The T.V. Set
April 6th, 2007
The appeal of a movie like Jake Kasdan's "The T.V. Set" is easy to understand for an actor or creative type. The television pilot season is one of the most frustrating times in their careers, and the incidents portrayed might seem humorous to those "in the biz," if only because they can appreciate what Kasdan is going for.
While there were a few decent chuckles for this critic, there is little chance anyone outside of the major production cities will find even a mild guffaw in this lackluster effort.
One can presume the writer/director is writing what he knows. The son of esteemed writer/director Lawrence Kasdan (“Body Heat,” “The Big Chill” and “Silverado” are just three of the modern landmark movies in his C.V.), Jake Kasdan made his own remarkable debut in 1998 with the intelligent and quirky “The Zero Effect,” which featured Bill Pullman and Ben Stiller in some of their best work. After directing the pilots for two of Judd Apatow’s acclaimed but short-lived series, “Freaks and Geeks” and “Undeclared,” Kasdan attempted to mount a television show based on his first (and at that time only) movie, whose pilot was never even shown, let alone picked up by a network. (Apatow, who went on to co-write and direct “The 40 Year Old Virgin” and this summer’s “Knocked Up,” is co-executive producer of this film, along with Kasdan père). Surely, the frustration of putting all that time and effort into something so close to his heart and soul was the impetus for this effort. However, being so close to the material is probably the one thing that hurts this film more than anything else. In the hands of a more accomplished director, who had some relative distance for the events that inspired this script, the film could have been more entertaining and no so industry-inside. As it stands now, the film is a triptych of moments in the life of a television show, far too closed-off for the general public and not as entertaining as truly vicious movies like “The Player,” “Network,” “The Bad and the Beautiful” or “Sunset Blvd.” which really had something to say about the segment of society it was holding mirrors up to. And like most every other movie about entertainment that wasn’t directed by a Robert Altman or a Sidney Lumet or a Vincent Minnelli or a Billy Wilder (or, more sadly and succinctly, even like a movie directed by a Robert Altman or a Sidney Lumet or a Vincent Minnelli or a Billy Wilder), it will be met with a unquestionable thump even in the cities where it should get good play.
As the story goes, Mike Klein (a inexplicably hirsute David Duchovny, perhaps the beard is supposed to demonstrate wisdom) is a semi-successful writer-type who has just sold the screenplay for his new idea “The Wexler Chronicles” to the WB-like PDN (also known as “The Panda”), whose biggest show is called “Slut Wars.” A character-driven dramedy motivated by his own struggle to deal with his brother's suicide, Mike finds he is butting heads with Lenny (a brash and sexy Sigourney Weaver), the dominant, ferocious head of the network on every level of the show. Lenny doesn’t like Mike’s choices for the lead actors, she’s not very happy with the title and if only they could do something about the basic premise of the show, like save the dead brother and put him in prison. Burdened with the reality of not having worked in a while, with one young child already in the house and another one on the way, Mike begrudgingly begins work on the pilot, hoping that he can get things done his way long enough so the suits see what kind of magic he’s capturing.
If only this were true. Perhaps the film would work better if “The Wexler Chronicles” sounded even remotely interesting. Alas, even in its unaltered format, the show is pretty much sub-standard, despite Mike’s protestations that he’s trying to do something meaningful. What little we get to see of the show feels like half of the shows on television every year, with its generic and genial twentysomething lead actor (Fran Kranz) and attractive but not too sexy lead actress (Lindsey Sloane). Throw in a fish-out-of-water Brit production executive trying to navigate the madness of bland American television (Ioan Gruffudd), an annoyingly supportive manager (Judy Greer) and the assorted lot of eccentrics that work behind the scenes, and you have too many storylines that really don’t matter and never go anywhere, despite the film’s abridged running time (an anemic 89 minutes).
What lessons are to be learned by the audience from “The T.V. Set?” That working in Hollywood can be a living hell. Well, duh! Even my wonderfully sweet eighty-two year old grandmother, who still lives in that netherworld known as Canada, knows that. But a film with a less-than-stellar premise can still work if the performances are extraordinary. Sadly, only Sigourney Weaver is game enough to risk making herself look (properly) ridiculous. Everyone else looks so damn solemn, it’s as if neither they nor their director understood this was meant to be a parody. At least Duchovny has another “X Files” movie on the horizon.
My rating: C-