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That Giant Buzzing Sound

The TV P.R. machine is in overdrive pitching the fall season. And some of the new shows ("Action"; "Judging Amy") actually live up to the hype.

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The Hollywood Heimlich maneuver: Jay Mohr chokes maître d' John Vargas in Fox's Action.  

In one of her essays on the Balkan republic of movieland, Joan Didion speaks of Hollywood as an early-closing company town of compulsive punters, in which the consuming activity isn't money, politics, or sex, but gambling. The action is everything. Maybe, of course, after Joan's gone home to her blue-eyed willies and bloody butter on a crust of dread, the rest of them hump till dawn like glue-sniffing rabbits. But she says not, and all most of us know about Hollywood is what we read in the gossip columns, in Tina Brown's mirror shades, and in such forlorn novels as Scott Fitzgerald or Robert Stone leave behind after their talent's been wasted. The rest is buzz -- Gwyneth Paltrow in a black leather bikini, with high heels and a whip! -- like static cling.

Action (Thursdays, starting September 16, 9 to 10 p.m.; subsequently 9:30 to 10 p.m.; Fox), the most-buzzed-about new series of the fall television season, purports to journey to the center of the sleaze, where a Xanax-popping producer (Jay Mohr) -- when he isn't cruising around in a limo chauffeured by Buddy Hackett, or worrying about the size of Milton Berle's penis, or considering O. J. Simpson for a remake of Raisin in the Sun -- seems about to turn over creative control of his studio to a former child star turned coke addict turned hooker (Illeana Douglas). The producer's name is Peter, the hooker's name is Wendy, Keanu Reeves shows up in the pilot for a Tinkerbell cameo, and there are jokes about Jews, gays, and "hum jobs," not to mention more lewd language than a Tarantino two-step, mostly bleeped.

All this is fretted and frazzled like a music video. Since Mohr (Jerry Maguire) is at his frantic best, an excess of narcissistic isometrics, and Douglas is a slinky wonder whose Bambi eyes have seen every corruption of the natural world, and executive producers Chris Thompson (The Larry Sanders Show) and Joel Silver (Lethal Weapon and The Matrix) presumably know what they're talking about, Action combines an amphetamine rush with the voyeuristic pleasures of the inside joke. (Can that really be Barry Diller they're satirizing, instead of J. M. Barrie?) On the other hand, this sitcom itself is a gamble. How often will we want to visit after the bleeps wear off? Not the least of the virtues of The Player, in which Robert Altman and Tim Robbins covered much of the same ground, was that we wouldn't have to think about Hollywood for another seven years, until Albert Brooks, Sharon Stone, and The Muse.

Of the other buzzed new shows scheduled to debut this week, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (Mondays, 9 to 10 p.m.; NBC) wasn't available for preview, which leaves Family Law (Mondays; 10 to 11 p.m.; CBS) and Judging Amy (Tuesdays; 10 to 11 p.m.; CBS) as the only ones I care about. Although Entertainment Weekly has already badmouthed Family Law as "estrogen-heavy," passive-aggressive, and "the opposite of misogyny," I liked Kathleen Quinlan as the marital lawyer whose husband leaves their bed and their practice, taking most of their clients with him, while she is left to pick up such pieces as a custody case involving the ashes of a murdered Lhasa apso, with such sisters in arms as Dixie Carter ("I hate men and play dirty") and Julie Warner, plus Christopher McDonald as the kind of attorney who actually advertises on cable. The first thing Quinlan does is put plants in all the urinals, to be watered by flushing. The next is to plot revenge. But then I've liked everything out of the toy shop of executive producer Paul Haggis, from the short-lived Due South to his even more abbreviated EZ Streets.

As for Judging Amy, well, Amy Brenneman not only stars but is one of her own executive producers, and in this series about a single mother who leaves a New York law practice to become a family-court judge in Hartford, Connecticut, she's apparently paying tribute to her own real-life mother, who did something similar. In Hartford, "Amy Gray" must move back in with mom Tyne Daly, a retired social worker with more opinions than the Internet, as well as her failure of a younger brother Dan Futterman, who washes dogs for a living but would rather be a writer. Brenneman, who was radiant as the ghostly rock singer in Middle Ages and at least as interesting as David Caruso in the first season of NYPD Blue, is strong enough to carry this (or any other) show if she lets herself spend less time at home and more in court.


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