Home / Arts & Life / Review: James Van Der Beek, From ‘Dawson’s Creek’ to an Alt-Diplo

Review: James Van Der Beek, From ‘Dawson’s Creek’ to an Alt-Diplo


James Van Der Beek as the title character in “What Would Diplo Do?”

Shane McCauley/Viceland

James Van Der Beek, who came to fame playing the heart-on-his-sleeve hero of “Dawson’s Creek,” is making a midcareer move into alt-comedy. It might seem counterintuitive, but it kind of works, because Mr. Van Der Beek is alt-funny.

By that, I mean he’s not funny at all, at least in any obvious way. But playing off the earnestness that made him the perfect fit for Dawson Leery, he gets you to root for his comic characters, because he seems to be trying so hard. If James Van Der Beek wants to be silly and cool that badly, we might as well go along with it.

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He’s used this persona to find a niche in the currently ubiquitous genre of the biographical sitcom. Not being a comedian, he comes in through the side door. He started his reinvention by playing a version of himself in someone else’s show, “Don’t Trust the B–––– in Apartment 23.”

Now he’s taking the meta further in “What Would Diplo Do?,” Viceland’s first fully scripted original show, beginning on Thursday. In this mash-up of the fictionalized first-person comedy and the demi-celebrity reality show, he plays a version of an actual someone else, the record producer, D.J. and dance-music impresario Diplo. It’s as if Diplo couldn’t be bothered to play himself and said, “Hey, what about that Van Der Beek guy?”

That’s not how it happened, of course, but the mocking notion that it could have gone down that way is built into the show’s appeal. Mr. Van Der Beek — an executive producer for the show, along with Diplo (real name: Thomas Wesley Pentz) — is nothing if not game. In “Don’t Trust the B,” he played a vain, irritable, underemployed James Van Der Beek. Here, he plays a fictional Diplo who’s well-meaning but largely clueless and self-absorbed, given to imagining himself in ninja sword battles and musing about what Jesus would be like on Twitter.

What makes this work — and the first two episodes of “What Would Diplo Do?” are reasonably ingratiating and amusing — is the Van Der Beek straddle, the tension between the hipsterdom he seems to aspire to and the normality he can’t help projecting. He’s been cast in a similar way in dramatic roles — he played against his inherent blandness in a recurring role as a serial killer on “Criminal Minds” — but it’s a lot more fun here. You could even call it funny.

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