Action (1999)

Meet Peter Dragon. Peter is a shallow, greedy, and selfish Hollywood producer. He is lying, manipulating, and scheming. And he is about the nicest guy you will meet in this town….

Before 30 Rock and before Entourage, there was Action. A short-lived sitcom mercilessly mocking Hollywood without pulling any punches, this very funny show was cancelled midway through its first season, with the later episodes airing on some obscure niche channel. Thus, Action is another good show that can carry the badge of honour reading “cancelled by Fox”.

It may be a stretch to call this show a “gem”, as it certainly has its flaws; and I am not sure if it qualifies as “hidden”. I, for one, had never even heard of it before I stumbled upon the DVD a few weeks ago. But maybe that’s just me…

Among the show’s problems are opening credits that have not aged well and look more like ’89 than ’99. In general, there are a number of moments which make you think that this show has rather low production values, even though the budget must have been decent.

The strengths of this show lie in its writing, its characters, and its cast.

The humour may be rather crass at times; and due to the nastiness of Peter Dragon and his Hollywood colleagues, the show is full of racist, sexist, and all-other-kinds-of-“ist” jokes. There is a reason why this show was aired with the frequent disclaimer “Portions of Action may be inappropriate for younger viewers. This program is recommended for mature audiences.”

But in spite of the at times adult content and the crude jokes, the writing is mainly intelligent, and – more importantly – deadly accurate. Written with a lot of insight into the inner workings and the cynicism of Hollywood, this show always hits the mark. All in a very exaggerated, larger-than-life sort of way, mind you. This is not a docu-drama, this is a loud and rude sitcom.

There are some nice visuals, including a certain attention to detail in the opening credits which, as I mentioned, sadly did not age well. There are also a large number of beautiful “vintage” inter-title-cards and clips – and I have been unable to find out whether these were genuine vintage, or just very god fakes.

The show is based around some really great characters, and they are all cast perfectly. Jay Mohr plays Peter Dragon, with Illeana Douglas, Jack Plotnick, and Erin Daniels all playing people directly assisting him. There is also Peter’s uncle Lonnie, who is played by the great Buddy Hackett, and Peter’s “boss”, Bobby G. (Lee Arenberg). Bobby G. , by the way, also stole Peter’s wife Jane (Cindy Ambuehl) in order to camouflage his homosexuality.

For me, one of the most important characters of the core group is Adam Rafkin (Jarrad Paul), writer of the script of Peter Dragon’s latest film. No other character has that much bad luck, and no other character is mistreated as much as Adam. It is clear that the writers of the show took special interest in this character and let a lot of personal experience flow into the episodes. The treatment of writers in Hollywood may be the single biggest overarching theme of the show.

There are also many great supporting actors who appear only briefly. Special mention should go to Sara Paxton playing Peter’s daughter Georgia. She is in just two episodes, but she does an outstanding job, considering she was only 11 years old then.

The show also has many guest stars playing themselves, including Sandra Bullock, Keanu Reeves, Salma Hayek, Scott Wolf, David Hasselhoff, and David Leisure.

A lot of issues are covered on this show, but all of them are related to film production and public relations. There are many inside jokes, and digs at Hollywood greats. The pilot episode, for example, features a short dismissive remark about Joel Silver, who happens to be one of the producers of Action.

Although there are certain narrative strains running through the show, it is a sitcom whose episodes are pretty much stand-alone-ish in nature. It is therefore not really a problem that only 13 episodes of this show exist. There is no real cliff-hanger, if you ignore the fact that the narrative never progresses to the point at which the film the protagonists are producing is having its premiere – which one must assume was the original plan for the season 1 story arc.

The muddled broadcast history of the show is probably the main reason why there is some confusion as to the correct viewing order (you can find discussions about that online). But the stand-alone character of the episodes makes this less of an issue than it would be with other shows.

I can recommend Action to all people who like comedies with a “behind the scenes” theme. But you should consider that the nature of the humour, as mentioned above, might not by to everyone’s liking.

For Region Code 1, you can currently get the entire series very cheaply in a no-frills/one-disc set at amazon.com. If you require Region Code 2, you have to go for the considerably more expensive French release.

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I leave you with one of my favourite quotations from the show. Peter Dragon has been called to appear before a Senate committee in Washington, to answer questions about sex and violence in Hollywood films. But he is having none of it, because he does not believe that it is HIS record that should be up for scrutiny:

Senator Powell: “Mr Dragon, you have a young daughter, do you not? […] Her name is Georgia, she’s about ten years old, I believe. […] Has little Georgia seen your film entitled “Ripcord”?…”

Peter Dragon: “She can’t get in, Senator, it’s rated “R”.”

Senator Powell: “…which contains 357 acts of violence, 175 profanities, and four scenes of lesbian sex? She proud of her Daddy for that one? […] How can you look that sweet little girl in the eye?”

Peter Dragon: “I manage. I never voted to subsidise the growing of tobacco, while turning my back on food programmes for starving kids. I never vetoed a gun control bill – all MY guns are fake, Senator. I’ve never rushed to the defence of Kuwaiti oil fields while ignoring genocide in Africa; because big oil companies that line your fat pockets aren’t concerned with black Africa.

Those are all productions of YOUR company Senator, THIS company right here!”

Senator Powell: “Now, you are perilously close to being cited for contempt, Mr Dragon!”

Peter Dragon: “I’m already in contempt! I’m in contempt of all of you old whores and hypocrites! At least I’m giving the American people what they want!”

Senator Powell: “And just exactly what is it that YOU think they want?”

Peter Dragon: “I’ll tell YOU exactly what they want, Senator: they want chase scenes and car crashes!

They want firm breasts and tight-assed Latino men.

They want their cowboys to be strong and silent.

They want their cops to bend the rules to get the job done.

They want the boy to get the girl.

They want the alien to be killed (unless he’s cute).

They want the good guy to win.

They want the bad guy to die – hopefully in the biggest explosion the budget will allow.

But most importantly, Senator: they wanna walk into a theatre and for 90 minutes forget the fucking mess that you have left of this nation!”

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