The Dos And Don’ts of Action Comedies

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The Dos And Don’ts of Action Comedies

The past seven days have seen a lot of motion in the genre of action comedies on TV. On Prime Video, a series adaptation of Mr. & Mrs. Smith has premiered to acclaim, including from this critic. Less successful: Obliterated, canceled just two months after its freshman season dropped on Netflix. 

As mid-budget comedies increasingly drift out of cinemas to feed streaming platforms’ insatiable maws, we can probably expect more creators to bring their action comedies to TV. But what should they know about the genre, based on the examples we’ve seen in recent years? Here’s a list of dos and don’ts they can clip and save…

DO: Think Outside the Action-Star Box

When Mr. and Mrs. Smith were the titular characters of their 2005 feature film, they were played by tall, fit, world-famous sex symbols: Brad Pitt, already an action-comedy vet with Snatch and The Mexican under his belt (among many others), and Angelina Jolie, less known for comedy but the live-action Lara Croft of the Tomb Raider franchise. Prime Video’s Mr. & Mrs. Smith went another way, as co-creator (with Francesca Sloane) Donald Glover cast himself and Maya Erskine in the titular roles. 

Two icons of TV alt-comedy — Glover as the star and creator of FX’s Atlanta; Erskine as the star and co-creator of Hulu’s PEN15 — are probably not what people immediately picture as the stars of a show that requires them to shoot guns, survive car chases, engage in hand-to-hand combat and frequently run for their lives. But the show reimagines John and Jane Smith as brand-new spies learning both tradecraft and fake marriage (or is it?) on the job. Thus, the smart play is casting actors who can convince us that they’re generally smart, and specifically good at improvising their way out of sticky situations. What might seem, at first, like a weird choice is convincing well before the first episode ends.

DON’T: Count on An Aging Legend to Sell Your Story

Like the Mr. & Mrs. Smith movie, Netflix’s series FUBAR, which premiered last spring, is about two secret agents who, despite being family, have no idea that they’re in the same line of work. The difference is that instead of a married couple, this time the central pair are daughter Emma Brunner (Monica Barbaro) and father Luke (Arnold Schwarzenegger), whose shared employment in the CIA is a secret they’ve kept from each other for years — in Luke’s case, for Emma’s entire life. The subterfuge collapses when Luke is sent on a mission and discovers that the shadowy criminal organization he’s supposed to disrupt has already been infiltrated — by Emma. 

Presumably, the expectation is for the most physical stunt work to be undertaken by Barbaro (age 33 and already an alumna of Top Gun: Maverick) and Travis Van Winkle (41 and, if I may say so respectfully, cut like a diamond), who plays fellow CIA agent Aldon Reese. But neither of them is the one on the poster: that’s Schwarzenegger, who was 75 at the time and had already spent most of the action scenes in the feature film The Last Stand — released when he was a mere 65 — seated in a truck. As one of the few people you will ever know who watched more than one episode of FUBAR, I can say that I’m fairly sure that for any shot of Luke in which his face is not visible, Schwarzenegger let his stand-in handle it. Selling an action show on an action star who hasn’t really worked — at least not credibly — in the genre in about 30 years may get you some gawkers; few of them will probably stick around and see if the next generation you’re trying to give a boost off his reputation are actually compelling themselves.

DO: Make the Most of How Permissive Streaming Platforms Are

Back in 2021, RS Benedict wrote about the death of sex in blockbusters — notably in superhero films — in an essay with the succinctly descriptive title “Everyone Is Beautiful and No One Is Horny.” Then there’s Prime Video’s The Boys and its recent spin-off Gen V, in which everyone is beautiful and also horny as hell. A whole episode of the most recent season of The Boys revolves around “Herogasm,” an annual orgy where mutants put their superpowers to work in the weirdest, most graphic sex acts they can think of. A Gen V character who can get bigger and smaller at will is almost immediately asked by a partner to get teeny and clutch his junk, which is not hidden from the viewer. It’s easy to imagine that someone with superhuman abilities would get bored by day-to-day life and look for ways to make it interesting: starting with sex just makes sense.

But it’s not only boobs, butts and genitals that can be graphically portrayed on streaming platforms: There’s also extremely creative violence too. Everything about this “Most Gruesome Bloodbaths” supercut from The Boys is shocking, including the fact that somehow it’s only two and a half minutes long.

Max’s Peacemaker is another superhero show that consistently blends its comedy and its action, as this compilation of its most hilarious Season One deaths underlines.

Standards and Practices censors apparently have no dominion on streaming platforms. If producers aren’t constantly testing how much violence and sex they can get away with, they might as well be writing on SWAT for CBS.

DON’T: Set Your Story on the Wrong Side of Good Taste

Since ending her run on The Big Bang Theory, Kaley Cuoco has tried a lot of different flavors of action comedy. Max’s Harley Quinn, which Cuoco produces and in which she voices the title character, is another title in which violence, sex and profanity run rampant, to hilarious effect — and which can be even more cartoony than Peacemaker or The Boys since, you know, it’s literally a cartoon. The Flight Attendant we will address shortly. Peacock’s Based on a True Story finds her playing half of a house-poor L.A. couple who decide to make their fortune as true-crime podcasters. What differentiates theirs from the countless others in the marketplace? It’s not just about a serial killer they personally know: They’re letting him tell his own story and sharing their profits with him. 

The show portrays many violent murders, and many (attempted) jokes, but it fails as an action comedy or even as a satire of the booming true-crime industry, by taking a judgmental position on the topic — one I broadly share, actually — but muddying its own argument and leaving the viewer confused as to how entertaining we’re supposed to find it. Action comedies are supposed to be fun. Murders we might potentially read about on any police blotter generally aren’t. (A mutant character shrinking down to the size of a thumbtack and killing an evil guard by running into one of his ears, through his brain, and out the other side? That’s funny!)

DO: Traffic in Nostalgia

But do it right! Netflix’s Cobra Kai starts with an irresistible premise: What if the supposed hero of The Karate Kid became a villain later in life, and maybe was kind of a villain all along? As portrayed in the 1984 movie, Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) is a rich teen baddie and classic California blond, whose unethical approach to karate, and life, make a victim of East Coast transplant and underdog Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio). But that was then: when we rejoin Johnny in the late ’10s, he’s lost access to his stepfather’s wealth and is making do as a handyman, still living in the Valley but in a crappy one-bedroom apartment, numbing himself with Coors Banquet beer and ’80s hard rock hits. He might be able to convince himself he’s still as big a badass as he was in his teen years, except that Daniel also still lives in the Valley, and he’s a locally famous car dealership magnate who does karate in his own ads. When Johnny and Daniel’s paths cross in adulthood, Johnny can’t stop taking Daniel’s success personally, even treating Daniel’s attempts to be generous as slights to underline the difference in their status. The tables, they have turned!

Cobra Kai’s producers have logically thought through where characters like Johnny and Daniel might have ended up since we saw them last, and makes their personal conflict the backdrop for a new karate face-off involving Daniel’s daughter and a young neighbor of Johnny’s who becomes his surrogate son: In the San Fernando Valley, karate is, of course, at the heart of civic life. It’s key that the original players, Zabka and Macchio, return for this sequel series, and it’s a testament to what kind of goofy fun has resulted that more and more actors from the original movies have also returned to reprise their roles.

DON’T: Get Nostalgic for the Wrong Stuff

The aforementioned Obliterated (R.I.P.) was about a group of highly trained operatives from across multiple intelligence agencies and military outfits. After they come together to foil a bombing in Las Vegas, their superiors encourage them to blow off some steam, so they all get extremely wasted… then find out that, actually, they only stopped a decoy op, and they have to try to sober up and take on the real one. The rest of the season unfolds, more or less, in real time as the agents and troops figure out a solution. 

The premise is, as far as it goes, fine, though since it came from Cobra Kai co-creators John Hurwitz, Hayden Schlossberg and Josh Heald, fans of that nonsense (hello) may have had excessively high expectations. But instead of reaching back for references to the more innocent era that was the mid-1980s, Obliterated hearkens back to the self-consciously outrageous, aggressively edited, music video-caliber style of the mid-aughts to the mid-’10s — schlock like Smokin’ AcesShoot ’Em UpThe Losers or Takers, which is best left forgotten. Think of the worst Jason Statham movie you ever saw, and that you’d have to look up on IMDb just to remember what it’s actually called: That is the kind of thing Obliterated seemed to take as its inspiration. (The Statham joint you’re probably straining to remember: Blitz.) 

DO: See How Short You Can Go

In the late aughts, live-action hits started popping up on Adult Swim alongside its famously weird animated shows, from the web series import Childrens Hospital to the witness protection spoof Delocated and eventually to a pair of action comedies in 2011. Eagleheart, from Conan O’Brien’s production company Conaco, starred Chris Elliott as a marshal who plays by his own rule, in what was pretty much a direct parody of Walker, Texas Ranger. A few months later, what began as a faux promo turned into NTSF: SD: SUV::, starring and created by Paul Scheer and spoofing outlandish action dramas like 24 and CSI. What these shows understood: These formats are so durable that you can just load them up with jokes and skimp on plot. In fact, 11 minutes per episode is plenty long enough to sell a lot of gags — so much that shows with longer episodes end up looking a little self-indulgent by comparison!

DON’T: Overstay Your Welcome

Look, I love Cobra Kai for what it is (dumb fun), and there’s no way I would ever miss the forthcoming final season. But when the run to yet another karate meet starts taking multiple seasons, and characters are coming back to coach karate who don’t look like they could kick a pebble down a sidewalk, I have to wonder if it might not have hung together better as a series if it had ended sooner. Similarly, there’s Kaley Cuoco’s other action comedy star vehicle, The Flight Attendant. A wild yet intriguing premise — what if a messy air hostess got roped into a murder plot by people taking advantage of the international travel required for her job? — sustained a fizzy yet suspenseful first season. Then… they made a second. Just as any good action comedy protagonist needs to know when to end a fight, any good action comedy needs to know when to end its run.

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