On Vulture the other day, Community creator Dan Harmon listed his 22 most important influences on his work. As a hard-core Harmenian of long standing, I was familiar not only with most of the items on his list but also with their importance to Harmon. But there was one I didn’t know about—Chris Elliott’s Action Family—and Harmon’s description positively made my mouth water:
17. Chris Elliott
Way before Get a Life, he did this thing [Action Family] where everything indoors was a multi-camera sitcom and everything outdoors was a single-camera drama. In one scene, a killer the dad is tracking outside turns out to be the new boyfriend of the daughter in the multi-cam story. On the sitcom set, the boyfriend falls through a window, and it cuts to the other side, where it’s like Lethal Weapon and the body is landing on the cement. A mindblower.
What the hell is this thing? I had to find out more.
Action Family appeared as a one-off special on Cinemax in 1986, and it’s every bit as marvelous as Harmon indicated—any self-respecting fan of genre mindfuck satires has to watch it immediately. It’s precisely as Harmon described it, it’s a traditional family sitcom within the confines of the family home and a 1970s-style police drama outside of it. Elliott (playing a character named “Chris Elliott”) basically alternates scenes between the two modes, and the frisson of staid, by-the-numbers genres crashing into each other is intoxicating indeed. At least three times during the half-hour show I idiotically gave a round of applause (clapping my hands) in an otherwise empty room.
I don’t want to cite individual scenes or moments because most of the fun is encountering them along the way. If not for that, I could really write a great deal about Action Family. I can, however, mention certain elements that the creative people involved absolutely nail—the differences in film/video quality, the boneheaded dialogue, the dead-on musical cues, the general absence of affect, the idiotic, Happy Days-derived convention of frequent applause as characters enter, and so on. (Laugh tracks and overly expressive live studio audiences come in for some serious abuse here.) Note that “Chris” always dons a Cosby sweater whenever he’s in sitcom mode. I’m told the inspiration for the police drama scenes is Mannix, but I’m not very familiar with that show. But it doesn’t matter: Kojak, Vega$, Starsky and Hutch, The Rockford Files, Magnum P.I., and Miami Vice all supply obvious touchstones for that insufferably self-important tone of a sturdy three-act U.S. police drama.
Elliott’s stupendously seedy persona is ideal for this sort of project. You can hardly tell if he’s playing it “straight” or not—indeed, the presence of Elliott automatically calls the entire concept of “straight” into question. This being 1986, there is (of course) a typically desultory cameo by David Letterman, as well as one by Elliott’s pop Bob Elliott, of Bob and Ray notoriety. (Note the awesomely gratuitous use of a stunt actor during Bob’s sequence.)
The production of the show is a little slipshod, particularly the acting, but without spoiling anything specific I can say that there’s a reason the Elliott family bears (if you notice) a superficial resemblance to the Partridge Family, including a young Seth Green in the Bonaduce slot.
Oh, and make sure you stick around for the closing credit sequence.
A lot of the tropes Action Family is skewering were exploded by smarter shows of the 1990s and beyond, including Seinfeld and NYPD Blue, among many others. Action Family is precisely all about tropes—sitcoms are “funny” and police dramas are “serious,” but they’re both beset by the same goddamned lazy predictability. Mixing the two sets of conventions is a spectacular way of calling network TV out for the shitty product they were putting out, a premise with which all post-Sopranos TV addicts can surely agree.