Film-Forward Review: [ACTION]

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Executive Producer: Chris Thompson & Joel Silver.
Released by: Sony.
Country of Origin: USA. 299 min./13 episodes. Not Rated.
With: Jay Mohr, Illeana Douglas, Jarrad Paul, Jack Plotnick & Buddy Hackett.
DVD Features: Three episodic commentaries. Featurette “Getting into the Action” (26 min). Interactive dictionary: “Trust Me: Useful Words and Phrases Every Producer Should Know.”

Watching Action seven years after its brief run and so soon after the cancellation of Arrested Development, you can’t help but feel this DVD release is a conciliatory gesture. Besides a similar ratio between critical fanfare and poor ratings, the sitcoms also share the same politically incorrect humor, fast-paced style, and obsession with Los Angeles’ lopsided class wars. But the similarities end there. The occasional lows of Arrested Development – the heavy-handed, quasi-narrative episodes with spurts of brilliance – are like the occasional highs of Action.

Based on their bawdy personalities, executive producers Joel Silver and Chris Thompson’s caustic satire on big-budget moviemaking arrived after the departure of another showbiz send-up, The Larry Sanders Show, a year earlier. As hot-shot producer Peter Dragon (Jay Mohr) and his crew – executive butt-boy Stuart Glazer (Jack Plotnick) and whore-turned-producer Wendy Ward (Illeana Douglas) – struggle to make their sexy action thriller Beverly Hills Gun Club over the course of 13 episodes, the show found neither an audience nor writers who could turn its occasional genius into a solid half-hour of comedy.

It’s funny when it works (like the third and fourth episodes). And if you were a fan back in 1999, you will want to see this “UNCUT & UNBLEEPED!” edition (which is not entirely accurate – even the uncensored DVD has its share of demure black-boxes covering nipples). But the series has a few major problems worth mentioning. The cast is uniformly great and the running gags (like Wendy’s former profession, Peter’s private life, and the studio head’s anaconda-like member) are so out of the ordinary they never feel tired, but most of the jokes require such labored set-ups that the punch lines are rarely worth the effort.

And inconsistency is a persistent issue – in one episode Wendy unsuccessfully learns to cook, and in another she explains she learned how to do so in prison; in another, Peter is dragged out of the closet on national television, while later, an assistant absent-mindedly wonders whether Peter might be gay; and so on.

DVD Extras: In the three episodic commentaries – by Thompson and actor Jarrad Paul among others – no one can remember anything that happens onscreen, including the actors’ names (it’s a six-person cast). There’s a lot of confusion and “Oh, I remember this now! Yeah. Wait. No,” and not much else. It’s never a good sign when someone on a commentary track asks, “Can you imagine anyone wanting to listen to us?”

The featurette, however, is the extras’ high point. Creator, producer, and writer Chris Thompson gets the ball rolling by saying he did the show for narcotics and whore-money. Hindered somewhat by a communal insistence on how groundbreaking the show was, the next 26 minutes are a hilarious explanation of the show’s successes and failures. If you were even a mild fan of the show, it’s worth renting just for that.

Judging from this segment, the creators seem to blame Action’s failure on the Fox network, citing massive script changes to appease the FCC and forced shifts in the show’s plotlines for ratings. These are certainly significant interferences that probably would never have happened at HBO, but there’s no way of knowing what it would have been like there. What it was, though, was a show that continually dropped story lines (and actors), and failed to make good on its potential. There’s more than a few shows that have come and gone committed to the same brand of absurdity and intelligence – Arrested Development being the most recent example – but Action tried to balance its particular humor with commercial success, leaving only 13 disjointed episodes as a result. Zachary Jones
February 24, 2006



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