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Action


Some regular-folk rave reviews from Fox's Action message board:

"I am apalled that this type of show is even on television, let alone on at 9:00. You people at Fox have really gone too far with this show. The language is outrageous. Like people don't know what your bleeping out. It is quite obvious what they are saying. This type of programming does not belong on network television. Last I checked prostitution was illegal and here you are glamorizing it. Your show is disgusting and perverted. I don't think I will watch your network anymore."

"We like Fox a lot but not the new show Action. We turned it off after nine minutes."

"This is the worst show I have ever seen on the Fox Network. The story line makes no sense, the main character is a total jerk and the message this show sends is that it is OK to be a profane jerk to every person you contact. Not to mention the fact that the use of fowl language is prevalent throughout the entire show for no obvious reason."

Now, skeptic that I am, I'd like to think that these posts are from Fox employees trying to stir up shit. But the main story on Action, which premiered on Fox last Thursday (it will air Thursdays at 9:30pm ET for the time being), is that it's too edgy for the great unwashed masses -- that the characters, particularly one Peter Dragon (Jay Mohr in the role he was born to ooze his way through), aren't likable enough to sustain audience interest, and that it's a bit too "inside" for the average viewer. I'll go along with the last concern: With rare exceptions -- modest successes like The Player or Bowfinger -- the general audience doesn't want to see movies (or television) about movies; doesn't give a fuck about the inner workings of Hollywood or the trials and tribulations of those who work there. They get that for free on Entertainment Tonight, they read what they want to read in Entertainment Weekly, and that's about it. Anything else might endanger their illusion that movies are fun, writers and directors always believe in what they're doing, and stars are really like the characters they're so beloved for playing.

But ... too edgy? Characters not likable enough? Ever hear of an obscure little show called Seinfeld?

Yes, and though roughly two dozen would-be sitcoms have ripped off the show about nothing during the past few seasons, Action comes closer to Seinfeld's detached, callous, pre-millennial cynicism than any of Seinfeld's clones. Peter Dragon, hotshot movie producer with ten $100-million-plus grossers under his belt, has fallen on hard times. His latest opus, Slow Torture, has dropped into the toilet. He knows it's a turkey on premiere night, when even his suck-ups can't think of anything nice to say about it except that the music is good. He can't get a table at the hot restaurant in town, and he stews at the bar with his screenwriter slave Adam Rafkin (Jarrad Paul). "I can't believe I'm sitting here with ... people," he spits contemptuously. Then he turns to an ordinary couple sitting nearby: "Who are you??" Not likable? Hell, there's something downright lovable about Peter's very hatefulness. Like Kevin Spacey's producer Buddy in Swimming with Sharks, Peter's the sort of rabid bastard you enjoy immensely from a distance.

The pilot episode, wherein Peter's fortunes took a turn for the worse, was a bit stiff; it was setting up the characters. In the second episode, shown right after the pilot (both eps were written by series creator Chris Thompson), Action hit its stride. I thoroughly approve of the unstable yet natural rapport developing between Peter and his new production assistant Wendy Ward (Illeana Douglas in her full smart, sexy glory), a former child star turned Hollywood whore. The show also generously resurrects Buddy Hackett, on hand as Lester, Peter's uncle and general lackey; and by the end of episode two, Peter has gone into business with a gun-waving pimp who calls himself Dick Marsellus ("It's an homage," he explains). Throw in a sardonic theme song growled by Warren Zevon ("Even a dog can shake hands") and, of course, the omnipresent bleeps on the soundtrack -- which only serve to make the obscene tirades funnier -- and you've got what may well be the season's most promising new comedy.

Also maybe the hippest. Action may be the most referential comedy show this side of The Simpsons or Dennis Miller Live -- not just movie references, either -- yet it fires them at you with a speedball wit that jogs your memory of some half-forgotten cultural point, gets its laugh, and goes on to the next thing before you realize what hit you. The allusions aren't just there to show you how clever the writer is (as in most of Kevin Williamson's work). For example, when Peter drops in on Wendy one night, he interrupts her in the middle of a dominatrix session with a Disney exec. Peter recognizes the guy, who's embarrassed and stubbornly stays in his sub role: "My name is Andre." Peter snorts, "My name is Luka, I live on the second floor." I could try to explain why that line -- Suzanne Vega summoned out of the blue to zap some shlub in latex drag cleaning Wendy's apartment -- made me laugh so hard, but it'd just kill the joke.

Question is, will Action survive? Or will it go the way of Slow Torture? It's too early to say; even a ratings flop (but well-loved cult favorite) like Get a Life hung around for at least a season or two. Fox, remember, is the network that kept Party of Five on the air despite less-than-stratospheric early numbers, and even The X-Files wasn't an overnight sensation. Unless a show unquestionably stinks up the joint, Fox is generally known for its patience. (Action is being paired this season with Family Guy, another edgy show a lot of people are happily surprised to see returning.) The only major problem is its death slot on Must-See TV night. And it may also be too biting for its own good. Sure, it pokes fun at its own executive producer Joel Silver, but how long before it takes aim at a Hollywood figure who might have the clout to bury Action? (There's already been some humming over a closeted gay studio boss apparently modelled on Barry Diller.) There are any number of forces, from internal politics to fundamentalist boycotts to audience indifference, that might bring this refreshingly vicious show down. I say we enjoy it while it lasts.