The TV Set
2007Director: Jake Kasdan
Cast: David Duchovny, Fran Kranz, Sigourney Weaver
elevision has always been mostly rubbish: that's a truism. What's changed is the kind of rubbish. The great coarsening of pop culture has marginalized the learn-a-lesson, end-with-a-hug formula. In the place, there's purported reality and the whiff, however faint, of sex. If much of this is casually offensive to thinking viewers, maybe it's the price we have to pay for South Park.
The protagonist of The TV Set, Mike (David Duchovny), would likely reject this calculus; at times, his artistic ideal seems to be the ‘80s sitcom. Mike is the creator of potential TV series The Wexler Chronicles, which, as network president Lenny (Sigourney Weaver) points out, is a terrible name. Mike is charged with producing a pilot, and the creative differences intensify. To be fair, Mike aspires to create something more personal and sophisticated than Growing Pains. The movie stands or falls on whether you think this vision could produce something more entertaining than Lenny's flagship show, Slut Wars. Both Mike and his creator, Jake Kasdan (a veteran of the short-lived, much-loved “Freaks and Geeks”), have a penchant for sentimentality, but only Kasdan uses it to flatter his audience, and for their taste at that. It would be unfair to draw a parallel with his dad Lawrence, who wrote and directed The Big Chill, but one needs to be unfair sometimes.
There is subtlety in how gradually Mike's vision is compromised, and how inevitable that seems. We see, for instance, Laurel (Lindsay Sloane), the pilot's female lead, slowly change from quirkily cute to blandly hot. We see Mike's premise—guy goes back to his hometown after his brother's suicide—rewritten, because philistine Lenny doesn't find the funeral scene funny.
Thing is, you might find yourself agreeing with Lenny's objections: not because the pilot isn't commercial, but because it isn't very good. The one line that's repeated all the time, about a gym teacher haunting Wexler's dreams, wouldn't be funny no matter how Zach (Fran Kranz), who lands the role of Wexler, delivered it. And the big post-funeral scene between Zach and Laurel is treacly: the kind of treacle you need an excellent performance to redeem. Remarkably, Kranz almost pulls it off; in fact, he has a hand in all the best moments of the movie, including the few that are truly funny. He gets to display two forms of bad acting—a Gilbert Gottfried permanently raised voice, and a truly awful Method mess, which murders the burgeoning chemistry between Zach and Laurel.
The character of Zach is funny because it's clear that he's a doofus. On the other hand, the script insufficiently satirizes Mike, and Duchovny doesn't help. In a role that could've benefited from some Spacey-like arrogant sharpness, he instead ineffectually whines his way through the movie. We can neither sympathize with him nor laugh at him.
Weaver gives an oddly muted, partly effective performance. Since we're mentioning real-life fathers, hers was head of NBC in the ‘50s, and was known as the guy who tried to bring quality programming to the network. (He failed, but you owe him for The Tonight Show). Sigourney is happy to let the script indict Lenny, declining to add any extra monstrosity. It's telling that Kasdan doesn't think Lenny's bad taste is indictment enough: to really drive home her callousness, she tells her head programmer (Ioan Gruffudd, wasted) to forget his wife (Lucy Davis, wasteder) and son.
Kasdan piles on because, really, what's not to like about Slut Wars? OK, plenty, starting with the sexist title, but you can't blame someone for preferring scantily clad women to a suicide sitcom. Reality TV has taken off because it's easier to find characters than to create them from scratch. It takes talent to construct a fictional figure as lively as a judiciously edited real person. We don't see that talent in Mike. We glimpse it in Kasdan through Zach, and through Mike's manager (Judy Greer), whose perkiness wearies her as much as it does Mike, but it's not enough to make the movie more than adequate. Still, adequate is an achievement. Movies are mostly rubbish: that's a truism.
The TV Set is now in limited release.
By: Brad Luen
Published on: 2007-05-03