TV review: Showtime’s Action is four episodes of half-baked ideas about sports betting

Wednesday, 17 April 2019 11:45 EST

Do we really need yet another bit of TV to remind us that any production which attempts to appeal to everyone will end up appealing to no one? Apparently the producers of Showtime’s four-part documentary series “Action” sure thought so and got this series about professional gamblers/gambling in America greenlighted.

Episode 1 begins with, and screen time is ultimately dominated by, four gamblers at various levels of professionalism: full-timer Bill “Krack” Krackomberger, aspiring entertainment personality Kelly “@KellyInVegas” Stewart, hardcore hobbyist Todd Wishnev, and insufferable tipster David “Vegas Dave” Oancea. Later episodes add David Halpern, the self-described top NFL bettor in Las Vegas, and “The Illegal Bookie” are added to the mix.

NFLbets’ll get into just what an unseemly mess said mix is momentarily but, since the Action team saw fit to give so much screen time to Oancea, we’ll definitely devote some words to the obnoxious jackass. As a presentation of at semi-socially acceptable adults gambling responsibly (if on a high budget), Kelly and Krack are veritable plusses on the gambling world’s side. Halpern comes off as a hard partier, but we accept that he socializes in rarified air; and while Wishnev isn’t exactly aggrandizing the image of the high-level gambler, in the end he’s mostly harmless.

But “Vegas Dave”? This dude lives with his parents because the series makes clear that no one else can stand him, literally nearly dug his own grave several times on the way to running up $700,000 in debts, tried to scam his way into ripping off sportsbooks and spends most of his screen time endlessly bragging. In short, guys like Oancea have been selling trash TV since at least Barbara Walters’s heyday: Both the highly talented and highly flawed can make great TV; the combination is golden, producing the right alchemy of awe and schadenfreude.

Perhaps the presence of Vegas Dave helps keep Action as a production of any value to either the gambling industry, sports betting enthusiasts or even the general viewer, many other elements are at play. In an effort to follow the unquestionable “reality TV” format, time aplenty is devoted to the personal lives of the bettors. For example, the imminently watchable Kelly does little more in episode 2 than getting electrolysis for epilation; we see Wishnev working in his small Vegas apartment but have no idea what his job actually is.

Meanwhile, as part of the continued Sisyphean efforts to be all things to all viewers, Action also makes asides explaining the very fundamentals of betting; you know, like “Parlay” and “over/under.” Fair enough, NFLbets supposes, but the producers are still introducing stuff like this in episode 4? We’d argue that none of this should appear in this series at any time after about 15 minutes into episode 1. Unless this show *isn’t* actually about gambling.

But then … the changing shape of legalized sports betting in the US gets so much time that the bettors themselves are kept off the screen for quarter-hours at a time (in the case of Oancea, so much the better). A few high-powered cameos – human bowling ball Chris Christie, Cousin Sal and Jimmy Vaccaro among them – appear to indicate that Action will dish on the current state of gambling law in the US or maybe the history of sports betting.

Instead, we’re bogged down in stories of woe from Atlantic City, an increasingly irrelevant spot on the American sports betting/gambling map, with nary a mention of the biggest grower of and destroyer of that city’s casino industry, one Donald J. Trump. Several times are we told that states like Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, New Mexico and Mississippi have legalized sports betting, but no insight whatsoever is given into these operations, and NFLbets would be willing to bet that certain states are raking in well more in tax revenues for the state than the pathetic sportsbook operations in Atlantic City. (It can’t be that a tv program doesn’t want to show successful Native American-run businesses, can it…?)

Most egregious of all, however, was the insistence by sometime on the production team and/or Showtime to show “both sides of the issue.”

While aggrandizing full-time sports betting, the Action team felt it necessary to throw in the usual melodramatic stories about “people ruin their lives gambling” while aggrandizing a schmuck like Oancea victimizing those exact same addicts. We’re soberly told very early in episode 1 – and the point is frequently reiterated – that maybe 1% can make a living at full-time gambling, that breaking even is above average in sports betting, that every bettor bottoms out, that everyone loses far more often than he/she wins, yet almost everything we see is winning, at least until the Super Bowl. And even then most of this series’ protagonists land on their feet.

So in the end, who is the target audience for Action? Certainly neither the seasoned sports bettor nor the novice. “Reality” tv fans may appreciate the personal bits centering on these literal and figurative characters, but the newsy angles thrown in just wrecks all the glorious pretense of traditional “reality” shows. Simply put, the reaction to Action from many is certain to be apathy; this series represents at best a failed opportunity to present a meaningful deep-dive into the sports bettor’s lifestyle.

Odds this series ever gets a sequel: 50/1.