Imagine being Diplo.
This is a thought experiment, of course, that requires the viewer knows who the electronic dance DJ is — a demographic that might not include most of the viewing public, but certainly comprises regular viewers of the ultra-hip network Viceland. Diplo — one half of Major Lazer; a collaborator with pop stars as diverse as Beyoncé, Justin Bieber, and Madonna; a DJ whose beats have infected, either directly or through imitation, your top 40 — is one of those button-pushing musicians whose music is made for bass-pulsing dance floors and pill-fueled late nights. With all this sleek beat-dropping comes a world of $100K DJing gigs, international notoriety, viral fame and fandom, and a cutting-edge of cool that is so absurdly hip it’s very close to being a parody of itself. The DJ has been on the edge of self-parody for a while now: Fader called him “pop’s problem child,” partly due to his social media spats and and partly due to his context-free sampling.
But if posing with gold teeth, naming an album “Random White Dude Be Everywhere,” and getting schooled by Lorde about dicks is the edge of self-parody, “What Would Diplo Do?” — Viceland’s first scripted series — is diving into the deep end. In a satirical, quasi-biographical take on his own life, Diplo is executive producing a comedy where James Van Der Beek plays — mocks, endears, and humanizes — the DJ himself. (A short released in 2016 paved the way for a full series order.) Diplo doesn’t come off too well; he’s arguably brilliant, but also self-aggrandizing, socially clueless, and as impulsive as a toddler. But that the DJ would examine and deflate his own persona is engaging, funny stuff; it’s made 10 times more entertaining by the alarming, charismatic ease with which Van Der Beek slips into the role.
For many viewers, Van Der Beek’s talents — and apparent self-awareness — will be a welcome surprise. He throws himself into the absurdity of Diplo with self-effacing ease: swagging out in expensive athleisure, snapping a shirtless selfie for “the ‘gram,” and bouncing with restless energy behind his soundboards. Diplo, at least in Van Der Beek’s interpretation, is kind of an idiot — but a mostly well-intentioned one, with backsliding attempts at self-improvement that are largely stymied by ridiculously serious conversations about which emoji to use in today’s snapchat story.
The two episodes released to critics, “The Beef” and “Ur Game Ain’t Shit,” offer glimpses into the ridiculous “problems” that Diplo faces: One is about his social media spat with Calvin Harris (not the real one — played by actor Tom Stourton); the other focuses on Diplo’s escalating delusions of grandeur in a baseball game in Santo Domingo, or as his hanger-on Jasper (Dillon Francis) refers to it, “the Dominic Republic.” In the premiere, “What Would Diplo Do?” focuses on getting to know Van Der Beek’s Diplo. The second expands the focus to his entourage, who are all over Diplo’s nonsense in their own unique ways. It makes for a surprisingly relatable dynamic: A group of fractious friends, squabbling over whose version of cool is the most cool. It’s especially brilliant — and millennial — to have that conversation not be within a group of slacker friends, but instead in the constantly commodifiable sphere of overexposed celebrity.
“What Would Diplo Do?” is both about branding and itself a piece of branding — with savvy, snarky observations on the hypermediated, context-free world of the very rich and famous. Its most salient observation may be the deeply rooted insecurity at the heart of Diplo’s self-aggrandizement. Behind the DJ’s outward indulgence is a poorly contained anxiety about whether or not “pressing buttons” to make music really matters, even though he loves doing it; in both episodes he’s prone to elaborate fantastical visions of either imagined failure or projected success. Every day in Diplo’s life is a struggle against his own visions. Partly that’s because he’s ridiculous. Partly, too, it’s because no one else can touch him.