Honesty Vs. Insanity: A Look at ACTION

Welcome to a new Wildcard Wednesday! Paired with our coverage of The Larry Sanders Show, this entry examines a single-camera single-season sitcom called Action, which aired on FOX in the fall of 1999 and was created by Chris Thompson, who had written for Sanders during its first two years. The series stars Jay Mohr as Peter Dragon, a hotshot Hollywood producer whose sole ambition is to make one more great action film following the total failure of his most recent production. He’s assisted by both Wendy Ward (Illeana Douglas), a former child star-turned hooker who becomes VP of Production at Peter’s company after he accidentally brings her along to a premiere and they become live-in paramours, and Stuart Glazer (Jack Plotnick), the gay and much-put-upon President of Production, who’s in competition with everyone. The script that Peter decides to produce is written by Adam Rafkin (Jarrad Paul), a nebbish screenwriter whose name is always confused for Alan Rifkin’s. And Buddy Hackett plays Peter’s uncle, who serves as his driver and security. Other recurring players — and there are many — include Lee Arenberg as Bobby G., the studio’s menacing chief executive who likes to intimidate his underlings by showing them his physical endowment. Despite being gay himself, Bobby G. is married to Peter’s ex-wife (Cindy Ambuehl), who’s pregnant with Peter’s second child. (Their first child is played by Sara Paxton.) Others in the cast include Erin Daniels as an ambitious PA, Richard Burgi as a closeted star, Amy Aquino as a powerful publicist, Fab Filippo as a leading man with substance abuse issues, and Jennifer Lyons as a starlet with weight problems.

Creator Chris Thompson and producer Joel Silver originally developed the series for HBO, which wanted a sitcom that would take the biting backstage sensibilities of The Larry Sanders Show and transplant them into the movie-making side of the industry. Unhappy with the deal eventually offered, the producers shopped around the idea. To their surprise, FOX, whose successful comedies were few, bit — promising that the show would not be subject to the same censorship seen on most broadcast networks. Of course, this proved to only be half true — Standards and Practices still treated the series like any other, but the profanity-laden scripts valiantly did all they could to push the figurative envelope regarding sexually suggestive material. (A warning about the show’s content was placed at the beginning — and sometimes even the middle — of every broadcast installment.) Scheduled at 9:30 on Thursday nights up against Stark Raving Mad, the latest one-year-wonder in NBC’s Must See TV line-up (and a show we’ll be discussing in a few months), Action was never allowed to find much of an audience. Only six episodes aired before the series was sidelined during November Sweeps. It returned with a double-header at the start of December, before it was officially cancelled — leaving five (of the 13 produced) outings left unseen until syndication on FX.

Commercially, Action was a flop, but critically, the show was well-received throughout its broadcast life, and regarded in the industry as a unique, wickedly funny property (industry people love shows about the industry) that was already doomed for failure simply by being on a network — where it didn’t belong. In the years since, many of the writers have echoed this sentiment. Staff members included creator Chris Thompson (Bosom Buddies, The Larry Sanders Show, The Naked Truth), executive producer Don Reo (Blossom, The John Larroquette Show, My Wife And Kids), who joined the series with his partner Barry Katz once FOX entered the picture, Jim Vallely (The Golden Girls, The John Larroquette Show, Arrested Development), Ron Zimmerman (Good Sports, Seventh Heaven), the Hamburger brothers (Clueless, Sabrina: The Teenage Witch), and juvenile writers Will Forte (David Letterman, Saturday Night Live, Last Man On Earth) and Dave Jeser & Matt Silverstein (3rd Rock From The Sun, The Man Show, The Cleveland Show). Having seen all 13 episodes — the complete series was released on DVD in 2006 — I’m in agreement that the show failed because of the network, which scheduled it poorly. However, I’m not sure that its very presence on a broadcast network, and specifically the limitations imposed there on content, are culpable for any reduction in its aesthetic merit. Frankly, any failings in this regard are due to the writing… and they would have been the same anywhere — even HBO.

In fact, while The Larry Sanders Show was commendable for eschewing some of the gratuitous only-on-cable sensibilities that we’d seen in the lighter, more romantic Dream OnAction‘s pilot, written for HBO, comes across as almost gratuitously vulgar, hyper-sexual, and willfully depraved — with all of these controversial elements (purportedly intended to enhance the show’s sense of realism, no doubt) bordering on such extremes that the show becomes farcical. It’s as if one read a review of The Larry Sanders Show, assumed everything about the review was true, and then tripled each particular quality for Action‘s script. It engenders big absurd laughs, but there nevertheless exists a troubling question of intent, and it’s unclear if the audience is supposed to regard the show as a gritty, honest look at the business (à la the Sanders Show) or as some insane contemporary screwball comedy. Action can be a bit of both… but it still has to let us know its intention. A lot of this conflict is born in Mohr’s portrayal of the title character, who’s depicted in the pilot as utterly slimy and disgusting — so overbearing that emotional investment is impossible. While the whole show is dripping in these aforementioned extremes, it’s easier to accept the broad (and again, hilarious) characterizations afforded to peripheral players than for the protagonist, who drives the action even more than Larry Sanders did. The issue isn’t that Peter Dragon’s unlikable, it’s that he’s unbelievable, and we need to believe him in order to root for him (or against him).

A lot of this is remedied in the second episode, also written by Thompson, which aired in a one-hour block with the pilot (the week before NBC returned). Here, Peter Dragon’s initial sleaze is parlayed into a more wide-eyed frustration, driven by the character’s objective (which becomes the narrative’s objective: to make the movie); he’ll still do despicable things, but not for the sake of being despicable — only for his film. This distinction is connectable. Meanwhile, he’s humanized through a relationship with the hooker-turned-executive, played with warmth by Douglas (who was Larry Sanders’ final love interest). The show still has trouble answering questions about its claim on reality — some of the centerpieces are ridiculously big — but with a more truthful protagonist, it’s easier to appreciate the inherent and high-quality comedy, which drowns out unnecessary debate. The next eight or so episodes (in DVD order) are collectively strong, with a sense of narrative direction that doesn’t overshadow the necessary character beats. Now, some members of the ensemble still feel underdeveloped (especially Stuart, who’s defined mostly through his sexual orientation, and Buddy Hackett’s, whose portrayer is naturally funny, yet is seldom used). But the show’s off-beat comedy and its generally well-constructed scripts (which preserve their subversive tone while mitigating the crutch of overused foul language) seem to promise that more development is coming. During this high period of peak existence, there are only two looming issues that pose a threat to quality.

The first is the pregnant ex-wife angle, which doesn’t bring laughs, and reminds of The Larry Sanders Show‘s misguided early attempts to give its star a permanent love interest. While Action is more focused on its lead’s individual arc than Sanders was, we still care more about his work life than his personal life — and anything that takes us away from the office and his specific goal feels like a narrative distraction, especially when there’s no comedic rewards to show for it. The second threat is the ongoing dilution of the Wendy character, whose transformation from prostitute to executive should have provided a delicious wealth of material. But, in execution, her evolution is hard to track — sometimes she’s more of a whore than other times — and this was apparently the result of Douglas not being happy with the lascivious aspects of her character, asking them to be reduced. (Ego clouding insight.) This is a real shame, because both truth and comedy are lost in the process. Yet, the extent of her dissatisfaction must have been substantial, because in the middle of the 13-episode order, she apparently voiced her desire to leave the series. Following the first eight produced outings, Douglas shot only two more, including the intended finale, in which her character decides that being a whore is more noble than being in show business. (A funny idea; a contrived development.)

Meanwhile, Erin Daniels’ character was positioned as the new leading female — introduced in an episode with Douglas (FOX’s penultimate broadcast), and then assuming the role in the remaining entries, including the interrupted two-parter during which the series was cancelled. (But with said cancellation in the show’s imminent future, this change never had to be formalized in the credits.) At any rate, the final three offerings are the series’ weakest — not only because of their Wendy issues, but also because the scripts become more story-heavy, contending with the production of the film itself and some ostentatious developments (like the death of the director) that once again corrupt the sense of reality that was slowly being established post-pilot. In other words, the ridiculousness of the middle episodes was more informed by character (usually Peter and his goal), which grounded Action‘s action. In the final few, the ridiculousness is defined by story points, which require leaps. And we once again return to the dilemma — how real does this show want to be? Or is it just unabashed hyper-insanity? The answer probably is that the show intended to be realistic, but its laugh-driven motivation (from funny men like Thompson, Reo, and Vallely) invited more liberating goofiness than seen in most other shows. This bears out in great laughs — terrific laughs, even — but the brooding and palpably telegraphed resentment over perceived constraints (constraints that had previously made the show better, mind you) diverts the scripts’ focus away from its riches (character). That’s something off of which The Larry Sanders Show seldom took its eye.

Nevertheless, thanks to its brief lifespan, Action has the luxury of maintaining its reputation as a delectable short-lived comedy — one that’s even been syndicated a decade after its cancellation. And since you can buy the series on DVD, I’m going to share my picks for the six best episodes. They are not in BROADCAST ORDER, as is customary, but rather in the DVD order — the Sony version (Mill Creek’s re-release has them differently ordered!), in which two unbroadcast episodes precede the last two that were broadcast — reflecting how the show is syndicated. (In terms of continuity, no formal order has ever gotten it right — not even production’s.)

 

01) Episode 1: Pilot [a.k.a. “Gross Player”] (Aired: 09/16/99)

Peter’s latest film is a failure.

Written by Chris Thompson | Directed by Ted Demme | Broadcast Order: 01

Although I have some issues regarding the pilot’s own intentions (expressed above), because I decided to add an extra episode to the list, this one makes the cut. But seriously, I advise checking out this first offering as evidence of some characterization and tonal changes made once production commenced on the rest of the series. Plus, there’s no shortage of laughs — Wendy’s introductory sequence is as campily bizarre as you’d expect. One-of-a-kind.

02) Episode 2: “Re-Enter The Dragon” (Aired: 09/16/99)

Wendy’s pimp hears about her new job.

Written by Chris Thompson | Directed by John Whitesell | Broadcast Order: 02

Airing immediately after the pilot on the same evening, there’s clearly been some changes made in between the two entries’ production — enough time to tweak the Peter character, zero in on the quasi-workplace structure, and settle into a type of broadness that’s more manageable going forward. The scene in which Wendy’s former pimp holds Buddy Hackett’s character at gunpoint is sheer lunacy, but I think there’s a good chance you’ll laugh. Enjoyable.

03) Episode 4: “Blowhard” (Aired: 09/30/99)

Peter pretends to be gay to keep a closeted actor in the closet.

Written by Don Reo | Directed by John Whitesell | Broadcast Order: 04

Probably the most memorable episode of Action‘s brief run, this entry features a cameo by Sandra Bullock, who is outraged to learn that Peter is selling their sex-tape to raise money for the film. (Remember: he’s not rotten to be rotten; he’s rotten to make his film.) More objective-driven depravity comes in the main story, in which Peter pretends to be gay — and receives oral sex — from the closeted actor that he hopes to hire, played by Richard Burgi.

04) Episode 6: “Twelfth Step To Hell” (Aired: 10/28/99)

Peter gets an actor out of rehab to star in his film.

Written by Will Forte | Directed by Gil Junger | Broadcast Order: 06

One of two scripts written by young scribe Will Forte (whose profile has certainly ascended since his days on Action), this installment makes the best utilization of the show’s burgeoning protagonist-driven tone, and features more unethical doings by Peter on behalf of his (and the show’s) main mission. While the episode highlighted above remains the series’ most memorable, this script is littered with terrific moments. (Love the Marlee Matlin joke.)

05) Episode 8: “Love Sucks” (Aired: Syndication Only) 

Troubles abound as the film nears production.

Written by Jim Vallely | Directed by John Fortenberry | Broadcast Order: N/A

Intended to air as the series’ eighth, but going unbroadcast by FOX when the show was pre-empted twice in October and pulled from the schedule entirely in November (before episodes nine and ten aired back-to-back in early December), this entry predicts some of the more story-heavy trappings into which the series would soon fall. Although, here there’s an enhanced metatheatricality and a grounding character-oriented sense of humor.

06) Episode 9: “Strong Sexual Content” [a.k.a. “Strong Sexual Content And Adult Themes”] (Aired: 12/02/99)

Peter hires an attractive assistant for Wendy and is the subject of a salacious rumor.

Written by Don Reo | Directed by John Fortenberry | Broadcast Order: 07

The first episode in the final hour that concluded FOX’s run, this is the installment that introduces Erin Daniels’ Jenny, who sleeps with both Peter and Wendy (whose portrayer was already on her way out). This outing lives up to its title, as the script delights in its shock value, with lots of sexual scenarios (Peter also sleeps with his ex), including a Richard Gere inspired rumor about Peter and a frog. It’s almost like the show is telling FOX to “‘F’ off.”

 

Of Honorable Mention quality: the third episode, Don Reo’s “Blood Money,” in which Wendy offers sexual favors to Adam if he’ll finish the script on deadline.

 

 

Come back next Wednesday for another Wildcard post! And tune in on Tuesday for more of my thoughts on the best of The Larry Sanders Show!

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