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The voice-mail message begins with the caller identifying himself in a clear, sharp tone: "Hey, this is Chris Thompson, executive producer of Action and Ladies Man, and I hear you're trying to get a hold of me..." Long pause. "For some ungodly reason."
Then, in a split second, the voice goes hoarse and harsh. "God knows I have nothing to say about this..." He pauses again, then takes exactly three seconds to pronounce the next word. "Fffffucking business."
The business to which Thompson is referring is the television business. Chris Thompson creates shows for television, which then promptly sets out to kill them.
His message continues. "But if you'd like some cynical and hopeless quotes, call me." Thompson leaves his home phone number, explaining he rarely goes into the office anymore. He is on hiatus and on the golf course. That's because, for now, he is off television.
His latest show -- Action, a scabrous, half-hour dirty joke about the movie business, starring Jay Mohr as Peter Dragon, a studio exec with a heart of darkness -- debuted at the beginning of the 1999-2000 season and died before the year ended. The show lasted but nine weeks and exhaled its last breath quietly and quickly. The final image was that of an ambulance carting off the corpse of Peter Dragon, who suffered a coronary mid-rant and dropped dead on a movie set. "Time of death," noted a paramedic, before stealing Peter's watch, "Thursday, 9:30." That's when the show aired. Not that you'd know. If you did, the show would probably still be on the air.
Hours after the "final" episode aired, Fox killed Action, claiming that a despicable lead character -- a man who performs oral sex on another just to keep him from coming out of the closet -- repelled viewers, sort of the opposite effect a television series is supposed to have. Thompson has in his possession four episodes of the show you will never see, in which Dragon returns from the dead promising to be nicer, something Fox execs demanded. Only, had Peter returned to the airwaves, he would have become an "even bigger prick," as Thompson growls. Turns out, he got to choke on his last laugh. (He does have a second show on the air, Ladies Man on CBS, but it likely will not return for a second season. Then again, it might -- it ain't no damn good.)
Perhaps it was inevitable that Action would die so young and leave a beautiful corpse. Male-on-male blowjobs, Hollywood in-jokes, and barely bleeped-out curse words don't play well in prime time. But Action wasn't the only quality series to suffer an untimely demise this season: NBC ditched Paul Feig's extraordinary, set-in-1980 high-school show Freaks & Geeks with six episodes left unaired; Fox canceled X-Files creator Chris Carter's virtual-reality-based series Harsh Realm after only three episodes; and ABC nuked Peter Berg's loony-bin drama Wonderland after airing a meager two episodes.
And for that, you have one man to thank: Regis Philbin, the most powerful man in the world. If you think that's oversimplifying things -- and nothing goes together like the words "Philbin" and "oversimplifying" -- then you must have a life.
Chris Thompson and Freaks & Geeks creator Paul Feig agree: This was the very worst season in the history of television to launch a challenging, cerebral new series -- you know, something that didn't star a washed-up movie star (like, say, Kyra Sedgwick) cavorting to a laugh-track beat (as she does on her new ABC Frasier clone, Talk to Me). Once ABC launched Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? to the top, middle, and bottom of the list of Top 10 shows each week, all the networks were struck down with game-show fever. Thompson can't help but chuckle when pointing out that Action was replaced by Greed, hosted by replicant Chuck Woolery. As it turns out, people don't like smart television shows. They like stupid television shows that only make them feel smart. Hey, which of the following is not a number? Is "banana" your final answer?
"I hate to call Freaks & Geeks, Wonderland, and Action 'challenging,' because that kind of puts down the audience," Feig says. "But you have to get people used to something, challenging or not. They called our show a 'dramedy,' but I called it a 'comma,' because it was much heavier on the comedy than the drama, but it's much more of a heartfelt thing. When you watch the show, you'll laugh most of the time, but every once in a while it'll make you cry, which is what we wanted. But we had to get people used to that. And we never had the chance."
Thompson, quite simply, explains that his show and the others were victims of "the Millionaire factor." As soon as ABC and the other networks discovered they could boost their ratings, even by halves of a point, with cheaper programming (news magazines and game shows can be produced for a fraction of what it takes to fund an hour-long drama), they began killing off fringe programming that was too expensive or controversial or, well, demanding. As Thompson points out, when Fox found out it could boost advertising rates by $50,000 per 30-second slot for Greed, Action didn't stand a chance.