James Van Der Beek Is Probably the Most Post-Modern Person Alive

Untangling the Web of What Would Diplo Do?, Ahead of the Premier

By Sam Eichner ·
Photo: Smallz & Raskind via Getty Images
This Thursday, Viceland will premiere its first experiment in scripted television, the high-minded comedy What Would Diplo Do?

The series stars James Van Der Beek as world-famous EDM DJ Diplo in what the Los Angeles Times describes as a cross between “the playful satire of ‘This Is Spinal Tap’ and a show business version of ‘The Office.’” With the blessing of Diplo himself, the creators have had been given the license to fashion a version of the DJ who is, as Van Der Beek says, “a musical genius who sucks at life.”

Van Der Beek, for his part, is no stranger to self-parody. He played an egomaniacal version of himself on the short-lived, whip-smart ABC sitcom, Don’t Trust the B---- in Apt 23. The director Spike Jonze, who oversees Viceland, has also tinkered with celebrity meta-ness, in his eccentric classic, Being John Malkovich. Taken together, the notion of Jonze green-lighting a show starring a teenage heartthrob who portrays a fake version of a real DJ is almost precious enough to be a parody of Vice itself.

Naturally, the show sounds pretty complex. Ahead of Thursday’s premiere, we’ve attempted to unpack it all for you right here... 

James Van Der Beek was famous for playing the titular character on Dawson’s Creek.
In Don’t Trust the B---- in Apt 23, he subverted expectations of his real-life persona—helplessly created in the public’s tacit conflation between a character he played on TV and the person he actually is—to great comedic effect. (Plus: by the finale of Dawson’s Creek, Dawson had his own television show called “The Creek,” meaning Van Der Beek was playing a fictional character who had in turn fictionalized himself. Autofiction is an underrated trope of the teenage soap opera—Dan Humphrey in Gossip Girl fictionalizes his life in short stories; Seth Cohen in The OC fictionalizes his life in a superhero comic—which is doubly significant: it exposes both the inherent “fiction” of adolescence, as a hormonal construct of reality, as well as the inherent fiction of adolescence the teenage soap caricaturizes. But this is probably a subject for a different article; suffice it to say, the Beek is well-versed in this shit.)

Now, he is playing a fictional version of a famous DJ.
But given the show’s awareness of a celebrity playing another celebrity, it is impossible to extricate the persona of Van Der Beek from the fictional version of Diplo. Put another way, it would be different if Van Der Beek were playing a fictional character—like he did on CSI: Cyber—or if an unknown actor was playing Diplo. In both those instances, you can take the performance at face value.

Here’s where it gets interesting: the persona of James Van Der Beek that is impossible to extricate from the role is inherently an extension of the persona of James Van Der Beek he created/perpetuated on Don’t Trust the B---- in Apt. 23.
Thus, it stands to reason that James Van Der Beek is playing James Van Der Beek playing Diplo.

Keep in mind, Diplo is a world-famous DJ most people don’t really know.
Being a world-famous DJ is somewhat of an oxymoron; DJ-ing, by nature, is a somewhat anonymizing trade: the artist is generally not present or available the way a pop star is, because their work is a mix of wordless beats and hooks and/or other people’s voices. There is something exciting, then, about the way this show plans to fill that vacuum with an absurdist portrait of the DJ: they are essentially parodying a facsimile of Diplo versus Diplo himself. Making this a far more interesting take than if, say, someone was to create a show called What Would Katy Perry Do?

In this way, James Van Der Beek on What Would Diplo Do? is both a simulacrum of himself and a simulacrum of Diplo.
Therefore: James Van Der Beek is probably the most post-modern person alive.
Sam Eichner

Sam Eichner likes literature, reality television and his twin cats equally. He has consistently been told he needs a shave since he started growing facial hair.

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