One-Season Wonders, Weirdos, And Wannabes considers the merits of short-lived TV shows. In this installment, Action, which ran for 13 episodes on Fox and then FX in 1999-2000.
In its second season, BoJack Horseman managed to deepen the show’s already caustic showbiz satire. By detailing BoJack’s attempts to finally realize his dream project of starring in a biopic of his idol Secretariat, Raphael Bob-Waksberg’s series brought startling immediacy to its cynical view of Hollywood commercial filmmaking. It’s one thing to hear that Hollywood is the place where dreams die in the quest for money and fame, but quite another to see that process in the agonizing compromises BoJack and the rest of the crew are forced to make. The studio even dictates the rewriting of history for an ostensibly more appealing happy ending. No wonder BoJack decided to breach his contract and consider life in the suburban climes of New Mexico (at least before he destroys that possibility in his own self-destructive way). Certainly, this represented an advance on the pretty-boy fantasizing of something like Entourage.
Even before BoJack’s breakthrough, back in the late 1990s, Chris Thompson—a writer and executive producer on Laverne & Shirley—and Don Reo, of Blossom fame, brought a similarly black-comic view of the dream machine to network television. In 1999, Action debuted, a short-lived, half-hour Fox sitcom so vulgar and caustic, it featured a TV-MA rating.
Back when those television warnings were something that viewers actually cared about (including a V-chip to block programs of certain ratings on the TV sets that had them installed?), the TV-MA was to network television what the NC-17 rating was to movies: a kiss of death as far as mass box-office—or, in the case of TV, ratings—appeal goes. That could perhaps explain why Action only had eight episodes make it to air before Fox canceled it, with the subsequent five eventually airing on FX.
But perhaps a more fundamental reason for Action’s failure had to do with both the material itself and the proudly vulgar, breathtakingly cynical approach to it. Not even Griffin Mill, the unscrupulous Hollywood studio executive at the heart of The Player—both Michael Tolkin’s novel and Robert Altman’s later screen adaptation—had anything on Action’s main character. The appropriately named Peter Dragon was a studio executive who long ago sold his soul in exchange for Hollywood box-office success. The series’ 13 high-flying episodes depicted how low Dragon would stoop to achieve that success, especially when desperate (which was often).
As played with fast-talking vigor by Jay Mohr, Dragon comes off as a spoiled man-child with a raging-hot temper, a voracious sexual appetite, a penchant for manipulation, and a monstrous sense of entitlement. He’s the kind of guy who often gets his way simply by being the loudest person in the room, browbeating everyone to bend to his will. (The only person he’s consistently nice to is Lonnie, his uncle and DragonFire Films’ chief of security, played by Buddy Hackett.) Dragon is best known for extravagantly tasteless action spectacles, his politically incorrect films reflecting his own lack of scruples.
Action chronicles Dragon’s desperate attempts to come up with a new hit after his last film, Slow Torture, bombs majestically. Even before Dragon embarks on his redemptive quest, though, there are problems. His long-suffering second-in-command, Stuart (Jack Plotnick), accidentally purchases the wrong script because he mixed up well-known screenwriter Alan Rifkin with struggling nobody Adam Rafkin (Jarrad Paul). Miraculously, Rafkin’s screenplay, entitled Beverly Hills Gun Club, turns out to be impressive enough for Dragon and his production company’s new vice-president, Wendy Ward (Illeana Douglas), to push forward with it. But that’s merely the tip of the compromise-filled iceberg. For example, since Dragon can’t afford bigger stars, he is forced to settle for Holden Van Dorn (Fab Filippo), an addict who Dragon convinces into leaving a rehab center and abandoning the 12-step program so that he can make the movie. His leading lady, Reagan Lauren Bush (Jennifer Lyons), a former model Stuart suggests and signs, turns out to have a penchant for stress-eating, and needs an illegal liposuction procedure to make her fit for her role, physically at least.
Throughout its 13 episodes, Action follows the production of Beverly Hills Gun Club from pre-production to its initial days of shooting. Its strategy of following the filmmaking process with a close attention to minutiae marks it as remarkable for its time. Even more impressive than its screwball-comedy pace and narrative ambition, is its sense of deep insider knowledge. One of the executive producers of Action is Joel Silver, the action honcho most famous for overseeing hits like Predator, the Lethal Weapon franchise, the first two Die Hard films, and the Matrix series. For all the caricatures on display, Action exudes a sense of lived-in authenticity in every detail—not only about the difficulties of filmmaking (as in the agonizing day-long process to get mere seconds of footage as detailed in “Lights, Camera, Action”—a process that literally kills Dragon for a few hours afterward), but the complications in getting financial backing and navigating the toxic milieu of an industry driven by glamorous surfaces and cutthroat competition. (Also helpful in that regard are the passel of star cameos throughout the series, including Keanu Reeves, Sandra Bullock, Salma Hayek, and David Hasselhoff.)
Dragon stands as the exemplar of this shark-biting world—a former producer of gay porn who jumped into big-budget feature filmmaking and quickly absorbed the ruthless lessons of how to make it big in Hollywood. He’s the kind of producer who allows his dick to dictate how he feels about violence and sex in his movies, as he does in “Dead Man Floating” while watching dailies for his new picture. But as shameless as he is in getting what he wants, he has another quality that marks him as one of TV’s most unheralded great antiheroes: self-awareness. Not only does he know he’s corrupt, he absolutely relishes it. In a sense, he’s like Harvey Keitel in Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant: a sinner who knows it but can’t help himself. And just like Keitel’s scene in a Catholic church where he expressed his self-loathing and despair to God and promised that he would clean up his act, Dragon gets his own holy monologue in “Twelfth Step To Hell.” He’s facing the threat of his own mortality when he promises God that he will be a better person if that mole on his neck turns out to be noncancerous and he’s allowed to finish his picture. But, of course, when that mole turns out to be benign, Dragon forgets all about his promises and simply carries on his immoral ways.
The closest thing Action has to a moral compass is Douglas’ Wendy Ward, a former child star who turned to prostitution after she destroyed her Hollywood career as a teenage coke addict. Introduced soliciting Dragon for sex and then accidentally becoming his date to the disastrous premiere of Slow Torture, she turns out to be his perfect match: a money-hungry prostitute who is at least honest with herself about who she is. Honesty is, in fact, what attracts Dragon to her, especially after she has the guts to tell him the truth about the dreadfulness of Slow Torture while all the sycophants around him try to assuage his ego. He then makes her vice-president of DragonFire Films, a role to which she proves to be well-suited. Unlike Dragon, though, she has limits as to how far she’s willing to push her sense of self-worth for the cause of getting Beverly Hills Gun Club made. Her breaking point comes in the series’ penultimate episode, “Last Ride Of The Elephant Princess”: Although she willingly offered sex to Adam Rafkin in “Blood Money” to help jar him out of his writer’s block, her experience “taking one for the team” and servicing two unsavory mobster brothers to help Dragon resolve a script-rights issue leaves her so shaken that she decides she can’t play the Hollywood game anymore, leaving a forlorn Dragon alone. It’s a rare moment of pathos for a series that, for the most part, shirks anything resembling sentimentality.
True to Action’s form, that moralizing angle is obliterated in the series finale, “One Easy Piece.” Dragon haggles with Reagan Lauren Bush’s uncle over how much of her nudity can be shown onscreen. After overtures toward UPN to become a comedy executive, Stuart is forced to go back to doing thankless tasks for his boss when the network decides to go with someone else. But perhaps most disturbing of all, Action closes on a decidedly down note: Rafkin, having just been made a producer on Beverly Hills Gun Club, fires a caterer on set upon Dragon’s encouragement, just because he didn’t care for a particular sandwich. The caterer kills himself off-screen as a result, an outcome that initially horrifies Rafkin—until Dragon, flashing his fanglike pearly whites, pats him on the back and says, “You’re a producer now.” Wendy Ward might have gotten off the rails of the Hollywood dream factory, but Dragon will live on to corrupt younger wannabe success stories indefinitely. Roll credits.
One-season wonder, weirdo, or wannabe? Wonder