“There aren’t evil guys and innocent guys. It’s just … a bunch of guys.” — Steve Arlo (Ben Stiller), Zero Effect
Writer-director Jake Kasdan knows a thing or two about making good TV, and what it’s like to get screwed around by Hollywood. His debut feature, Zero Effect, was laced with a kind of bizarre, often low-key humor that dared its audience to come along for the ride: This is the way things are going to be, Kasdan seemed to be saying, and anyone who doesn’t want to play along can kindly just jog on. He helmed a few episodes of the critically praised but largely overlooked “Freaks and Geeks” and “Grosse Pointe,” and was on the verge of going legitimately mainstream when he took the reins on Orange County. But that film was a Mike White script meant to showcase Jack Black; Kasdan’s work was capable, but really, there’s not much any director can do with Black drumming on his belly. No, Kasdan is at his most confident when he’s working on his own material, which is why The TV Set is such a sharp and often hilarious satire of the life of a Hollywood TV writer struggling to find a balance between sharing his vision with the world and compromising with the suits so that his vision might actually be shared and not discarded like literally thousands of other pilots. If anything, Kasdan’s film is in danger of being what one of his network lackeys calls “a little too hip for the room”: The TV Set is rapid-fire inside baseball, from the ins and outs of pilot season and the upfronts down to below-the-line crew, a kind of aesthetically authentic look at production that makes “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” seem like just a saccharine hour of pseudo-reality shoehorned around its creator’s sanctimonious monologues (which, well, is the truth). The film’s sad depiction of the realities of the writing life are overwhelming, but The TV Set isn’t a Network-level melodrama, which both limits its audience appeal but guarantees that those who stay, those who go along for another of Kasdan’s rides, will be again rewarded. It’s a damn fine film, and deserves to be seen by pretty much everyone. But will it be? Not a chance. There’s just a little too much honesty here.
The film opens with Mike (David Duchovny), the harried writer at the center of everything, nervously conferring with Alice (Judy Greer) outside the Panda Network offices where they’re about to audition the final leads for “The Wexler Chronicles,” Mike’s pilot script. Duchovny is as un-leading-man as he can get here, sporting a thick beard he keeps neurotically scratching, as well as a slight beer gut. Mike is rooting for T.J. (Simon Helberg) to make the cut as the lead in the autobiographical script, but the network favors Zach (Fran Kranz), a bland, empty goofball who probably became an actor because it seemed easier than getting a real job. Zach’s gift is the kind of broad “humor” that brutally murders each joke, much like the over-the-top manager Ricky Gervais would up playing on his show within a show on “Extras” this season; it goes without saying that the network will fawn all over Zach, and that this will only be the first of many battles Mike wages with the executives who hold his career in their ignorant hands. The auditions unfold fairly quickly and with no musical cues behind them: Kasdan’s emphasis on crafting a realistic world is near absolute, and except for some of the more inane (yet eerily life-like) statements uttered by the network execs, the film often feels like a documentary that’s been re-enacted by actual stars. Chief among those execs is network head Lenny (Sigourney Weaver), a slightly ditzier but no less talented or soulless version of Faye Dunaway’s Diana Christensen in Network. Lenny is a master at the kind of corporate doublespeak that fuels the industry: “I love it just the way it is, but what if we changed this,” etc. She’s willing to go with Mike’s choice for the female lead, the down-to-earth Laurel (Lindsay Sloane), but insists on Zach in order for the show to go forward. But Mike’s got an ally in Richard (Ioan Gruffudd), a recent transplant from the BBC who’s getting a baptism by fire in his first go-round with American television. Richard is talented but also committed to producing quality programs, which is why he champions Mike’s script through the production process. The fact that Mike has someone at the network on his side makes for a slightly more complex drama than if it were merely one man against the machine, but Kasdan’s decision to make Richard British is a bit of a cop-out: The implication (actually pretty plainly stated several times) is that British programming has an edge over American in quality, and while there’s definitely an argument to be made there — the best comedy on American TV right now, “The Office,” is an adaptation of a British one — it would have been far more dynamic if one the Panda exec with good taste was American. As it is, we have no way to save ourselves but to look for help across the ocean. Kasdan also overlooks that the Brits also gave us the inspiration for “American Idol,” so perhaps it’s immature to paint them as saviors of the medium.
The rest of the narrative follows Mike’s uphill battle to shepherd the pilot through production, from Zach’s off-key acting to an absentminded director (Willie Garson), all the while constantly dealing with Lenny’s grinning insistences on changing more and more details of the script. The crux of the drama is Mike’s slowly eroding will, and the way he begins to rationalize the tweaks he’s making to his passion project. He’s caught between holding true to his vision and making the compromises that will likely increase the show’s odds of getting picked up for the fall schedule, which will help Mike and his wife, Natalie (Justine Bateman), who are about to have their second child. At one point in the editing process, Mike gets fed up and fires off an angry impromptu speech to Alice: “It’s not Shakespeare. … It’s not ‘The Sopranos,’ but it’s my show.” He rants that he doesn’t want to “pump shit into people’s living rooms” and be responsible for “making the world more mediocre.” In a film full of blatant honesty, the speech still stands out as a heartfelt plea from a writer-director wondering how he can possibly survive doing what he wants to do when he’s being forced to sell short his artistic vision at every turn. Duchovny’s voice typically hovers around a pleasant monotone, but he actually gets angry in this little diatribe, and Mike’s plaintive wish just to make a good show is heartbreaking.
Duchovny’s performance is welcome proof that he can do dramatic work beyond “The X-Files,” and his top-notch turn is matched by everyone around him. Weaver’s Lenny (the role was originally written for a man) is brilliant in her one-track addiction to crafting the perfect fall schedule for the upfronts, but she’s never too extreme to lapse into parody; rather, Kasdan’s believable dialogue keeps her firmly rooted in satire, where everything is just barely believable. It’s crazy, but not too crazy. And while Sloane is also dead-on as the weary ingénue, Kranz is surprisingly engaging as Zach. Kranz is talented enough to convincingly portray a bad actor, and Zach’s occasional good performances are that much more special for their infrequency. It’s a little weird to see an actor playing a bad actor so convincingly, as if he’s tipping the union’s collective hand on what it takes to hit the marks in boilerplate TV dramas; the same thing happened when Edward Norton played a con man feigning mental retardation in The Score, eternally casting doubt on the “skill” it takes for an actor to tackle the role of a handicapped person. But Kranz is great in the role, and some of Zach’s performances are joyously excruciating to watch.
There’s a lot to love in The TV Set: Kasdan’s script is downright witty, and runs a compact 90 minutes, just enough to make its point without getting bogged down or overstaying its welcome. Aside from a few slightly broader moments of its own, the film’s humor is the kind of accomplished and razor-edged writing that’s far too infrequent in a Hollywood increasingly turning out product aimed at 12-year-olds. If anything, Kasdan’s film is too good at what it does — making the obvious point that TV is pretty much a creative wasteland — to bring anything totally original to the scene. But it’s still fascinating to watch Mike navigate the increasingly murky waters of his chosen profession as he questions what it means to be true and just how far you can go before you sell out. In a way, Mike is the spiritual descendant of Bill McKay, Robert Redford’s idealistic politician in The Candidate; it’s not just whether Mike can stay true to himself, but if he really wants to. The TV Set sure won’t change anyone’s mind about the quality of modern television, whether they love or hate it, but as a testament to one man’s hellish time in the network trenches, it’s fantastic. Now if we could just get Kasdan a steady TV gig.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.When the Whistle Blows, Everything Falls Apart
Film | April 23, 2007 | Comments ()