June 7, 2007

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The TV Set (R)
David Duchovny is a writer who watches as his soul is slowly crushed by the unstoppable behemoth that is the TV production process in The TV Set, a kind of existential horror movie about the creation of TV pilots.

Pilots are those first episodes of TV series. We see them during a new show’s first season and maybe get hooked on the series or maybe not. Or maybe we see the pilot long after we’ve been hooked on a show and marvel at how young everyone looks, how weird the sets are and how the characters all seem to have different hair. Part of that oddness could come from the fact that the pilot is often a singular creation, one episode that the show’s creators use to convince a network to pick up their series.

Here, writer and show creator Mike Klein (Duchovny) slowly grows accustomed to the crushing of his soul as he and his mercurial network try to make the pilot for The Wexler Chronicles. Mike envisions it as a vaguely HBO-ish show about a guy who returns to his home town after his brother commits suicide. But, as network exec Lenny (Sigourney Weaver) tells him, 80-some percent of “like, everybody” in American public finds suicide to be “sad.” Mike also learns that people like broad over subtle (he loses out on his pick for the main character, in part because the actor is considered too theater-like and he has a beard), that it’s good for an actress not to let her cuteness get in the way of her hotness and that maybe his show would be better if it were called Call Me Crazy! If Mike ever realized that Lenny really does base all of her decisions on what her 14-year-old daughter likes, he might have a stroke.

Mike thinks his one ally in this process is Richard (Ioan Gruffudd), an executive who is new to the network, having come from the BBC. Richard, Mike thinks, gets him. But Richard has his own problems — his wife Laurel (Lucy Davis) hates L.A. and his family is slowly falling apart. As Richard makes these personal compromises, he becomes more willing to make professional ones.

Mike’s own family is putting some pressure on him as well. Though his instinct is to stand his ground — to not, for instance, let them change the brother’s suicide into the mother’s death “slightly before her time” — his wife Natalie (Justine Bateman) points out that, with a baby and another kid on the way, it’d be really nice if he had a job. And Mike’s manager Alice (Judy Greer) seems equally eager to convince Mike to just get along, already.

What is it about watching one man’s dream of artistic expression get crushed by corporate mediocrity that’s just so darn funny? Duchovny is somehow perfect at expressing a kind of quiet anguish. As a writer, he is by his very nature a schlub, a loser in the Darwinian jungle of Hollywood. He knows this and yet he is desperate to hold on to some kind of hope that he can create something that is better than the unexceptional crap he fears it will become. At every turn we know, absolutely know in our bones, that he will not get his way and yet it is hilarious watching him struggle against and eventually give in to giving up yet another bit of ground to What the Network Wants.

Weaver is equally perfectly cast — she is pure unironic shallow evil. Her Lenny praises SlutWars, a reality show that has won the network enormous ratings, and can’t stand the “original” nature of The Wexler Chronicles (“original scares me” she says at one point). She is steely and yet somehow ditzy. She is frightening because she can’t be reasoned with — her decisions are left to the toss-of-a-coin-like response of her daughter. How can Mike’s pleas for story and character development ever fight that?

Jake Kasdan, the movie’s writer and director, suffered through the passion of Freaks and Geeks (the network wanted, according to interviews with the show’s creators, “more victories” for the geek characters and the show was cancelled during its first season despite having absolutely rabid fans). As a director on that show, he saw the demands of the network and the creativity-squelching process. This movie has the feel of an angry rant — a really funny angry rant, like a night at the bar with a friend who has just lost his job and decided to cut loose on his bosses. The TV Set is dark and defeated but still painfully laugh-out-loud hilarious. B+

Rated R for language. Written and directed by Jake Kasdan, The TV Set is an hour and 27 minutes long and is distributed in limited release by ThinkFilm. It finishes a run on Thursday, June 7, at the Screening Room in Newburyport and is playing in Boston. It will likely be released on DVD in September.