Hollywood‘s love-hate relationship with its bad self is at the heart of, in back of and all over the bright new Fox sitcom Action, much in the news, even before it debuted, for its nasty language (bleeped, largely, though most anyone over the age of 10 not living in religious isolation will be able to supply the expletives deleted), family-unfriendly sexcapades and unapologetic antiheroics. It is, generally speaking, a new sort of show for broadcast television, but it is hardly a new sort of show. Developed originally for HBO, it’s a contemporary cable series in all but location (and pulling cable-size low numbers, not surprisingly). The Larry Sanders Show (of which Action creator Chris Thompson is a vet), Arli$$ and The Sopranos, all on HBO, are its nearest antecedents -- one-camera dramedies, each concerning an immature, self-obsessed, often unlikable yet oddly endearing bossman and his motley retinue/support system, and like Sanders and Arli$$ it uses celebrity cameos (Keanu Reeves, Salma Hayek, Sandra Bullock) and real dropped names to authenticate the mise en scene.
More particularly, the series, which stars Jay Mohr as unpleasant young movie mogul Peter Dragon and Illeana Douglas as the child-star-turned-hooker he hires as his vice president of production (“just a different sort of prostitution”), belongs to a literary/cinematic tradition of self-critical Hollywood black comedy -- a line that runs from The Day of the Locust, the Pat Hobby stories and What Makes Sammy Run? (Dragon is just Sammy Glick with a cell phone), to S.O.B., The Player, Force Majeure and Permanent Midnight, and expresses overall a disdain for, or at best an ambivalence about, the industry in which their authors and directors were/are nevertheless eager to work. It is, of course, difficult for sensitive persons to remain undisturbed by a system that calls constantly for compromise, misassigns credit and seems to demonstrate not so much that cream rises to the top as that shit floats; and so the artist-discontent makes his dark testimonial, declares himself in that world but not of it, complicit yet (because he at least knows crap when he makes it) clean -- what might be called having one's cake and knocking it too.
I can’t say whether any of this applies specifically to Action or its creator, though Thompson does have something to answer for, having created as well the flavorless Ladies' Man, as good an argument as any the new season has advanced for the elimination of situation comedy -- of television, even. And then there is co-executive producer Joel Silver, who developed the show with Thompson and allows himself to be referred to as a “fat hack” -- a winking-in-the-mirror moment that says, “I’m big enough to take a joke,” but more to the point says, “I'm big” -- and whose monothematic rockem-sockem-blowem-up filmography is the model for Dragon’s own. (Not that Die Hard, Die Hard 2, Predator, Predator 2, Lethal Weapon, Lethal Weapon 2, Lethal Weapon 3 and Lethal Weapon 4 haven‘t brought joy or some commensurate form of endorphin release to the citizens of Earth.) I have no idea, nor do I want any, whether the similarity between the real producer and the fictional ends there. If Action is an emission a clef -- it also features a billionaire studio owner said to resemble former Fox chief Barry Diller -- life is still too short for me to fiddle with unlocking it. (It’s not healthy to get too interested in show businessmen, anyway, or weekend openings, or Nielsen overnights -- it just promotes the notion that Success Is Quality, instead of the other way around.)
A more charming and complex variation on the scuzzball sports agent Mohr played in Jerry Maguire, Dragon is not by any standard of common courtesy or concern a good guy, but care has been taken at the same time to make him not unappealing, even sympathetic. The failure of Dragon‘s big Christmas release, Slow Torture, and his subsequent inability to get a table at his favorite restaurant, makes him functionally the underdog as he begins his new picture, Beverly Hills Gun Club. And that he gets along with his daughter, employs his aged uncle as chauffeur and “security chief” (Buddy Hackett, welcome back), turns down an agent flogging O.J. Simpson, and is in his relationship with the delightfully dry Ms. Douglas a model of uncommon honesty (albeit he’ll lie to anyone else when convenient), all helps to make him more human than not -- though it is part of the comedic strategy of the show that any too-tender moment will be smothered with a cynical aside. His face an ongoing festival of calculation and recalibration, satisfaction and disgust, Mohr is quite wonderful, and is well-served, as are his many quite-wonderful co-stars, by Thompson‘s fresh dialogue, which is not trimmed to laugh-track rhythms but studded with jokes at odd angles, and warms and cools in interesting ways through the course of a scene. He’s a caricature with depth, a combination that holds for the show as a whole -- it‘s broad and improbable, but anchored and enlivened by convincing human detail.
As to the language, and the sex, while I wouldn’t want to defend the show‘s introduction of the phrase “hum job” into the broadcast-television environment, Action on balance isn’t much more vulgar than the competition -- rather less, in a way, for being rather less coy; and the bleeps are actually less noticeable than the customary ear-tweaking sound-alikes that reign elsewhere (e.g., freakin‘) or such sad euphemisms as “playing hide the blini” (as heard recently on Law and Order). As to the blini-hiding itself, there is, I suppose, a lot of it here (discussed, never shown), but it’s cool and matter-of-fact even when played for laughs, where in most quarters of Sitcom Nation the natives are either hot to trot, frantic to score, or grumbling loudly about how long it‘s been since they hid a blini or had theirs hid. And you know, it really helps not to have a studio audience, or “studio audience,” going whoooooo! at every suggestive suggestion. This is adult entertainment in the grown-up sense of the word.
Also concerned with power and pigs is TNT’s Animal Farm, a new live-action version of George Orwell‘s allegorical history of the Russian Revolution and its aftermath, in which downtrodden barnyard beasts chase off drunken Farmer Jones and make a stab at cooperative self-determination. Something ensues, and it isn’t hilarity. It‘s not a bad film -- though it’s not really a good one, either. Pete Postlethwaite is the farmer, with the animals (real, puppet and computer-animated) voiced by a smorgasbord of British film and American TV stars, including Ian Holm, Julia Ormond, Julia-Louis Dreyfus, Kelsey Grammer, Peter Ustinov, Paul Scofield and Patrick Stewart as that Stalin of Swine, Napoleon. (Insert “ham actors” joke here.) Executive producer Robert Halmi Sr., via his Hallmark Entertainment, is dug in solid as TV‘s Lit King, having previously packaged as movies or miniseries The Odyssey, Gulliver’s Travels, Moby Dick and Crime and Punishment, among other books you had to read in high school, with A Christmas Carol upcoming, as well as a 12-hour romp through the Bible (abridged, I‘m thinking).
Having lived under Soviet rule, Hungarian Halmi may have had deep personal reasons for wanting to film this book, but one feels also that it may have just been next on the reading list. His films are technically well-made, usually well-rated, often Emmy-nominated -- and every one by definition is . . . a classic! They also play the usual Hollywood havoc with the text, cutting scenes and characters, pacing to account for ad breaks, ripping out a wall here, putting in a window there; they tend to make the subtle simple, which is not a good thing, and sometimes even substitute new themes more “relevant” or simply easier to grasp than the author’s. Halmi‘s Alice in Wonderland somehow became a story about overcoming the fear of singing in public. What’s that about?
For Animal Farm, the filmmakers have provided the happy ending Orwell somehow neglected to write, perhaps to ensure that any little kids watching -- it is a talking-animals movie, after all -- won‘t be too upset by the violence and the lies and the continuing exploitation of the working classes, will know that the doggy will be okay, the donkey will be fine. Bad piggy go away. Boxer did go to the g-l-u-e f-a-c-t-o-r-y, but there are some nice blond people coming in a nice car to fix things up. (Perhaps they’re a metaphor for capital investment in the post-Soviet East. Or not.) In another, stranger interpolation, the politburo pigs drag a television set into the barn to keep the worker animals occupied, hypnotized, pacified -- TV, the opiate of the masses. Present movie excepted, I would have to suppose they meant.
Copyright Robert Lloyd © 1999 and 2011