What’s the collective noun for a clawing herd of shameless assholes who will do anything to make a buck? That’s a trick question, of course, because the answer depends on where you ask: In the Northeast, it’s Wall Street. In the Mid-Atlantic, it’s DC. And in Southern California, it’s Hollywood.
Whatever you call them, shameless people – however hateful, venal, and shallow – are pretty funny. The Wolf of Wall Street was rich with comic moments, Veep continues to vacuum up Emmys, and reality TV is still a thing. Clearly there’s something to be said for the entertainment value of moral bankruptcy (as long as it doesn’t cost spectators anything). So today, Before Their Time will be revisiting a show that figured this out just a little too early, a one-season wonder that flowered into malevolent bloom before withering on its own poisonous vine. Today, you’re going to get some Action.
Action was a sitcom about the business of making movies. Jay Mohr starred as producer Peter Dragon, founder and resident raging asshole of Dragonfire Films. Dragonfire specializes in action flicks – light on plot, heavy on artillery. The formula is reliable until the day it isn’t: when Peter’s newest film (Slow Torture) flops, studio executives stop returning his calls and – worse – a fashionable restaurant starts refusing to seat him. Flailing to recoup his status and his company’s funds, Peter buys a screenplay whose author turns out to be not the hoped-for Alan Rifkin but the less-experienced, similarly-named Adam Rafkin (Jarrad Paul) and finds himself stuck with the rights to something called Beverly Hills Gun Club. If he ever wants to be taken seriously again, Peter must round up investors, a cast, and a director to film a movie whose climactic battle takes out hundreds of zoo animals (and, one presumes, the bad guys, unless the bad guys in question ARE the zoo animals).
WE ARE THE DANGER
Neither the script’s content nor Dragonfire’s previous box office flop can tempt anyone reputable (or sensible) to touch the project, and Peter embarks on a series of deals with devils he doesn’t know. This goes about as well as you would imagine: The director – their last choice – won’t stop talking about his enemas, the lead actor has a drug problem, the lead actress wants the crew to look away while filming her, and one of the investors tries to purchase Peter’s 10-year-old daughter. But Peter never says die. This tenacity is the closest thing he has to a redeemable quality, and it makes his otherwise antiheroic lurches from one catastrophe to the next consistently entertaining.
Peter is supported in this quixotic endeavor by his deadpan Uncle Lonnie (Buddy Hackett), who works as his driver and head of security, Stuart Glazer (Jack Plotnick), Dragonfire’s long-suffering President of Production, and Wendy Ward (Illeana Douglas), Dragonfire’s newly-installed Vice President of Production. Wendy provides most of the show’s human touch, such as it is; her previous career as a sex worker equipped her to deal with Hollywood’s monsters without turning her into one. This also means nothing surprises her, and unflappability is a valuable skill in a business that is more sordid (and hilarious) than even the most cynical detractor of the entertainment industry could imagine. I do mean that literally. The show’s creators cribbed many gags from their own experiences with A-listers (who, disappointingly, remain anonymized). Although these gags are funny on their own merits, knowing that, say, an argument about codpiece size actually happened on a real movie set does add a note of schadenfreude-y frisson to the proceedings.
Verisimilitude aside, Action was never going to last very long. The show’s writers and producers clashed with network censors (Fox, who else?) on everything from swearing to fellatio, and reviewers dismissed the series as mean-spirited. Its most profane moments seem quaint now, but in 1999 they challenged a network TV ethos still skittish about so much as alluding to adult themes. If you’re too young to remember TV in the 90s, let’s just say pearls were still being clutched over one half of Will & Grace’s titular duo being an out gay man.
Ultimately, I think Action’s creators miscalculated their audience’s tolerance not for profanity but for inside baseball. The show struggled to find viewers; network audiences either weren’t ready to see how big-budget sausage gets made or they just didn’t care to watch. In a few more years, viewers would develop an appetite for the risqué and the profane: Action would be right at home alongside the pole-dancing on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and the streams of profanity on Hell’s Kitchen. If nothing else, it performed the brief but necessary function of a flash-in-the-pan envelope pusher, nudging open windows through which later shows could slip edgier gags. Although it wasn’t quite as funny or brutal, Action prefigured the barbed behind-the-scenes honesty that made Arrested Development and Veep such hits. Sure, it got folks hot and bothered before leaving them unsatisfied, but that’s what happens when your Action comes too soon.
HOW TO WATCH: The complete show is available on DVD and iTunes or streaming on Amazon and Hulu.
MUST WATCH: If you watch only one episode, the series finale, “The Last Ride of the Elephant Princess,” sums up everything that is wrong with big-budget productions.
FAVORITE LINES: “This is where the magic happens!”
“You’re pitching me OJ Simpson?!?”
“Every kid knows his name!”
“Yeah, every kid knows to stay away from him!”
“You’re threatening me? That’s a laugh…I’m 79 years old. I’ve got one kidney, one ball and one lung. I take Viagra just to keep from peeing on my shoes, and you’re threatening me? Who are you frightening?”
PAIR WITH: Lots of hard alcohol, and possibly coke.
WATCH FOR: In spite of its brevity, Action scored cameos from a number of 90s celebrities, most of whom appeared as themselves. Notable appearances include Keanu Reeves, Salma Hayek, Sandra Bullock, Scott Wolf, Tony Hawk, and David Hasselhoff(!).
AFTERWARDS: If Veep is more verisimilitude than you can handle right now, re-watch Arrested Development.