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Just (Show) Business as Usual

Television: A spate of new series has the industry looking and laughing at its own dog-eat-dog world.


Back-biting. Corporate in-fighting. Pill-popping. Narcissism, avarice, hypocrisy, lack of principle and nastiness, amid a climate of constant panic. If this is the way show business folk view themselves, no wonder the rest of the country has such a high opinion of Hollywood.

Feature films frequently have taken a jaundiced look at the inner workings of the entertainment industry, from "The Bad and the Beautiful" to "Network" to such recent entries as "The Player," "Swimming With Sharks" and writer Joe Eszterhas' critically excoriated "An Alan Smithee Film Burn Hollywood Burn." Two more join the list this summer: "Bowfinger," featuring Steve Martin as a movie producer; and "The Muse," starring Albert Brooks as a neurotic screenwriter.

Yet other than "The Larry Sanders Show," similar productions of any note on television have largely been limited to a three-part "Law & Order" story line and an unfulfilled attempt by ABC to turn "The Player" into a series.

That will change in the next few months, with the arrival of two TV programs that satirically puncture Hollywood's veneer of civility and a third humorously chronicling the hardships of movie fame and fortune.

Showtime weighs in starting Saturday with "Beggars and Choosers," a long-planned series initiated by the late Brandon Tartikoff set within a fictional TV network. Fox, meanwhile, hopes to find an even wider audience for such fare with "Action," a comedy about a blockbuster movie producer who pops pills and cavorts with a child star turned prostitute, which will make its debut in the fall.

A pet project for Tartikoff, who spent a decade running NBC's entertainment wing, "Beggars and Choosers" approaches TV from the perspective of Rob Malone (Brian Kerwin), the besieged programming chief at the struggling LGT network, who deals with insane producers, amoral agents and a thirtysomething head of development who spends much of her free time scheming how to steal his job. The show also features a gnarled owner with a penchant for handcuffs and two agents who function as a sort of Greek chorus, circulating false rumors that spread like wildfire.

"Everyone keeps saying, 'Oh, that's me! That's me!' " said Lilly Tartikoff, who has kept her husband's production company going since his death in 1997 and admits that she keeps lobbying to make the central character more like Brandon.

Originally developed for Home Box Office, "Action" marks a broadcast network first by having the lead character, manic movie producer Peter Dragon (Jay Mohr), cuss a blue streak, bleeping out his most colorful terms. At one point, an agent (played by agent-turned-manager Gavin Polone, who also had a cameo in "Alan Smithee") tentatively pitches Dragon a client he insists is better-known than Tom Hanks: O.J. Simpson.

Finally, "Movie Stars" premieres in July on the WB, providing a sitcom-style take on the daily problems of being a Bruce Willis and Demi Moore-type couple, with Harry Hamlin and Jennifer Grant in the title roles.

Tartikoff had long reveled in musing about the entertainment industry's bizarre rituals, even naming his production banner the H. Beale Co. after the crazed anchorman Peter Finch played in "Network."

"Basically, he just started telling me war stories," "Beggars and Choosers" writer-producer Peter Lefcourt said of the manner in which he and Tartikoff came up with the show, conceptually pitched to Showtime as " 'Network' for the '90s." Lefcourt explored similar territory in his 1991 novel "The Deal," which focuses on a screenwriter on the brink of suicide.

"One of the nice things is you don't need a technical advisor on this show," Lefcourt quipped. "You do 'ER' and you have to get the doctors to tell you what to do. This is our lives."

Those involved expressed little concern about these series projecting a dim view of Hollywood. In fact, despite the vicious, amoral characters, they say the shows don't even expose the worst aspects of the business.

"It should be, and is, a scathing look at what it is we do for a living," said Showtime programming president Jerry Offsay. "My wife said, 'Is it that bad?,' and I said, 'Actually, it's worse.' "

"I think it's more cartoony than what the reality is," Polone suggested of his cameo in "Action." "It doesn't really show what kind of hypocrites and phonies [people in the business] are. . . . A real view would be harsher and far more boring."

Producers and executives cite heightened interest in how Hollywood functions--demonstrated by the increase in entertainment news programs--as justification for providing such behind-the-scenes glimpses of the industry.

"Part of the fun of 'NYPD Blue' is you hear language and nicknames that make you feel like you're [peeking] through a keyhole," said Scott Siegler, president of Granada Entertainment USA, which is producing "Beggars and Choosers" with H. Beale.

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