Age of the Locust
Stop me if you know how this one turns out: Small-town boy wows the rubes, has an itch, gets the call, hops a ride out West, does a screen test. Then...pfft. Six months later he's still hanging around producers' offices, sticking his foot in doors that are closed to him, only he doesn't know it. Turns out his accent does him in: Middle America won't sit still for that languid Georgia drawl. "I can't help it if I was born in the South," he protests. "Neither can we," responds the exec. "Go home, boy. You aren't well."
You've heard it all before, haven't you? Think hayseed Axl Rose, fresh off that Greyhound onto the Strip in the "Welcome to the Jungle" video; think Barton Fink; think Bowfinger and L.A. Confidential and Star 80. More specifically, though, this rags-to-rags trajectory furnishes the plot of Horace McCoy's I Should Have Stayed Home, which pretty much said what there was to say about little dreamers and their little dreams back in 1938. Add Tinseltown survivors F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Last Tycoon (1940), Nathanael West's Day of the Locust (1939), and Budd Schulberg's What Makes Sammy Run? (1941) and you've got to figure that the definitive Hollywood pathologies (world-dominating will to power, grotesquely inflated self-importance, condescending disregard for the taste of the public) had been diagnosed even before America entered World War II.
Still, we never tire of hearing these fables. Maybe they're bedtime stories for adults, ways of lulling ourselves to sleep secure in the knowledge that along with celebrity, A Price Must Be Paid. Or perhaps we're attracted by the promise of learning the inside dope--gaining a familiarity with the ugly mechanics of Hollywood magic that actually gets us nowhere.
But despite these cautionary tales, the pilgrims keep coming. In the past few years alone, we've gotten the news from young'uns like Rachel Resnick (Go West Young F*cked Up Chick) and John Ridley (Nobody Smokes in Hell), as well as older folks like Richard Grant and Peter Farrelly, who can hardly play naive: Hollywood is rife with shallow yet wildly overpaid boors who couldn't produce a good video of their children's birthday parties. Most of what they make has been so mutilated by the "creative" process that it bears only the faintest resemblance to its original concept. Studio execs are lazy, overbearing windbags whose assistants do all the work. And so on.
How to explain the appeal of these behind-the-camera exposés? Our appetite for crap seems matched only by our appetite for watching crap made. Somehow we think that crap about crap isn't crap--or at least that a bit of ironic remove lifts us above the cesspool.
It is in this polluted vein that Fox offers its new series, Action (8:00 p.m. Thursday, KMSP Channel 29). The half-hour comedy bleeped its third line of dialogue and treated us to a view of a hooker's thong underwear before five minutes had elapsed. Critics adore its bitter dialogue, which must have been collected during eons of production meetings (Peter to his ex: "We had a good marriage until that stupid company stopped making Quaaludes"), as well as its dogged efforts to violate TV's idea of good taste. Topics broached thus far include anal sex, vibrators, drug abuse, handjobs, well-endowed studio execs, and three-ways--not to mention the really nasty stuff, like how movies get financed.
Yet the viewers haven't exactly endorsed this product with their remote controls: Last week, Action came in fifth in its Thursday-night time slot, losing out to UPN's World Wrestling Federation broadcast. Prompting the question: Are we too demure for this program? Most probably, series protagonist Peter Dragon (Jay Mohr) turns people off: He's the kind of unrepentant bastard who used to haunt Melrose Place--only without the sex life. Left with absolutely no one else to root for, and denied the cushion of camp, many viewers must find themselves shrinking from forced identification with a man who lies whenever his lips move. "I'm gonna work you like Kunta Kinte," he promises a writer he's just signed to a big contract--and if this weren't offensive enough, he shoves him aside the next moment.
Therein lies this show's genius: It calls trash by its proper name. Dragon remains utterly unredeemed, a bullying hotshot--"employee of the [bleeping] century," as he sneers on his first appearance--whose considerable oeuvre boasts testosterone booster shots like Ripcord that have made more than a billion dollars. (Unfortunately, his newest, Slow Torture, tanks so badly that it finishes behind even German kiddie claymation Der Noodlenose in the weekly grosses.) Now desperate for a hit, Dragon can't decide between scripts for Beverly Hills Gun Club and Beverly Hills Death Squad, and writers named Rifkin and Rafkin. (Told he's bought Rafkin's pitch for $250,000, he yelps, "We spent a quarter million and we got the wrong Jew?!")
A distilled concentrate of Variety mainstays like Simpson and Bruckheimer, Peters, and Guber--not to mention Action producer Joel Silver, who makes fun of himself in the second episode--Dragon almost never shows his human side. If the show's producers keep their nerve, he won't soften as the series progresses, though this may be hoping for too much. The best supporting character, hooker-turned-studio exec Wendy Ward (Illeana Douglas), has stopped smoking at the behest of Fox execs nervous that it made her look too hard-edged.
At no point are we meant to discern any integrity, artistic or otherwise, in Peter Dragon. And likewise, Action openly recognizes that creatively, it hasn't exactly lit out for the territories. Scheming execs, groveling underlings, dreck that rakes in millions--none of this is novel stuff. Action is a world where everyone has seen too many free previews, and even the pimps are film literate. On a mission to get back the prize hooker who's gone to work for Dragon, natty entrepreneur Dick Marcellus is asked if his name is the same as the Ving Rhames character in Pulp Fiction. "It's an homage," he sniffs.
At times we do probe new depths of degradation. Striving desperately to finance Gun Club, Dragon is snubbed by French investors, local bankers, and even Hasidic diamond merchants (whom he woos with prayer shawls, and hats bearing the project's logo) before finally wheedling the sons of a crazed oil sheik to sign on the dotted line. (Needless to say, they soon offer script suggestions as well.) A monster negotiator before his young daughter, Peter wilts when faced with studio head Bobby G's "anaconda" penis, a weapon so monstrous it reduces him to gibbering submission.
The show's greatest scorn is saved for the product that defines Dragon's world: moronic blockbusters. Gun Club's plot seems to involve the mass slaughter of zoo animals by a heavily armed maniac, or maybe a street gang who sets fire to the Beverly Hills Hotel and gouges out a supermodel's eye (recalling The Last Action Hero, or was that The Last Boy Scout?). Peter himself has lower aims: "Sort of a cross between Doctor Dolittle and Apocalypse Now," he offers in his pitch. "You get the parents and the kids."
There's a good chance that neither group will emerge to watch this mordant comedy. Instead, Action seems destined to live up to its dim expectations of Hollywood, winning a quick cancelation before moving on to an afterlife in critics' memories. (Remember the equally misanthropic Profit, also on Fox? Probably not.) But here's hoping that this evil little heart beats for more than a month or two--it's tonic, really, to see something so bravely, and so intelligently, plunge into the culture's garbage, face first.
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