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‘What Would Diplo Do?’ Is a PR Exercise That Actually Works As TV

Really: It’s fun to watch.

Viceland

The world is long overdue for an EDM spoof, so much so that its beats and gags are already easily imaginable. Its lead would have a suitably generic name sourced from the DJ pseudonym playbook: onomatopoeia, verb, or just two random nonsense syllables. He (it would inevitably be a he) would engage in ripped-from-the-headlines antics just anonymous enough to grant plausible deniability—like an extended version of that gag from Popstar in which Jorma Taccone wears a giant, laser-beaming helmet à la Deadmau5 that his neck can’t support. And it would end, as the first episode of Viceland’s What Would Diplo Do? does, with the main character asking, faux-profoundly, "Are we posers pressing buttons?"

There is a version of What Would Diplo Do? that is content to be a sendup of the laptop maestro. But what distinguishes WWDD is how it drops all pretense about who it’s attempting to satirize and comes right out with its intended target, which it can do without fear of reprisal thanks to the enthusiastic participation of its subject. The global superstar at the show’s center, as played by Van Der Beek, isn’t a stand-in for Diplo or a composite of him and other EDM superstars. He’s just Diplo — or rather "Diplo," like how Curb Your Enthusiasm stars "Larry David" — decked out in Mad Decent gear and surrounded by Major Lazer posters. The 38-year-old musician serves as executive producer along with his manager, Kevin Kusatsu (who gets his own onscreen surrogate); every episode is directed by Diplo’s longtime music video collaborator Brandon Dermer. Van Der Beek is also central to the project: In addition to starring, the actor also wrote, executive-produced, and show-ran the entire season. But in a key sense, WWDD is one giant, meta, half-winking, half-earnest brand-building enterprise for its namesake, and it’s that extra twist that makes an otherwise perfectly clever potshot at an eminently mockable subculture so intriguing.

WWDD is also the first venture into scripted programming from Viceland, the budding TV network from Shane Smith’s millennial-targeted media empire. Viceland’s lineup has thus far been insistently on brand: a late-night show from podcast personalities Desus and Mero; a weed cooking show called Bong Appetit; a queer travelogue hosted by Ellen Page. What Would Diplo Do?, with its winking self-deprecation and almost autofictional proximity to real life, could only come from a company that prides itself so much on edge, albeit the camera-ready and celebrity-friendly kind: The initial press release described WWDD as "Louie meets World Star Hip Hop crossed with This Is Spinal Tap."

True to the name, Van Der Beek’s fictional Diplo does many of the same misguided things the real one does. The first episode, which airs tonight, centers on a Twitter beef started by a needlessly provocative dispatch from Diplo himself — the same kind that got the DJ, a grown man, publicly and definitively owned by Lorde back in 2014. (To make the virtual drama slightly more visually compelling than a few screenshots, we’re treated to Diplo imagining the confrontation as an honest-to-god ninja fight.) This time, the object of his derision isn’t Lorde’s pal Taylor Swift, but rather her ex Calvin Harris, played by true doppelgänger Tom Stourton, who cracks wise about Swift's ex Tom Hiddleston. Apparently, a rising tide lifts all remix-crafting boats.

Other stunts might be more original to the show, but they fit squarely within the "clueless bro" persona that Diplo projects and Van Der Beek inhabits so well: insisting that he can’t do his live show without a confetti cannon; embarrassing himself at a professional baseball game; taking a 12-year-old he mistakenly believes has a terminal illness to a debaucherous afterparty. Much of WWDD, it turns out, is less about Diplo than the village it takes to handle him, populated by the likes of his jaded assistant and neurotic German tour manager. The general thrust of the humor is intuitive enough, implying not-so-coyly that the world of professional EDM is stocked with man-children wildly overpaid relative to their real yet hardly world-changing talents. ("Don’t break your press-play finger!" show-Kusatsu warns as his client prepares to take the field.) More surprising is how that humor is being deployed: as a means for Diplo to simultaneously acknowledge and take ownership over the less flattering parts of his image. By giving Van Der Beek his blessing, Diplo has commandeered a potential hit job into a three-hour advertisement for his own self-awareness. (At one point, show-Diplo complains that a blatant play for streaming success is cheapening the art form. "You put out a single called ‘Bubble Butt,’" his social media don immediately shoots back. Funny because it’s true!) It’s an effective ad, too — Van Der Beek doesn’t pull his punches, but his Diplo ultimately comes across as charming in spite of himself.

Van Der Beek is hardly a stranger to such postmodern devices. This is the man who spent two seasons playing himself on ABC’s tragically short-lived Don’t Trust the B---- in Apt. 23, embracing his status as a minor celebrity past the peak of his teen-soap fame in the vein of Kathy Griffin or, more recently, Spencer Pratt. By inducting Diplo into this hallowed tradition of beating jokesters to the punch — or maybe just joining them — while also delivering a genuinely amusing comedy, Van Der Beek has created a fascinating hybrid of storytelling and PR offensive. It’s not the first such series we’ve seen this summer; what WWDD does for Diplo, Freeform’s The Bold Type aims to do for an entire industry. But it is, thus far, the best. Would that all thinly veiled spin came with so many one-liners about Instagramming your meditation session.