An uncivil “Action”

Fox's raunchy, risky movie industry sitcom opens big -- and it just might have legs

Topics: Sitcoms,

Hollywood producers are not exactly America’s sweethearts
these days. To hear some politicians and cultural critics
talk, our most successful purveyors of arsenal-showcasing
action blockbusters are scum — pure, evil scum.

So, say you’re one of these Hollywood hotshots — OK, say
you’re Joel Silver, the notoriously flamboyant producer of
the “Die Hard” and “Lethal Weapon” movies. There are two
ways you can deal with the people who blame you for every
act of violence committed in America. You can start making
nice family pictures, or you can say, “Fuck you.” With
“Action,” the raunchy, hilarious new Fox sitcom Silver
co-produced with Chris Thompson (“The Larry Sanders Show,” “The Naked Truth”), Silver says, “Fuck you” a lot. Actually,
his cocky, abrasive alter ego, action flick producer Peter Dragon
(a perfectly cast Jay Mohr), says it for him — six times
before the opening credits alone. The F-word is bleeped out,
because this is broadcast TV (even if it’s Fox). But you
don’t have to be a lip-reader to figure out the gist of
Dragon’s series-opening tirade, directed at a studio
commissary worker who protests when Dragon steals his
“employee of the month” parking space.

Barks Dragon, reluctantly removing the cell phone from his
ear as he strides across the lot to confront the poor
nobody, “While you’ve admirably restrained yourself from
peeing in the Cobb salad over the years, I’ve made 10 motion
pictures that have earned this studio a billion dollars.
Unfortunately for you, I am the employee of the
[bleeping] century!”

You could really hate Peter Dragon, with his hipster suits
and his arrogant strut and his bully-boy eyes, if Mohr
(“Go,” “Jerry Maguire”)
wasn’t such a thoroughly likable bastard. And if Mohr didn’t betray a glimmer of insecurity
in those bully’s eyes. And if the torrents of sarcastic
abuse that Dragon spews at everyone weren’t so viciously
funny. And if Dragon wasn’t surrounded by big shots and
hustlers even more poisonously cynical and ethically
bankrupt than he is. “Nice guys finish last,” goes the
show’s Green Day theme song, and at first you think, sure,
that’s gotta be Dragon’s motto. But by the end of the first
episode, after Dragon reveals a tiny possibility of
humanity, you realize that Dragon really may not be rotten
enough to finish first. He’s only a brat, not Satan.

“Action” was created in the paranoia-soaked, entertainment
biz image of “The Larry Sanders Show” (Thompson and Silver
originally took this show to HBO, but negotiations fell
apart), and it’s a little disorienting to see its bawdy
humor and niche-y premise on a non-cable network. “Action”
still has a few bugs to work out, judging from the first
episode — the cute musical commentary has to go, and Dragon
and his muse, hooker Wendy Ward (Illeana Douglas), meet in
disappointingly farcical sitcom fashion. But “Action” is
still the most original new sitcom of the season. Nasty, fun
and pop-culturally incisive, it’s Fox’s best live-action
comedy in way too many years.

And, yes, I realize that “incisive” may not have been the
word that sprang to mind when you read the aforementioned
descriptions of dirty dialogue and pee jokes. But
“Action” is broadcast TV’s first satire in a long time that
contains, you know, actual satire. Take Thompson’s
“Naked Truth,” about a National Enquirer-type tabloid, for
instance. It never went after tabloid culture or celebrity
vanity as hard as it should have, and when Thompson left
after one season and the show moved from ABC to NBC, the
thing collapsed into a cookie-cutter workplace comedy. And
Al Franken’s recent NBC flop, “Lateline,” attempted a TV
news parody, but was merely a toothless embarrassment.

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But “Action” (the pilot, anyway) takes its shots at Hollywood
without fear and without obvious network interference (well,
except for the bleeps). Dragon’s projects are deliriously
awful; they’re parodies of the type of action movies Silver
makes (and the type the clean-up-Hollywood brigade decries). Dragon
buys scripts with titles like “Beverly Hills Gun Club,” and
his big Christmas release is a “Die Hard” stand-in called
“Slow Torture,” which he describes this way: “I have Harvey
Keitel pummeling Winona Ryder’s face with a tire iron –
it’s not exactly a women’s picture.”

There are references (none of them flattering) to big stars;
Keanu Reeves
(fresh from the Silver-produced “The Matrix”)
shows up in a cameo, getting a hand job from Wendy at a
movie premiere. There’s a bald, intimidating power player
who bears a strong resemblance from the neck up to former
Fox chairman Barry Diller (from the waist down, this
character is known as “Anaconda” — in “Action,” big penises
equal big power). In the pilot’s most memorable scene,
Dragon listens incredulously while a squirrelly talent agent
pitches him the services of O.J. Simpson, making the
argument that “little children in Calcutta know his face …
the name is more recognizable than ‘Tom Hanks.’” Replies
Dragon, “OK, but to be fair, Tom Hanks refuses to go that
extra mile and hack his wife to death!”

The O.J. scene, borderline tasteless but gaspingly funny,
could serve as new Fox Entertainment president — and former
“South Park”-touting Comedy Central chief — Doug Herzog’s
calling card. But that scene, in which Dragon turns Simpson’s agent
down, also suggests that the producer has a drop of a conscience –
and in Hollywood, that makes him the equivalent of Jimmy
Stewart in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” It also makes him
dangerously vulnerable and, maybe, worth caring about.
Dragon definitely is a soft touch; he employs his bleary
Uncle Lonnie (Buddy Hackett, of course) as his security
guard and chauffeur, and you can almost see the top layer of
his tough-guy armor melt away when he learns that Wendy is a
former hugely popular child star who lost everything to
cocaine and booze. Now clean, she considers being a
prostitute to the stars something of a comeback.

Because Wendy makes like a good sport to help avert a public
relations disaster at the Hollywood premiere of “Slow
Torture,” and because she’s not afraid to confirm Dragon’s
suspicion that the movie stinks, he makes her his unofficial
script reader and advisor. There’s a sparky chemistry
between Mohr’s Peter Dragon and Douglas’ Wendy; she’s just the
sort of clear-eyed, maternal protector this self-absorbed
lost boy needs to help him find his way through Neverland.
He doesn’t want to grow up. But he will.

Joyce Millman is a writer living in the Bay Area.

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