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"You can look at me as a movie star, or you can think 'Steven Seagal can save my life'"
on April 29, 2010
A full eight years since his face was last seen in theaters, Steven Seagal returns to the mainstream - not as the star of a high-octane action flick, but as a police officer in his own reality TV series. Needless to say, just about everybody was shocked at this news: critics gnashed their teeth in rage that the Buddhist Bonecrusher was making headlines again, casual viewers wondered how he could have gone from a strict DTV career to prime time TV, and even longtime fans scratched their heads and wondered why they had never heard anything to support their hero's claim that he'd been doing police work for the past twenty years. Counting myself among that last group, I approached the show with cautious interest, hoping for the best but bracing myself for the worst. Luckily, "Lawman" delivered somewhere in the upper stratum of those two extremes. If you're not a fan of Seagal, his TV show won't convert you, but fans ought to line up to see this spectacle.
The premise of the show runs as such: Reserve Deputy Chief Seagal, a fully-sanctioned sheriff of Louisiana's Sheriff's Office, cruises the urban areas of Jefferson Parish after hours with his team of four fellow officers, investigating reports of violence and drug-dealing while keeping an all-around eye out for law-breaking.
At worst, I expected the series to be a weak take on Cops: a bait & switch with Seagal getting in on minimal action to keep him out of harm's way. If you absolutely hate the show, it's possible to make a case for this, but if nothing else, "Lawman" is a much more personal series than "Cops." While the majority of the limelight is on Seagal, you get to know his fellow officers enough to put real faces to the show. Extracurricular activities outside of police work compose about half of the screentime: there's Seagal visiting a children's hospital, training his German shepherds, helping a family rebuild their home from hurricane damage, taking an ailing officer to an acupuncture clinic, putting on a charity concert with his blues band, etc. There's even a particularly insightful scene in the last episode where he discusses scenes of the then-upcoming A Dangerous Man with his producer and stunt director. It's a very look-at-me show, but with Seagal's name in the title, what do you expect?
If you're hoping to see Steven Seagal get into gunfights with gangsters and break their wrists, you're going to be disappointed: that kind of stuff is restricted to his action movies, and Seagal remains professional while on the job. He's very good at pushing handcuffed suspects against the police car and playing sideseat driver, but truth be told, he doesn't take many risks, and this will probably let down people who were expecting to see a real-life Out for Justice. That's not to say his unit doesn't get into dangerous situations, though: especially in later episodes, drug busts and chases on foot become common with Seagal getting into the mix, and there's even one particularly tense episode wherein he and his crew follow an armed suspect into a bystander's house with guns drawn. Cases of legitimate gravity are also undertaken, like drive-by shootings and an armed robbery that turns into murder. Not all suspects are apprehended, but in a nice Seagalian touch, the popup graphic of almost every suspect ends with the phrase "They are presumed innocent until guilty." Chuck Norris would never have approved such a disclaimer.
There is some definite silliness to the show: Steven constantly refers to his "extensive background in the martial arts" as a qualification in any situation, gets asked by starstruck suspects for autographs (this doesn't happen as often as it'd seem, though), wears his bulletproof vest even when it's completely unnecessary... Oh, and who can forget the classic "Seagal-O Vision," with which Steven "can see things for what they are" by having the camera go into slow motion and zoom in on some unsuspecting fellow on the street while the audio slows to a heartbeat. This definitely constitutes racial profiling, and the fact that Seagal almost exclusively investigates black men is disheartening. On a more lighthearted note, nearly all of the episode titles are fit for a Seagal action film: "The Way of the Gun," "To Live or Die," "Ruthless Judgment," etc.
The question that ultimately needs answering is "Is he for real?" - is Steven Seagal truly a police officer or is this a big publicity stunt to get his name back in lights? Well, that depends on what you think a real police officer is, and if it's anything like what you've seen in Seagal's theatrical career, then you're going to be disappointed. Yes, Steven Seagal does real police work like a real police officer, and sometimes, it's not particularly exciting. It's here where the show spruces things up by having Steven visit local karate studios and feed alligators, therein creating an entertaining balance between a cop show and typical reality TV. Again, if you show up with the intent to bash, you're going to have your opportunities, but as far as real fans are concerned, this is the biggest cause for excitement in Seagal's career in almost a decade. Buy it.