Thursday, February 21, 2008

43. Action

This is going to be the shortest entry on a show that I'll be doing. The reason is not because I don't like the show “Action” because I do, it's because I don't remember much about the particulars of each episode. In fact, I was toying with taking it off the list but as I was researching the program yesterday, I started to remember that there were a lot of things that I liked about the show and how it has a strong influence on shows that I love now.

To begin with, this was another one of those “risky” FOX shows that makes FOX look awesome to TV geeks like me when they send out press releases about the new “daring” show that takes “a lot of risks” and is “edgy”. The ultimate problem with these types of shows is that FOX usually doesn't have the balls to stand behind it and face the inevitable low ratings or backlash from the flyover state viewers that don't particularly like or understand the program. And before I'm besieged with emails and comments telling me that I don't get the TV business, I do. Shows are only on television to get ratings which in turn make money for the network. Basically, they're the filler around all of the advertisements.

If a show flounders, you're finished. I understand that. It's just that FOX had to know that most of America wouldn't take to Peter Dragon at all. Dragon is the main character of “Action”, played by Jay Mohr who did his best job of acting for his whole career with this role. He's a slimy, douchey producer that got his start writing scripts for gay porn movies and may or may not be a homosexual himself. The second lead is a former child star who ends up with a major coke problem and is a high-class bisexual hooker—though she does have that heart of gold. By the way, Illeana Douglas is fantastic in this role too.

Forget the gay stuff, most Americans don't like to watch a show where the main character is a jerk and the other main character is a hooker with a drug problem.

Look at a show like “Big Brother”, know why it's not a gigantic hit here in the United States (unlike in Europe)? Because when it comes time to vote the cast members out, Americans always knock out the biggest asshole in the house. These people are usually the ones that you want to see on television, they're the ones who make the show interesting. The good people are the ones who make the show boring and flavorless. I firmly believe that if “The Sopranos” were on network TV, it wouldn't have lasted a season for this one reason.

But it's been ingrained in our heads since we able to watch television, you can not root for the bad guy. When Henry Hill introduces Jimmy to the audience in “Goodfellas” he said that “Jimmy is the type of guy who wants the bad guys to win in the movies.” For most, that's a gigantic character flaw.

So the main character is a jerk. That's one strike. The show is about the inner workings and the gross underbelly of Hollywood—a lot of the plots were taken almost verbatim from stories told to creator Chris Thompson and producer Joel Silver. Like I wrote about in my entry on “Grosse Pointe” many people don't care about the goings-on behind the Hollywood sign. They are simply not interested in seeing how the sausage is made. The show has to have some other kind of dynamic to hook the audience in, otherwise it's finished. “Action” didn't have another dynamic. That's strike two.

Strike three was its time slot: it was on Thursday nights after “Family Guy” at 9:30. Since the mid-80s, NBC has pretty much owned Thursday nights, so the audience that FOX was looking for: young, urban, up on pop culture was probably watching “Friends”, “Frasier”, “ER” and whatever garbage that NBC threw in between the three shows. Furthermore the lead-in to “Action” was “Family Guy”. Which is a decent show, but the same audience that watches “Family Guy” isn't going to appreciate “Action”. They are simply too different and appeal to vastly different audiences. And “Family Guy” wasn't the hit for FOX that it is now. It bounced all over the place and never won a strong audience until it was rerun on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim. Then it was brought back to FOX and turned into ratings gold. In 1999, it was just another “Simpsons” clone that never caught on.

After eight episodes shown over four months (FOX does another stupid thing by premiering their shows in September and then having an October hiatus for the World Series, it's a gigantic momentum killer) the show was out and “Action” bid adieu.

Here's the thing though, I think that “Action” had a bigger impact than most people give it credit for. Without this show, HBO's hit “Entourage” doesn't exist. Jeremy Piven's Ari Gold is essentially the agent's version of Peter Dragon only without the sexual confusion. He's loud, abrasive, obnoxious—he's a dick. But the good thing for Piven (and the crappy thing for Mohr) is that Piven is on HBO where they have a string of shows where the main character is a jerk. From “The Sopranos” (the aforementioned Tony Soprano) to “Curb Your Enthusiasm” (Larry David) to “The Wire” (Jimmy McNulty), none of these people are men that you'd like to see your daughter date. But, they are among the best created characters of the last 15 years.

The show also set the scene for some of “Arrested Developments” funniest gags as “Action” was among the first to have the characters curse, but the offensive word is bleeped out, though the audience understands the message being conveyed. And it was among the pioneers of uncomfortable humor that makes shows like “The Office” or “Ali G” work so well.

All 13 episodes of the show are available on a DVD set, and most times it can be found pretty cheaply. Do yourself a favor and watch one of the shows responsible for the genesis of the more edgy and uncomfortable brand of humor that shows up from time to time on network and cable TV. It's well worth your time.

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