September 17, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

Increasingly, TV is upping the ante against feature films as the most effective medium for switchblade satire. The Sopranos ”did” the Mafia better than recent movies such as Analyze This and Mickey Blue Eyes. Now Action shreds Hollywood corporate culture more viciously than current big-screen spoofs like Bowfinger and The Muse. The difference is, Action‘s acid heartlessness renders it a more artful but ultimately less likable piece of work.

Peter Dragon, Action‘s peppy dirtbag producer played by Jay Mohr, is the kind of fellow who takes pleasure in making a little guy feel even littler. In the opening moments of this showbiz slice-‘n’-dice, Dragon guns his sports car into the studio parking space reserved for ”Employee of the Month” — who in this case is a lowly commissary worker named Manny Sanchez (Hector Contraras). When Manny complains that this is his parking spot (auto-size patches of asphalt are prized commodities in the clogged car culture of Los Angeles), Dragon lets loose with a petulant rant, redolent with four-letter words bleeped out by the Fox network standards and practices department.

But what’s actually more obscene is the content of Dragon’s screed, for what he tells Manny is this: Were he, Peter Dragon, in Manny’s cheap sneakers, he’d urinate in the Cobb salads the underling serves to the studio honchos. The brilliance of the Action pilot directed by Ted Demme (The Ref) is that it establishes the repellent nature of its protagonist in a quick, vivid way: Dragon fervently believes the prime goal in life is to get even, to put one over on someone else. A decade ago, he’d have been one of those idiots whose bumper sticker read ”Whoever Dies With the Most Toys Wins.”

Not that there aren’t some pretty good reasons for Dragon’s patently insecure obnoxiousness. Talk about swimming with the sharks: Peter may have produced 10 films grossing a combined $1 billion, but he also knows he’ll be yesterday’s Variety if his current project, an Armageddon-like blast-fest called Slow Torture, tanks in its opening weekend. To drive this point Malibu home, he is summoned to the sprawling manor of his studio’s boss, Bobby G. (the quietly menacing Lee Arenberg), who crunches box office numbers while insisting that Dragon watch him emerge from the shower, displaying a (hidden from us) appendage that renders the glib, testosterone-stoked Dragon humbly emasculated. The fact that Bobby G. is also (a) gay and (b) married to Dragon’s ex-wife (Cindy Ambuehl) in a union of convenience — well, it’s almost no wonder Dragon needs to get his rocks off chewing out the cafeteria staff.

The premiere introduces Dragon’s two primary relationships: Buddy Hackett is his beloved uncle, a tired shlub whom Dragon retains as his chauffeur/security guard; and Illeana Douglas is a former child star-turned-prostitute who, in the show’s thuddingly obvious conceit, is ultimately less of a whore than the studio execs she services because she speaks her mind and has a few more principles about how she makes her money.

The comedy in Action is as coarsely in-your-face as Bobby G.’s shower scene, with the insults to gays and minorities vicious enough to ooze real venom. By the end of the episode, Manny the cafeteria worker exacts precisely the revenge upon Dragon you’d expect — the show’s creators clearly believe they’re perpetrating a wickedly shocking turnabout, but you’d have to be a moron not to see the punchline coming a mile away. The brain behind Action — producer-writer Chris Thompson (the early-’80s Tom Hanks sitcom Bosom Buddies and this season’s Ladies Man) — probably thinks that by making Dragon the victim of his own nasty notion, he gets his comeuppance, and we’re let off the moral hook: We can laugh at Peter Dragon because he pays for his meanness. But in fact, all Dragon does is turn Manny’s revenge into yet another way to humiliate a screenwriter (Jarrad Paul) for whom he has contempt.

Action — and the heroically odious performance Mohr delivers — epitomizes an important distinction between successful TV and good moviemaking. In film, it’s possible to get your movie made without having to make your central figure likable (to take the most immediate example, Albert Brooks’ sweaty neediness was never intended by the actor-writer to be admirable — and Brooks has paid for that stubbornness at the box office), but if the industry esteems your product, you’ll live to commit more celluloid pleasure. In TV, however, likability is the Q-ratings-tested way to get the potatoes onto the couch week after week; the last time there was a great, unmitigated SOB on network television, he was Dabney Coleman in Buffalo Bill, and that show lasted a scant seven months.

So Action is Thompson’s test case, raising a number of questions: Will an ever-more-media-hip audience respond to Dragon in numbers large enough to keep the network happy? If Action is a hit, will it represent the triumph of Humiliation Humor? (I can see the cover lines on the newsmagazines now.) And finally, for a show this blunt, isn’t naming the antihero Peter too subtle? I mean, why didn’t they just call him Dick? B

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