'Get Shorty': How Elmore Leonard's Showbiz Satire Became a Small-Screen Gem

Taking a page out of the 'Fargo' playbook, Epix's take on pulp novelist's Hollywood send-up starts from scratch – and nails it

Ray Romano, Sean Bridgers and Chris O'Dowd in Epix's "Get Shorty." Credit: Epix

When the legendary screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz got to Hollywood, he sent a telegram to his friend Ben Hecht back home in New York: "Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots." That's been a fantasy for hustlers ever since – the idea of Hollywood as a motherlode of suckers waiting to be fleeced by the right guy with the right scheme. 

On Get Shorty, Miles Daly wants to be that right guy – a Nevada gangster with an Irish accent, bluffing his way into the movie business. He's lost his taste for the mob life, especially since his wife left him after she got sick of waiting for him to go legit. "Katie was 19, back when she thought it was sexy to be with a tough guy," he complains. "But it's not fucking sexy, limping back to your apartment and scraping blood from under your nails. Opening a beer and watching fucking Storage Wars."

Get Shorty is a freewheeling crime caper based on the 1990 Elmore Leonard novel that already inspired the excellent 1995 John Travolta movie, the first of his big post-Pulp Fiction resurrections in his Barbarino Messiah mode. The novel also inspired the godawful 1998 sequel Be Cool, set in the music business – the Suge Knight character is wearing a Biggie t-shirt, which isn't intended as a joke. (Unfortunately, that one became a John Travolta movie too, and bombed harder than Battlefield Earth.) But this TV Shorty is a totally different type of adaptation. It takes the Fargo approach: use the original more for the spirit than the story, with a new crew of characters walking through the same seedy environment. It works because it's scrappy, funny and fast on its feet, zipping from mob violence to low-life banter. And it's appropriately on Epix, a small-time hoodlum of a network that nobody seems to have ever noticed before.

And instead of Travolta, it's Chris O'Dowd, best known for the beloved Irish cult sitcom Moone Boy, who plays Daly, a mob enforcer with a conspicuous brogue and a sad-eyed mug that suggests he's taken a few too many punches. He works for a crime queenpin (the superb Lidia Porto) in the town of Pahrump, Nevada, out at the Silver Dust Casino. The boss sends him out to Hollywood to collect a debt from a screenwriter who got in over his head gambling to finance his script. Miles and his sidekick, Louis (Deadwood's Sean Bridgers), think it sounds like a fun gig. "We'll make a trip out of it, see some celebrities. Sandra Bullock will personally give you a handjob." 

They end up with nothing but a dead man's screenplay, the guy's blood and brains splattered all over the pages. But Miles reads it – a ridiculous bodice-ripper drama called The Admiral's Mistress – and gets the insane idea this could be his big break. It's his ticket to show business and the chance to win back his family. His boss likes the scheme – she thinks financing the movie might be a way to launder her cash flow. But she has a creative demand or two. She wants John Stamos.

Co-creator Davey Holmes (from Shameless and In Treatment) makes it a satire in the mode of crime-vs.-art thrillers from Robert Altman's The Player to Woody Allen's Bullets Over Broadway – inside every killer is an aspiring screenwriter, and vice versa. The whole cast is excellent, including Ray Romano as the sleazy producer of straight-to-video exploitation flicks who gets muscled into going along with Miles' movie dreams, like Marc Maron in GLOW. But O'Dowd is the key to Get Shorty and he's ultimately what makes it such a trip – instead of trying to compete with John Travolta's Brooklyn swagger, he makes Miles a different kind of thug. He's got a haunted face for a hit man – a mug that hints he's starting to have trouble turning off the feelings when it's time to clinch the job. 

Miles sees Hollywood as the sucker he wants to con, and because he's a pretentious schmuck at heart, he gets caught up in the fantasy himself. He really sees this stupid movie he's selling as his life story. When the misbegotten mobster starts pitching the script to Romano's character, he barely even realizes he's describing himself. ("He sees some terrible shit, and he does some terrible shit, and by the time he comes home looking for her, he's too fucked up in the head to connect. So he needs to find that part of himself that remembers how to love. And you know, there's funny bits.") All Miles wants is to redeem himself by conning the Hollywood idiots. But the reason Get Shorty clicks is that he's a bona fide American idiot himself.