As cable continues to slice away at the over-the-air broadcast audience share in primetime, it’s inevitable that the free webs fight foul with foul to better compete. Hence, the arrival of “Action.” Indeed, exec producers Chris Thompson and Joel Silver originally developed the show for HBO as a replacement for “The Larry Sanders Show.” What lands on Fox is, evidently, virtually the same pilot as was screened at HBO, intact save for the necessary bleeps of several dozen profane words unbecoming a network as, uh, dignified as Fox. Pack away the boys and girls, America. This could get ugly.
While “Action” is virtually guaranteed to inspire a fresh round of Beltway hyperventilating over program content and screams for network boycotts from the Society of Horrified Midwestern Housewives, all the controversy may be moot, given that “Action” could be out of action by November thanks to a fairly dreadful time period. All the show must do is find a way to co-exist with NBC’s “Must See TV” Thursday lineup (pitted directly against the new comedy “Stark Raving Mad,” not to mention opposite a revamped “Chicago Hope” on CBS, the witchy WB hit “Charmed” and the muscle-bound freaks of the World Wrestling Federation on UPN.) Still, “Action” has to be seen as at least a healthy long shot to stick — at least in some timeslot — thanks to its heavy advance buzz and “South Park”-like affinity for sophomoric outlandishness.
For all of its ugliness of spirit, “Action” breaks from the gate sporting a cinema-quality look and a wicked, stylish loopiness that prove instantly irresistible. It stars Jay Mohr (Tom Cruise’s arch nemesis in “Jerry Maguire”) as Peter Dragon, a contemptuous, abusive producer of action-schlock pics whose ego cannot be contained in Earth’s orbit. His idea of light conversation is, “Guess what? I almost just killed a grip!”
In Thompson’s divertingly immature opening teleplay, Dragon is shown already in midseason form, sniping at his ex (Sara Paxton), insulting every little guy who crosses his path, sparring with agents and sucking up to the stars he needs. In other words, reality is not far afield. Discovering that his studio has just dropped $250,000 on a script from an Adam Rafkin (great work from Jarrad Paul) when he thought it was Alan Rifkin, he wails, “You’re telling me we spent a quarter of a million dollars for the wrong Jew?”
It gets edgier. In the pilot’s greatest gag, an agent earnestly pitches a comeback vehicle for his semi-retired new client — O.J. Simpson.
“Action” subsequently shifts gears to caper comedy with the arrival of Wendy Ward (superb perf from Illeana Douglas). Wendy is a child star turned high-priced call girl whom Dragon inadvertently befriends on the way to the premiere of his new flop, “Slow Torture.”
“Action” promises to feature a string of star cameos (Keanu Reeves gets his privates, uh, massaged in the opener). Buddy Hackett adds a further touch of off-kilter color portraying Dragon’s Uncle Lonnie, who also happens to be his chauffeur. Mohr acquits himself splendidly as the ultimate jerk — and certainly the most unctuous character in primetime since “Buffalo Bill” Bittinger — and his chemistry with the quirky Douglas is right on target.
Helmer Ted Demme masterfully renders Thompson’s warped kickoff tome, with generous assists from Herbert Davis’ smooth camera work and Steven J. Wolff’s evocative production design. About the worst thing one can say about “Action” based on its first half-hour is that it’s nasty to the core, no doubt too nasty for many tastes.