Culture > Television

TV: TV goes over the edgy

Television | With Action, the Fox network competes with cable by breaking new ground in broadcast sleaze

Issue: "The new school year," Sept. 11, 1999

"Without question, it pushes the envelope," Fox Entertainment Group president Doug Herzog admits of his new series, Action. "But at the end of the day, give us credit for stepping out and trying something different as opposed to another watered-down sitcom." It's true that originality can be a virtue--but the sad fact is that Action is as unoriginal as it is obscene. Action, which begins Sept. 16 on Fox stations, promises to be the sleaziest, most foul-mouthed program ever to air on network television. It's the networks' answer to the growing popularity-- and undeserved respectability--of series that run on premium cable channels Showtime and HBO. The Sopranos, a "groundbreaking" show (read: vile, violent, and popular with critics) about New Jersey mafioso, won big when the Emmy nominations were announced earlier this summer. And the broadcast networks are merely responding in kind with Action. Here's an example of Fox's creativity: During a confrontation over a parking space that opens the series pilot, Peter Dragon (Jay Mohr as a studio executive) lets loose on an inoffensive cafeteria worker. "While you admirably restrained yourself over the years from peeing in the Cobb salad, I've made 10 motion pictures which have earned this studio $1 billion, so I'm going to continue to park wherever the bleep I want because unfortunately for you I'm employee of the bleeping century." Those bleeps, by the way, are the show's sole claim to originality. Instead of keeping the profanity within the wide bounds of broadcast acceptability, the show's creators decided to include carloads of the worst words, but then bleep them out. Their reasoning is unclear; perhaps they intend to give lip-readers an extra thrill. More likely, it is so television critics will be more likely to employ Hollywood's most coveted adjective: edgy. Everything else about the show aims for "edgy"; there's a cameo appearance by Keanu Reeves, Mr. Edge himself, who tells Peter at a movie screening, "I'm a little concerned that your date has her hands in my pants." The date, of course, is a prostitute, complete with the obligatory heart of gold. She's a former child star who got hooked on cocaine, she explains to Peter. When she's honest with him about his movie (it stinks), he hires her (as an executive--he'd already hired her in her other capacity). And it gets worse; Peter's ex-wife is married to a homosexual studio head (she's his cover); he attends a Christmas party at their home, along with about a dozen muscular young homosexual men in thongs. In the pilot's most offensive scene (and that's saying something), Peter upbraids a young Jewish writer for asking about a script. "I'm trying to celebrate the birth of Christ with my family," he shouts. "How dare you come up to me, on the holiest day of the year for the goyim, and talk show business?" And that was supposed to be a funny bit. Most of the humor is of the single-entendre sort; male anatomical proportions are the subject of nearly half the jokes in the first episode. But don't think Fox has no standards--it deemed one scene inappropriate for broadcasting. It was the scene where Peter's six-year-old daughter sips some champagne. Action's claim of originality is bogus in one other way as well. Beggars and Choosers, an even sleazier series on Showtime, is the obvious model for Action--they even share a subplot, about hiring the wrong scriptwriter for a project. Beggars and Choosers is about a television studio dealing with low ratings and out-of-control actors. In every sleaze category, Beggars goes far beyond Action; last season's episodes dealt with statutory rape (as high comedy), Russian mobsters entering the television racket (as high drama), and sex (as explicitly portrayed as possible, which is pretty explicitly, seeing as how this is cable). Clearly, calls for Hollywood to police itself are going unheeded. And in the pursuit of bragging rights, it seems, even economics and ratings are ignored. "Please don't watch," Mr. Herzog says to viewers who might be offended by Action. "Watch somebody else's network for that hour." Amen, and amen.

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