Hollywood Gomorrah

Last weekend I witnessed a miracle. Croatian pianist Ivo Pogorelich, ever the iconoclast, gave a super-lugubrious, super-emotive performance of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2. Reaction was predictably mixed: Half the audience sat on their hands while the other half clapped themselves silly.

As I was perusing the program at intermission, I noticed that when Rachmaninoff expired it was in none other than Beverly Hills, Calif. Could it be true? Rocky, the genius of romanticism, in Hollywood? What an image – the old boy swaddled in a big, white robe, deftly tinkling the ivories of a Steinway pulled close to the pool as some unctuous producer lends a tin ear from the uneasy comfort of a chaise lounge.

If the town has that kind of pull, what hope is there for the rest of us?! Indeed, for every pessimist such as your scribe, who sees Hollywood as a vulgar madhouse rigged in favor of amoral dummies, vicious Philistines and greedy swindlers, there’s a dreamer with a bus ticket in hand and stars in his or her eyes.

And it’s exactly in this play between dark and light that we find "Action," a new series from Fox (Thursdays, 9 p.m.). Our hero, for lack of a better term, is one Peter Dragon (Jay Mohr), a corrosively peevish thirty-something producer trying and failing to come to grips with the awful truism that you’re only as good as your last hit. After an impressive string of winners, he lays an egg. Suddenly his name’s mud and he’s waiting three hours for a table by the kitchen at his favorite haunt.

Just how bad are things? Well, he hires a straight-talking hooker (the always grating Illeana Douglas) to be his script consultant; his ex-wife has married a gay tycoon and he has Buddy Hackett for a chauffeur.

One need only spend an episode with "Action" to realize that the curse of The Player (1992) is alive and well. Michael Tolkin’s script functioned as a warning shot to the stars – Hollywood, through its relentless overhyping of glamour and attendant substandard products, was in danger of becoming a complete laughingstock – either you were in on the joke or you risked being the butt of it.

One can only imagine how many fuses were blown at the Fox switchboard when word got out to agents that "Action" was in the works. First Letterman, then "The Larry Sanders Show" and now this? What’s an actor to do?

Mocking the excesses of the industry while trying to maintain your own cool is dangerous business. What if the public sees through the ploy and the star comes off as a cynical ingrate? Conversely, what if they don’t get the joke? Then the star just looks unfunny.

For all the barbed wit, complete with profanities bleeped ad nauseam à la Springer and gratuitous attempts to shock, "Action" is rather tame. There’s lots of heat but not much insight. Granted, the show is handicapped. It can’t be too "inside," otherwise the general public will tune out after the initial thrill wears off. And since this is, after all, network television, the real nasty stuff that actually goes on will never make the cut.

Herein lies the real problem: It’s a comedy, a rather broad one at that. Beneath all his barnacles, Peter Dragon is a character readymade for drama – a guy intelligent enough to know that the self-doubt and self-loathing that put him on top could just as easily bring him down at any moment in a town too stupid and too ruthless to care, because a dozen other Peter Dragons wait in the wings, fretting about the size of their cocks as much as the size of their deals.

He can’t leave. Or rather he won’t leave. To fail is to die.

Allow me to be frank. Hollywood is a satanic mill that both fuels and burns neuroses. Shakespeare himself could not have written a place more dark and more full of tortured souls than Tinseltown. Read any of the countless biographies and autobiographies of unhappy Hollywood denizens and you’ll find that pathos is the elemental emotion in almost all of them. The dream didn’t just go bad; it was rancid to begin with.

James Ellroy (L.A. Confidential) has ridden his one-trick pony of Hollywood true crime around the track for so long precisely because the sad stories keep coming. And need I remind you that laughs are few and far between in Sunset Boulevard (1950), the quintessential story of what happens when the magic is no longer happening.

What I find ironic is that despite all the discouraging words rained down on Hollywood from the press and the pulpits of the land, the public – save for Jerry Falwell and friends – chooses to ignore the rather obvious relationship between the toxicity of Hollywood culture and the toxicity of its products. Many of us know that Hollywood is a shithole, but, the logic goes, it’s our shithole.

You get what you deserve, we say, when you get to Hollywood. Thus, "Action" makes perfect sense as a comedy after all – allowing the audience to laugh safely and smugly from a distance. Moline, Ill., never looked so good.

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