Karate Cop

For those who enjoy the hit reality series COPS, but wish it featured less action and fatter cops, A&E presents the genius of Steven Seagal: Lawman (Wed. 10/9C).

The show is based on the flimsy premise that Hollywood action hero Steven Seagal has served for 20 years as a reserve deputy sheriff in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana.

Wait... Steven Seagal?

"That's right, Steven Seagal."

~ Steven Seagal (introductory credits to Steven Seagal: Lawman).

Whether the back story is truth, half-truth or completely fabricated, the reality is that, at this moment in history, an extremely puffy Steven Seagal is driving around the suburbs of New Orleans arresting people. Americans should look no further than that for definitive proof that the terrorists have not yet won.

Lawman's basic formula is pretty simple. The first 20 or so minutes are spent following Seagal and his team around, COPS-style, while they issue citations for traffic violations, show up to the scenes of long-since-ended barfights to sort through the conflicting stories of the participating meatheads and their hoochie girlfriends, and get winded after short-lived and farcical attempts to pursue fleeing suspects on foot.

The last few minutes of the show feature some form of human interest story. In the last episode I watched, Seagal helped paint a Katrina victim's renovated home. He has also visited a karate dojo for underprivileged (read: black) kids, spent an hour or so training his German Shepherd guard dogs to maim limbs, and shot nutria and fed them to alligators at the local zoo. If there's a touching story involving violence or tragic Acts of God, Seagal is all over it.

So, why should you watch (or not watch) Seagal's Legals? Because it's the most boring half hour of programming you'll ever find completely riveting. Once you begin watching, it is simply impossible to take your eyes off of the spellbinding monotony that unfolds before you. At every turn, something momentous and shocking could happen. But it never does. And you love every minute of it.

I haven't seen every episode of Steven Seagal: Lawman, but I've seen enough to know that Seagal's real life (imaginary?) job is really dull. In his films, Seagal masterfully employs the beautiful and ancient martial art of Aikido to defeat evildoers. In reality, I've yet to see Seagal even once use a suspect's own arm to beat said suspect silly. Instead, Reserve Deputy Sheriff Seagal fits the ordinary beat cop stereotype to a T. He's fat, he's overly anxious for action that never comes, and he spends his day issuing a lot of warnings and citations for low-level misdemeanors. The combination of these three mundane elements, combined with Seagal's unique and ineffectively chameleon-like on-camera personality, is what makes the show so entertaining.

Some other factors that make Lawman great include the following:

Stevie Sense

Spiderman has "Spidey Sense," the power to detect crimes taking place blocks away. Seagal has "Stevie Sense," the power to suspect crimes that might be taking place directly in his line of sight. Assuming that A&E has not added any special effects to the footage, this power manifests itself in a swooshing sound, white outlining that highlights the visual clue to the potential criminal activity, and a significant reduction in the flow of time.

All kidding aside, this cheesy effect serves only to highlight Seagal's comedic exaggerated seriousness. His facial expressions reveal a clear overallocation of mental resources to reading the tell-tale signs of a possible DWI or small marijuana deal.

Owing to his heightened sense for detecting criminal activity, Seagal can perceive the car directly in front of him swerving across 3 lanes of traffic.

It really would come as no surprise if A&E's special effects accurately reflect Seagal's own perception of events. In fact, I personally believe that Seagal hears the Bionic Woman "Nuh-na-na-na-na-na" sound effect in his head every time he gingerly heaves his hefty frame out of a police cruiser.

The Disconnect Between Anticipation and Reality

Lawman employs a consistent pattern of head-fake foreshadowing to draw you in. It goes something like this. First, Seagal and his partner spot a suspicious behavior (a process that often involves Stevie Sense). Seagal suggests they pull over the car. Before we see what happens during the encounter, the scene cuts to an interview with Seagal in which he explains that "there is no such thing as a 'routine traffic stop.'"

Our faithful reserve deputy sheriff then details some of the gruesome and shocking events that can occur when a cop pulls a car over: the suspect could start shooting; he could ram an officer with his car; he could bite you; he might slam the door closed, take off and drag the policeman 100 yards through gravel; his girlfriend might mace the officer and then repeatedly stab him in the throat with a pumpkin-carving knife.

By this time, you find yourself on the edge of your seat, wondering which of these horrifying potentialities ultimately came to fruition and which deputy's funeral will be the focus of this episode's human interest segment. Then, you watch in sheer disinterest as what could only be described as a legitimately routine traffic stop unfolds. The driver politely complies with the officer's requests, there are no warrants out for his arrest, no violence occurs and Seagal lets him off with a warning. Seagal's First Theorem of Traffic Stops produces a logical contradiction, and is thus proven invalid, right before your bewildered eyes. QED.

Underwhelming One-Liners

Action movies are famous for great one-liners. The thing about action movies, though, is that they are written by professional writers who (usually) take great care to craft the dialogue. Steven Seagal is not a writer, and that makes his one-liners even more glorious.

Case in point. In one episode, Seagal and his buddies were called to the scene of an armed robbery. Two Spanish-speaking immigrants are laying on the ground with gunshot wounds (tragically, one ended up dying). After asking the standard questions - "What did the suspects look like?" "How many of them?" "Did you get a license plate number?" -, Seagal and Co. hand off control to the crime scene investigators and get back in their car to begin a half-assed search for the suspects. As he buckles his seat belt, Seagal reveals his feelings on the shooting and robbery of two innocent victims: "I'm going to be honest. That pisses me off real bad."

Goosebumps ensue.

The Many Dialects of Steven Seagal

One of the show's strongest literary devices is deputy sheriff Seagal's ever-shifting dialect. The variability of his verbal lexicon, accent and syntax are nearly infinite, and adapt to suit any situation. However, four major variations, discussed below, dominate:

1. Standard Seagal Husky-Voice. This is Steven's bread-and-butter vernacular. I'm fairly sure that it's his natural way of speaking... on camera, at least.

2. Phony Pseudocajun Seagal apparently feels the need to fit into the show's Louisiana setting, and does so by occasionally dropping Cajunesque phrases such as "Juss pull over rye-chayah" and "Oooo-weee. Lawdy, lawdy." This pseudocajun accent is most prevalent when Seagal interacts with local white folk.

3. Faux Buddhist Monk As an accomplished ass-kicker of the Southeast Asian variety, Seagal is often required to speak in the soft, measured voice of the Hollywood martial arts master. You know, the voice that says "I have devoted my life to bare-knuckled violence, but am a superficial hack of a philosopher at heart." Just as all Romans and space villains on the silver screen speak with a British accent, all kung fu movie heroes must employ this ridiculously deferential manner of speaking.

4. Insulting Black Street Slang There's a funny thing about Stevie Sense: it's especially sensitive to the suspicious behavior of black people. Reserve Deputy Sheriff Seagal therefore interacts with many Louisianians of color and, when he does so, he employs a lingo that is uncomfortably close to an insulting parody of stereotypical black syntax. For example, in one scene, Seagal addresses an African-American suspect with ridiculous caricatures of slang phraseology like "Who gun i'dis?" and "An' when I axe you dat, whatchoo say?" It's as if he learned how black people talk solely by watching contested paternity episodes of Maury.

As best I can tell, the following flowchart summarizes Seagal's linguistic decision-making process:

"Hey, that's Steven Seagal!"

In almost every traffic stop, arrest, chase, or altercation, one of the suspects recognizes Seagal. The looks on their faces after realizing they've been cuffed by a Hollywood action star are priceless. Sometimes they ask for autographs. Often, male suspects will say something like "My wife / mother likes you." My favorite, though, was the drunk driver who opined that while Seagal could probably take Jean-Claude Van Damme in a fight, "Shacky Chan" would kick his ass. He did not weigh in on Kimbo Slice's chances.

He's Just Plain Likable

Probably the most unsettling feature of the show is how likable Seagal is. I had previously operated under the impression that Seagal was an arrogant prick. Unless he's doing one hell of an acting job, which would be his first, then I was wrong. Admittedly, he takes himself too seriously and often seems aloof. But he appears to be a genuinely nice guy who gets along well with his everyday Joe fellow deputies and the people he encounters while on patrol.

Steven Seagal: Lawman is the next great example of ironic reality-based meta-entertainment. Such programming entertains not for its intended reason, but because of the disconnect between the stars' and audience's perception of events. I previously reviewed another series in this genre, Animal Planet's Whale Wars, which in my view is the standard by which all ironic meta-entertainment should be judged. But Lawman isn't far behind. So, tune in and check out A&E's "Most Boring Outtakes from COPS, Reenacted by Steven Seagal."

Unless you are interested in legitimate entertainment, you won't be disappointed.

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