Pity poor Steven Seagal, the Forgotten Man of action movies. His fellow redneck / kung-fu badass Chuck Norris becomes popcult meme thanks to “facts” like Lightning never strikes in the same place twice because it knows Chuck Norris is looking for it — but when it comes to Seagal, both recognition and facts are thin on the ground.
Part of that is by design. Seagal has always preferred to keep his past shrouded in mystery. He has teased interviewers with hints and allusions, insinuating that he has ties to the CIA, the yakuza, and the Tibetan resistance movement; he has variously claimed to be a Green Beret, a Zen master, and a Navy SEAL, and spoken vaguely of his influential relationship with various foreign dignitaries and spiritual leaders.
One thing everyone seems to agree on, though, is that Seagal is an unpleasant egomaniac — self-involved, vindictive, and insecure, given to threats and tantrums. Seagal is the subject of a couple of extended digressions in Orville Schell’s terrific 2000 book Virtual Tibet, a brilliant and lively study of the West’s fascination with — and misunderstanding of — that ancient land. In a one-on-one interview, Seagal brags about how tight he is with the Dalai Lama. Yet later on, at a fundraiser for the Tibetan government-in-exile, Seagal is relegated to a seat far from the guest of honor: “[D]espite Seagal’s offer to make a substantial financial contribution, the Dalai Lama’s aides have decided to maintain a certain distance between the star and their charge,” Schell writes. “They evidently fear the Dalai Lama’s becoming too closely identified with such a loose cannon of a celebrity.”
Friends, when even the Dalai Lama thinks you’re an asshole, it’s time to rethink your life. And so Seagal has scaled back his efforts from bringing enlightenment to the world to simply keeping the peace in one county — and, of course, documenting the results in basic-cable reality show. On his new A&E show Lawman (Tuesdays, 11 PM EST) Seagal cruises the mean streets of Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, looking for bad guys and protecting the innocent — in theory, at least; but more about that later.
A&E, of course, used to stand for Arts and Entertainment, and those of a certain age will remember the network’s early days when it ran BBC costume dramas and Evening at Pops. Heady times, indeed. But now, even in a lineup dominated by the likes of Intervention, Hoarders, and Psychic Kids, Seagal’s little vanity project stands out; Lawman ain’t art; indeed, it’s barely entertainment. It’s basically Cops plus Steven Seagal — in other words, a nightmare from which I cannot awaken.
Seagal’s association with the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office began nearly twenty years ago, when the chief invited him to teach some martial arts moves to the recruits at the Sheriff’s Academy. In recognition of his services, he was designated “Reserve Deputy Chief of Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office Reserve Special Services,” which sounds approximately as legitimate as Elvis Presley’s DEA credentials.
Elvis, however, never got to ride along on any drug busts. Seagal, though, gets his own posse of uniformed deputies, all conspicuously pudgy and out-of-shape — which is really saying something, given that Seagal himself looks like a side of beef. This is crew is turned out to tool around the parish in two big unmarked SUVs; admittedly I’m no expert, but this whole setup doesn’t seem exactly regulation, and I find myself wondering just how many of these guys (if any) are what you might call, y’know, real cops.
Seagal’s the only cop in this gang of four wearing a bulletproof vest, presumably because Steven Seagal is the biggest pussy in the Jefferson Parish sheriff’s department. He sits in the passenger seat, rocking his yellow-tinted specs — what, he thinks he’s Bono now? — and providing a hysterically self-important narration, as atmospheric B-roll fills the screen. “As a lifelong practitioner of the martial arts, I’m trained to remain calm in the face of adversity and danger,” he says (Seagal begins many sentences with the words, “As a lifelong practitioner of the martial arts”). “When the world is speeding by for others, I see things for what they are. A cock of the head, a foot planted forward or back, a flick of the wrist — they all tell me something.” This is accompanied by a slow rollby of two black youths, juxtaposing one grabbing his crotch with Seagal glaring at him appraisingly.
The citizens-on-patrol stuff is intercut with bits of Seagal teaching self-defense to various deputies and recruits. It’s ostensibly because he worries about them — “I want to protect my guys that I love” — but in practice it’s a chance for Seagal to show off how fast he still is, despite having the appearance and demeanor of a tranquilized manatee. He also trains a deputy nervous about passing his annual firearms proficiency test (Seagal is, of course, a dead shot). Always eager to appear profound, he characterizes it as being “like Zen archery, or — something,” but his weakness for showing off soon surfaces, and before long he’s trying to light matches by shooting at them; for a couple of seconds, I think I’m watching Mythbusters.
The setup seems ripe for hilarity, but there are hinky elements at play that make Lawman hard to enjoy. Just as on Cops, there are constant uncomfortable undercurrents of race and class privilege. Jefferson Parish is a largely black area, but of the half-dozen or so cops we meet, exactly one is African-American. The suspects, though, are overwhelmingly persons of color. In one episode, the cops are called in to break up a parking lot brawl; they immediately start cuffing black suspects — until bystanders I.D. the passengers of a truck fleeing the scene as the instigators. The driver and his compatriot turn out to be fratty-looking white guys, who immediately start whining, “They were bullying us.”
The white kids get hustled off downtown without incident, while one of the brawlers — a black man who is, in the best Cops tradition, both shirtless and drunk — kicks out a cop car window while being arrested, and gets himself tased on camera. It’s pretty disturbing, made no less so when Seagal upbraids the man for being not such a good Zen practitioner.
Even more problematic, though, is that Seagal appears to have a free hand in following any avenue of investigation down which his vaunted sixth-sense-for-danger leads him. This leads to a lot of “Suspicious Persons” reports, which in practice tend to translate as “Guilty of Walking While Black.”
In one episode, Seagal’s posse descends upon two guys leaving a house in the small hours of the morning. “I think these guys are drinking,” Seagal snarls, and sure enough, one is toting a still-full bottle of Goldschlager. Open-container laws are cited, but the men both insist they have done no wrong. One of them gets off the quote of the night: “I understand y’all are doin’ y’all job, but right now I don’t feel like y’all are doin’ y’all job!” Truer words.
Then things take a creepy turn. The cops pat the guys down, and one of them is packing a gun. There is a potential for things top get ugly indeed — but a quick check indicates that the gun is legally registered, that neither man has any priors, and that neither one has even been drinking. (I think the one guy got the bottle from his Mom, which is kind of sweet.) Seagal lets them go, as he must, bust first has the balls to lecture them about his righteousness: “I’m out here looking for murderers,” he tells them sternly, which is cold comfort to a poor man, living in a rough neighborhood, who has just been hassled by a slumming movie star.
To his credit, the man listens to Seagal’s tirade with stony silence, which is more than I could manage in the face of such self-righteousness from such an overprivileged buffoon. Then again, he’s come out of his encounter with Seagal with no injury but a delay in getting home. It could easily have gone worse. Much, much worse. And that’s why I can’t even laugh at Lawman. Because when Steven Seagal tries to gin up some drama for the cameras, innocent people will suffer — maybe suffer inconvenience, maybe worse. All to assuage the boredom of an over-the-hill actor.
Listen. Most real cops, in my experience, have a sort of weary compassion. They, more than most people, recognize human folly. They know the ways that people have of fucking themselves up, and they empathize, while balancing their empathy with the need to keep people safe. They’re not in the business of perfecting human nature; they’re just trying to maintain the peace.
So I cannot imagine what the Sheriff of Jefferson Parish was thinking when he deputized Steven Seagal. His history, and his contradictory accounts of his own past, would tend to indicate that he is highly imaginative at best, at worst delusional, and in any case prone to over-identifying with the parts he play-acts. Bad enough when he’s just romping around Hollywood, with no one to hurt but himself and his career; but why in God’s name would you give such a man a position of actual authority?
Seagal’s egomania doesn’t allow him to do anything by halves. During his Tibetan Buddhist phase, we would claim to Orville Schell that the Dalai Lama “gave me a spiritual blessing that would not have been given to anyone who was not special. I don’t think he has given such a blessing to any other white person.” He reportedly told others that during their private meeting, the Dalai Lama had knelt and kissed Seagal’s feet. Later, he found a Tibetan cleric who was willing (in exchange for a large cash donation) to proclaim Seagal a tulku, or “living Buddha” — that is, a reincarnation of a revered high lama.
Steven Seagal is the worst kind of wanna-be — an underachiever with a bottomless sense of entitlement, a man who can’t be satisfied until he’s recognized as tops in the field, no matter how ill-qualified he may be; when he gets religion, he won’t settle for being a disciple — no, he has to be a god himself. And someone gave this pathetic bastard a badge and a gun and set him loose to keep order among the poor and privilegeless, according to his own discretion. Yeah, this is going to end well.