Sunday, October 5, 2008

'The TV Set'

Mike Klein (David Duchovny) is a terminally naive TV writer on the verge of seeing his pilot on the air. You can tell Mike feels good about his show, and The TV Set works hard, via omission and a counterpoint of bad plot ideas, to let you know that it offers a sincerely artistic musing on life. The few cut scenes and Mike's disclosure that the story is semi-autobiographical make the story arc of a man who abandons his life to return to his family and home town in the wake of his brother's suicide seem vulnerable and insightful.

Of course, it never gets made. Untold horrors await Mike and stand in his way. Among them:
Lenny (Sigourney Weaver), a TV executive who wants to axe "the suicide thing" because "it's depressing" and whose near-death experience bestows on her the revelation that life is short and "we can win Thursday night!"

Zach Harper (Fran Kranz), a totally empty vessel of a male lead whose acting ranges from 1990s sitcom-snark MU-UH-UH-UGGING to bizarrely accented homicidal stage whispers à la Travis Bickle.

A director, Brian (Willie Garson), so bent on mining each establishing shot for its avant garde potential that characters don't even appear on screen and dialogue loops over tracking shots of, like, trash, man—an old dude pushing around his trash!

Alice (Judy Greer), Mike's mostly unsympathetic agent whose advice on almost any issue of creative control is to accede to the studio's suggestions.

Focus groups.
By the end of the movie, everything touching about Mike's pilot has been cannibalized and replaced by exactly the insipid production choices you'd expect.

Which is the problem with The TV Set. While supposedly writer/director Jake Kasdan based it on actual crimes committed against the six pilots he tried to produce for television, that authenticity doesn't overcome the predictability. Almost all of us already know that Hollywood is a gutless, soulless schlock-factory that routinely obliterates the creative and quirky in favor of appealing to the lowest-common denominator, and those of us who do not are the lowest common denominator.

The trouble with a satire as bleak as this film's is that it needs to be revelatory to get the audience past how depressing it is, or it needs to be really funny to help us down the bitter pill. As it is, when the thoughtful Jewish stage actor gets passed over for Zach's blonde and one-dimensional mugging, when the suicide gets scrapped, when the sweetly shy attraction between the male and female leads gets replaced with an OMG LOOK AT DAT ASS—SHE'S SMOKIN' sexual pitch, it's all so familiar. The reaction isn't, "Oh, good Lord. Is this how it really works?" Instead it's, "Yeah, that'll happen."

Other, minor problems attend the overall non-revelatory tone.

Mike's agent, Alice, comes off as an uneducated Philistine for most of the film and doesn't stick up for him at all, leaving you wondering why on earth he'd choose her to represent him. Her spineless agreement to studio demands becomes an unrealistic straw man performance that ignores any logical explanation for Mike's putting up with her. Only perhaps 25 minutes from the end does she seem to have any affection or concern for him, helping him strategize how to sabotage the network's plans.

Ioan Gruffudd co-stars as Richard McCallister, an English wunderkind snatched away from British TV to import new ideas and a little class and sophistication to American programming. As you'd expect, executives ignore his suggestions and do everything possible to avoid sophistication. Instead of exploring how others stymie his ambitions, giving us another glimpse into the dynamics of network ignorance, the plot settles for the obvious while also lingering aimlessly in scenes about his fragmenting marriage.

Finally, and most unfortunately, Mike doesn't get a single win. He's met by disappointment in every way, and it's impossible to figure out why he'd even do this. Kasdan serves up a baby on the way as motivation, but it seems an unsatisfying explanation for why he'd be a total doormat. For a writer, he doesn't even get in a verbal zinger. Lenny and other execs keep telling him, "We love the show!" before suggesting more changes. Not once does it occur to him to say, "Well, if you love it, it must be fine. You loving it tells me: we've made the right decisions, and we should go forward with it as-is!"

But he doesn't, because a small victory would derail the ruthlessly bleak vision of the satire. Perhaps a need for vengeance or a kind of unburdening of his enormous (and doubtless justified) frustrations explains Kasdan's single-mindedness of purpose. Unfortunately, in adhering to strongly to the message, he forgets to make it fun. Their are some laughs, of course: almost any scene with Weaver's Lenny crackles with the banality of evil — or, more aptly in her case, the evil of banality. But as the film goes on, they get thinner on the ground.

It wouldn't be so noticeable if Kasdan were pulling back the curtain on an ugly reality no one knew, but anyone who's watched any TV satire in the last twenty years has seen someone else hit these points better, briefer and funnier. The Simpsons covered all this ground on The Itchy, Scratchy and Poochie Show in 22 minutes. For the most part, they do so in this clip alone (which is tremendously funny and also points up how The TV Set missed a huge opportunity to satirize the idiocy of focus groups and their reliance on confirmation bias to produce results their directors want to induce):

The problem isn't that Kasdan's message isn't right, welcome and deserving of more attention. It's that he forgot to make it fun. Those of us who agree with him don't need to be taken along for the ride: we're there already, which unfortunately leaves us with the time to nitpick his approach. Everyone else needs an inducement to get in the car and see what passes by along the way. For those people, The TV Set doesn't given them enough fun things to look at.