a sharp point low on his forehead and eyebrows that knit into a consternated V, Seagal resembles a rather puffy Vulcan. We watch as he sits at a long table while roll call takes place at the police station. Assuming an authority he clearly hasn’t earned, he takes on the self-important air of leadership. He is, after all, a movie star, of sorts. His fellow officers, each one seemingly as round and engaged as Chief Wiggum, don’t care. They’re giddy, excited to be on TV.
These cops, like obedient suburbanites, drive SUVs instead of old-fashioned police cruisers. Seagal, who we never see behind the wheel, always sits in the passenger seat, as happy as a big, old dog going for a ride. He’s immense now, by the way, and speaking in a self-conscious Cajun patois, he resembles a Fat Elvis/Alec Baldwin hybrid, with a little bit of the battiness of William Shatner and Will Ferrell tossed in for good measure.
Again and again, Seagal tells us that he’s “a life long practitioner of the martial arts.” This credential, which is his stand-in for never having attended a Police Academy, apparently imbues him with special powers. Like a Ninja, he is blessed with preternatural perception, and when his fellow officers are obliviously humming along to Daughtry as they cruise through the city, Seagal is attentive. He notices everything! And when this happens, which is about three times an episode, a strobe light flashes and everything slows down. As the sound of a heart beats, the camera zooms in on the unusually tilted head that Seagal detected.
It’s a possible car jacking!
Not wearing a seat belt, Seagal slaps his meaty paw against the door and shouts, ” Git him, Johnny, git, ‘em!” A high-speed chase ensues. Making himself useful, Seagal barks instructions to the driver, who eventually, with mounting irritation, hisses back, “let me drive!” Untroubled, Seagal, says, ” just telling you where the holes are.”
I swear, that man is just as cool as nunchucks made out of cucumbers.
Like a Zen Master, Seagal is always predicting — which I’m sure never gets irritating in the heat of the battle — what he thinks is going to happen next. They box in the car-jacker, and 20 to 30 cops descend upon him as the words, “TASER, TASER, TASER!!” are being shrieked by one particularly excited officer. After everything is under control, Seagal steps out of his SUV and instructs everybody to be calm.
The next day on the shooting range, Segal is giving pointers to Alex, a porcine and overly enthusiastic guy who can’t shoot worth a shit and is in danger of being relegated to a desk job.
The marksman Seagal — a thoroughbred in reading glasses — shoots the hell out of a bunch of targets. He then pontificates on Zen archery, telling Alex to “push” the bullet and become one with the weapon. With not a hint of comprehension coloring his simple face, Alex nods his head, his mouth agape.
Later that night Zydeco music blasts and a baby wails in the background. Team Seagal is investigating a potential situation at a bar. One member of the team, an Italian-looking cop, looks into the camera and deadpans that he sometimes forgets Seagal is a big movie star. (Yes, me, too.) Somewhat surprisingly, the boozy crowd in front of the bar, kind of remember Seagal, and an immense and jiggling black woman thunders toward him like she just won the Price is Right Showcase.
Later, while being driven down the road, Seagal’s Ninja ESP kicks in again and he notices an unusual movement in the hand of somebody on the street. Seagal yells out — before it even happens — “he’s going to run!” And the guy on the street, seeing police cars come flashing at him and hearing Seagal’s screaming from the SUV, takes off, just as Seagal predicted. An enthusiastic cop named Larry sprints after him, as once again, another officer loudly advocates the use of the Taser.
Eventually, the Perp is caught and cuffed.
The cops stand about, portly and glorious. As if at a barbeque, they analyze and retell the story of the dramatic chase, while the ever vigilant and mysterious Seagal wanders around with his little Maglite, shining it up and down.
Like he senses something.
As this is taking place a gang of curious teens move toward the commotion. Seagal, his eyes narrow and his senses tingling, is steeling for battle. He looks at the camera, and with ominous intent, breathes the words, “this is getting really hinky.”
It’s a perfect bad movie moment.
It’s a perfect bad TV show.
It’s everything we want and deserve.
Michael Murray is a freelance writer. For the last three and a half years he’s written a weekly column for the Ottawa Citizen about watching television. He presently lives in Toronto. You can find more of his musings on his blog, or check out his Facebook page.