Jay Mohr knows that the character he plays on "Action" (9 and 9:30 tonight, Channel 29), the viper-tongued producer Peter Dragon, won't get any humanitarian awards.
"I don't think he's a particularly nice guy," Mohr said in an interview in Los Angeles. "But my favorite shows growing up always have been antiheroes, whether it was "Buffalo Bill' with Dabney Coleman, who was a complete (expletive), or Al Bundy on "Married ... With Children.' "
Mohr's Dragon is a ruthless, constantly moving movie producer with a foul tongue, a rapier wit and the ability to do more back flips than an Olympic gymnast to survive in the unreal and cruel world of Hollywood filmmaking.
After his big action flick, "Slow Torture," dies a quick death tonight, Dragon gets desperate. He hires a fellow lost soul, actress-turned-hooker Wendy Ward (Illeanna Douglas), who attaches herself to his limousine and gets taken for a ride by Dragon's chauffeur, security man and uncle, Lonnie (Buddy Hackett).
Wendy lands in the dual roles of prostitute and script consultant. When Dragon's president of production calls Wendy a whore, Dragon makes the kind of distinction made only in Hollywood.
"No," Dragon tells the production president. "She's my prostitute. You're my whore."
Sassy, smart, sexy and often sophomoric and silly, "Action" is easily the season's funniest comedy pilot.
Mohr's pretty-boy looks make the shark he is playing an odd mixture of dangerous and likable. He does draw the line some times, including tossing a guy out of his office who suggests making a movie that would star O.J. Simpson. If you haven't seen that scene in a promo, then you probably have turned Fox off for the summer.
Dragon also has a softer side with his young daughter, a product of his marriage to Jane (Cindy Ambuehl), who currently is a "beard" in a cover marriage to a gay Hollywood mogul, Bobby G (Lee Arenberg). Bobby is amply endowed -- financially and, well, otherwise.
Thompson's description of his lead character isn't far from Coleman's Buffalo Bill Bittinger.
"When asked to do something particularly unsavory, Peter Dragon will agonize about it, he will know that it's wrong, and then ultimately -- if it has to be done to move this motion picture being made forward -- he will do it and then he will justly feel bad about it," explained creator Chris Thompson. "But even after he feels bad about it, if he had to do it again, he would, because that's the job, to keep the train moving."
Thompson, who created "The Naked Truth" for ABC before it was undressed by NBC in a weaker version, is getting heat for the use in "Action" of bleeped language and outrageously drawn characters. Thompson originally wrote the series for HBO. The pay cable network passed for financial reasons and perhaps because its inside-Hollywood series, "The Larry Sanders Show," didn't draw big audiences. (Nor did "Buffalo Bill" on NBC, for that matter.)
Fox did ask for a few changes, but Thompson said they weren't extensive. The curse words that were in the HBO version are just bleeped out.
"We're allowed to use language on television that you're not normally allowed to use, if we bleep it," said Thompson, who preferred the bleeps to euphemisms.
"I believe when you do shows about Hollywood or rock 'n' roll -- both kind of profane worlds where there's not a whole lot of exemplary behavior -- that whenever you see it on TV it looks just incredibly phony and made up because people are talking in ways they don't talk in those worlds," said Thompson. "I don't know anybody (in the business) who says "frickin' or "kicked in the hiney' or "that guy is a real doodie-head.'"
If "Action" has a downside, it's that the humor isn't exactly subtle and some punch lines and plot lines are telegraphed. Then there is the question of whether episodes to follow can maintain the quality of the pilot. The failure of Thompson's "The Naked Truth" and Fox's decision not to send tonight's second episode for review makes you wonder even more.
Thompson has a plan, taking a film put into production at pilot's end through the creative process for a 22-week season.
"We purchase this script and we are going to make this movie," said Thompson. "In the 22nd (and last) episode, we're going to premiere this movie. And God willing, you come back next year and you start a new movie."
Keanu Reeves has a memorable cameo in the pilot, a device that Thompson says will continue throughout the season thanks to the contacts of co-producer Joel Silver ("Die Hard," "Lethal Weapon").
"There are people who have been approached who have made promises," said Thompson. "Now, let's talk about the value of a Hollywood promise. I don't have any names that I have signed in blood. I have a lot of, "Yeah, man, sounds groovy. I'll be there.'"
He realizes that "Action" has become the poster child for the "TV is going to hell" crowd. And he's uncomfortable with that designation -- or as uncomfortable as a TV producer trying to make money can be.
"I think that there's a big difference between wanting to entertain people and being an advocate of something. I'm not an advocate of the coarsening of the culture. I'm not an advocate of any of the behavior that's displayed in this show. I'm an observer of it. I am a chronicler of it, and I believe that it can be made to be entertaining."
As a veteran of the "Naked Truth" fiasco and 20 years in television, Thompson knows that nothing is guaranteed. His 20 years in the business have given him much material for "Action."
"Everything that goes on is about bad behavior that I've seen, heard of or probably participated in," said Thompson. "And the verisimilitude of that, the reality of that, and lest we forget the most important part, the funniness of that, is what we're going after, not how to be more shocking week to week."
He isn't shocked that some high-profile people say they are the ones that Thompson is basing his characters on.
"The egos in this town are so big that even if it causes you to be insulted, you want it to be you," said Thompson.
Ordinarily I don't make promises. But I can almost promise you will laugh at -- and with -- "Action" tonight.
Rating: 4 1/2 stars out of 5.