The Theory of Chaos

Thursday, April 12, 2007


Full review behind the jump

The TV Set

: Jake Kasdan
: Jake Kasdan
: Aaron Ryder, Jake Kasdan
: David Duchovny, Sigourney Weaver, Ioan Gruffudd, Judy Greer, Fran Kranz, Lindsay Sloane, Justine Bateman, Lucy Davis

The defining emotion of
The TV Set is agony. That’s not to say it isn’t funny, but it’s the sort of funny you get when the coyote looks overhead and sees the giant boulder about to crush him. Mike’s life is like a series of boulders, because he is trying to be creative in the television business.

The TV Set
stars David Duchovny as Mike, a TV writer and on-screen surrogate for writer/director Jake Kasdan. Kasdan made an indecently-clever feature debut at only 23 with 1998’s The Zero Effect but, heeding the advice all young writers hear in Hollywood, focused on TV instead, where writers are reputed to enjoy far more control and compensation. Forget the movies, with their meddling executives and tyrant directors – on the small screen, the rumor goes, the Writer is King!

But after working on one beloved-and-cancelled series after another (like
Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared), Kasdan is now, with wounded and wicked accuracy, able to portray television in a much different light; as a place where overpaid and emotionally-arrested executives emit gaseous clouds of narcissism and throw swell parties, and from which programs regularly emerge as a kind of side effect. Like Sisyphus and like that coyote, the TV writer’s fate inevitably involves a boulder.

Duchovny, ditching the lean dark suits of Agent Mulder and wearing a shaggy beard, pot belly, wrinkled shirt, and an expression of mounting suffering, plays an intelligent man who vaguely remembers the English language. He remembers loving it and speaking it, and wanting to use it to move audiences, but now he’s in a town where the word “concerns” has multiple and inevitably ominous meanings, and people use sentences like this: “We have the research…suicide is depressing to like 82 percent of everybody.” He’s no longer sure he’s in the right place, but as he glances at his very pregnant wife (Justine Bateman), he realizes that a course correction is no longer as easy as it used to be.

He’s written a “pilot”, the first episode for a proposed television series. Networks shoot dozens of pilots each year, only a handful of which will ever air and have additional episodes ordered. The TV Set, with the inevitability of planetary motion, shows how Mike’s very personal and touching light drama The Wexler Chronicles gets “developed” into a wiggling-booties-and-fart-jokes travesty called…well, I won’t spoil it, but the new title is devilishly plausible. In their efforts to guarantee a hit, networks manage to market-test every aspect of a show except what it’s actually like to watch and understand it. It reminds me of the Zucker brothers’ story about how their comedy series Police Squad! was cancelled after only six episodes because the jokes required people to pay attention to the screen. Mike, who is becoming increasingly decrepit from chronic back pain, looks in every scene like someone holding back the obvious question – why did they buy his script if they wanted to make a completely different show?

A variation of the same question is occurring to Richard McAllister (Ioan Gruffudd), a transplant from the BBC who has followed Hollywood money and the promise that he will be able to bring class and risk-taking to the schedule. But both his intentions and Mike’s yearnings run smack into Lenny (Sigourney Weaver), master of the Network.

Lenny is a swaggering, vacuous maniac who treats primetime as an outlet for her personal whims and values the reactions of her 14-year-old daughter over any professional. But she also has a hit show on the air, the reality-competition Slut Wars, which makes her untouchable. She has the inborn ability to simply forget any creative discussion that didn’t end the way she wanted it to, which allows her to keep bringing up the same bad ideas until her underlings, terrified, will it into being for her. The truth is that hiring “acclaimed” writers like Mike and “bold” executives like Richard are simply a way for Lenny to congratulate herself on her vision and generosity, after which she can proceed to roll over them. Weaver’s conviction in the performance is shudderingly convincing.

First there’s the casting. Mike’s personal choice, the sincere and talented TJ Goldman (Simon Helberg) is thrown out for his subtlety, his beard, and his air of being “too hip for the room” – Mike suspects this is code for “Jewish”. Instead the executives foist Zach Harper (Fran Kranz), a mugging idiot who develops a passive-aggressive fixation on Mike’s advice that he be a little less “big”. But at least he gets the charming Laurel Simon (Lindsay Sloane) to play the female lead, because as Lenny declares: “Her cuteness doesn’t get in the way of her hotness, and I find that very special.”

It’s always about give-and-take. It’s always about Mike forcing himself to believe that maybe, just maybe, he can write and shepherd the show well enough to survive all these suggestions. A key element of the plot is that the lead character is re-examining his life after his brother’s suicide. Watch as Lenny suggests, with twenty minutes left to shoot the funeral scene, that maybe they should consider whether the brother really has to die.

The movie’s thin budget makes it look pale and raggedy on the big screen, ironically it’s destined to play better in our living rooms. Occasionally it becomes too slapstick, and it can’t find a grip on any poignancy – the brother’s suicide in Wexler is drawn from Mike’s own life, and we don’t really see what it means to him that they’re taking that away from him. Ditto the collapse of Richard’s family life, we just don’t feel it as viscerally as we do his collision with this violently stupid business he hoped to do something meaningful in. He and Mike speak with each other like illicit lovers who understand each others’ wants, and how they don’t amount to a hill of beans.

The TV Set works best as an impassioned and witty pamphlet condemning the tyrants and fools. Movies about the entertainment industry tend to be conspicuous for how much they get wrong, because they are made by people who either don’t realize they have lost their perspective, or are afraid to be too honest, because they have to keep working with these people. Kasdan musters up enough strength to really break out and gaze at this bizarre place he’s chosen to make his living. The tragedy is that we know from this movie that neither he, nor Mike, are going to let the boulders stop them.


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