Josh Wolk
November 01, 1999 AT 05:00 AM EST

Why ”Action” is failing despite the critical raves

As a nation, we’re intrigued by Hollywood. As proof, I can cite Steve Kmetko’s paychecks for covering it. (The only time I will cite Steve Kmetko, I promise.) But America’s fascination has a limit: While we’re wildly curious about what our favorite celebrities are doing, smoking, or which smokin’ celebrity they’re doing, our insatiable appetite for L.A. gossip is sated just short of wanting to know what showbiz’s great producers are up to. Unfortunately, the producers of Fox’s bombing sitcom ”Action” weren’t clued in to that, and went ahead on their show with the belief that they are as fascinating to the general public as they are to themselves.

For those of you who haven’t seen the comedy (and that includes most of you, judging from the atrocious ratings that got it yanked for November sweeps), ”Action” follows a ruthless, ranting, moral-free movie producer (played with no hint of redeemability by Jay Mohr) as he develops his latest big-budget bulletfest, ”Beverly Hills Gun Club.” The show is brought to you by producer Joel ”Lethal Weapon” Silver, himself renowned for his blockbusters, aggressive deal-making, and fabled ability to browbeat underlings until their spines implode. He and the show’s creator, writers, and cast undoubtedly find the subject matter mesmerizing and hilariously spot-on. The rest of the country has no idea what the hell is going on.

The media always writes about how confounding it is that ”Action” isn’t succeeding, in light of the tremendous critical approval. Sure, many critics (and I include myself here) find it uproarious and on-target, but we all know what the targets are. We devour Variety and the Hollywood Reporter every day, and therefore are unhealthily well-versed about the financial shenanigans that go down at the studios. But to the average viewer, it’s far too inside, and its jokes about ”back-end deals” seem completely undecipherable, if not vaguely pornographic. A show can be smart without going over viewers heads: Frasier may pontificate about psychiatry, but you don’t have to have spent time in an institution to get a giggle.

It’s all the result of the ”Larry Sanders” Syndrome. Ever since the success of Garry Shandling’s caustic inside-talk-show hit, every other producer has assumed their job is rife with comic possibilities, and the world wants to share in the laughs. So we’ve had Showtime’s self-adoring ”Beggars and Choosers” (with programming chief as hero: oooh, so sympathetic!) and 1997’s misbegotten ”An Alan Smithee Film: Burn Hollywood Burn,” which landed a cameo from Miramax mogul Harvey Weinstein, who should have known it was a lousy movie, but was probably blinded by the fact that it was all about his profession, and how funny is THAT?

But the main difference between these projects (the concepts, not the quality) is that ”Sanders” was more about celebrity than network politics, what with a David Letterman dopplegänger as the lead, and with cameos by such stars as Jim Carrey and Sharon Stone. Actors are endlessly fascinating, but producers… let’s put it this way: You’re not going to find any Armyan Bernstein Worship Pages on the Web. (”Check out this dreamy candid of Armyan at the ‘For Love of the Game’ premiere! Unfortunately, Kevin Costner had to get his big fat head in the frame!”)

But you have to forgive Silver and his ilk for assuming their world makes for great TV. After all, hasn’t everyone at one time looked at his or her job and coworkers and thought, ”Man, someone could make a great sitcom out of this!” For example, right now there’s probably a dentist looking around his practice mentally outlining a pilot called ”Ain’t That the Tooth!” But the difference between the DDS and Joel Silver is, after getting the inspiration, the dentist looks around his office, sees nothing but dental tools and spit sinks, realizes he has not the wherewithal to make a TV show, goes back to scraping bicuspids, and America is spared. But when Silver thinks HIS life would make a wacky half hour, he looks up, sees a Rolodex full of network programmers’ names, and piles and piles of cash in which to hire a production crew and a cast, and there is very little to stop him from making the ”Joel Silver Show.”

This is not to say that making a TV show or movie about TV- or movie-makers can never work. After all, this summer’s ”Bowfinger” was the tale of a director trying to get a film made, and it was a moderate hit. But you didn’t need a DGA card to follow it: The most technical any behind-the-scenes jargon got was the phrase ”casting couch,” a concept you don’t need to be Steve Kmetko to understand.

Okay, so I broke my Kmetko promise. But those are the sort of unpredictable things that happen when you’re an entertainment journalist. Now THAT’S a profession somebody ought to make a TV show about…

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