Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The TV Set (Independent, 2006)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights resrved

My partner Charles and I got to the library to see what turned out to be one of the best recent movies we’ve seen: The TV Set, written and directed by Jake Kasdan (son of Big Chill writer-director Lawrence Kasdan, and himself a TV vet with a series called Freaks & Geeks which ran for two years on NBC — apparently Kasdan fils didn’t think the network did enough to salvage it when it ran into ratings trouble and the bitter, caustic portrait of the TV world in this movie was his revenge). Mike Klein (a surprisingly homely David Duchovny — whom I didn’t recognized, but then during its run on TV I watched The X-Files exactly twice and both times found it a gimmicky program, a generic crime drama with an ill-integrated overlay of the supernatural) is a TV writer-director who’s pushed his latest series concept onto the Panda Television Network (PTN) and its head of programming, Lenny (Sigourney Weaver).

Apparently Kasdan originally intended this role for a man, and when Weaver was cast he didn’t bother to change either the name or any of the dialogue — though Weaver’s casting was an ironic masterstroke given that her father, Sylvester “Pat” Weaver, actually worked as head of programming at NBC from 1950 to 1955 and, more than any other person, created the parameters of what that job would entail from then on. Sterling Quinlan in his book Inside ABC describes Weaver père as one of the three most influential program directors in the history of American television and said he “contributed many of the formats that are still popular today” — two of the shows he personally created, Today and Tonight, are not only still on the air but are still ratings blockbusters — “and who endeavored to create for the medium the kind of programs he thought the public should have.” Quinlan’s other two most influential program directors in TV history, Oliver Treyz (ABC, 1956-1962) and Fred Silverman (who in the 1970’s and early 1980’s worked at all three major networks — CBS, ABC and NBC, in that order, were important because they used research to determine what programs viewers would like — and that, of course, is the sort of character Weaver fille is playing here.

The series Mike Klein is pitching to PTN is The Wexler Chronicles, a sort of part-comedy, part-drama about a big-city attorney who, grief-stricken by the suicide of his older brother, returns to the small town that spawned him and re-connects with his family and his old girlfriend. Only, as in the real-life TV industry, Lenny and the other people at the network gang up on his idea and purge it of anything that gives it power and depth. They also force him to accept a shallow, superficially ingratiating actor, Zach Harper (Fran Kranz — let’s see, the characters include a girl named Lenny and the cast includes a boy named Fran!), who seems able to underplay or overplay but not play anything in between, instead of Klein’s choice, T. J. Goldman (Simon Helberg), who gives an audition where he mumbles and strokes his beard a lot (at Mike’s ill-advised suggestion, he’s grown a beard, making him look more like a young rabbi in training than the star of a TV show) and blows the role.

Lenny insists that she’ll only pick up the pilot and put the show on the air if Zach plays the lead and if Mike gets rid of the brother’s suicide — and Mike tells her, natch, that the brother’s suicide is the emotional linchpin of the show and was inspired by his own brother’s suicide. Mike gets a green light to shoot a pilot with the suicide only to be told, on the set, with only 10 minutes left to wrap the scene, to rewrite and reshoot so that it’s the central character’s mother rather than his brother who died, not of suicide but simply of old age (and Kasdan’s writing for the revised scene is deliciously, deliberately inept). The brother is still alive but is now in prison, where the lead character visits him. (Mike had hired an actor for the role, but only intending to use him in flashback scenes in which the central character is inspired by his recollections of his brother.)

The TV Set — a marvelously punning title referring both to the location where a TV show is filmed and the device on which it is viewed — offers us grim looks at the process by which TV shows are tested on viewers: the focus-group meetings and the devices people are given that look like the giant remote controls and cell phones of old (pre-transistorization) and contain knobs which you’re instructed to turn to the right if you like something and to the left if you don’t. (They even do this on the cable news networks during the Presidential debates now, and show the wavy lines of like and dislike across the air as the candidates are speaking — yet more proof, if any was needed, of how totally American politics have degenerated into showbiz.)

There’s also a grim scene in which, trying out new titles for the show — Lenny having decided in her finite wisdom that The Wexler Chronicles is a lousy title — they buttonhole people in shopping malls and ask them if they’d watch a TV show bearing a certain title. The man they ask — a late-hippie type with a beard and long hair — hears the titles read off and asks the obvious question, “What’s the show about?” “We’re not concerned with that, we just want you to rate the title,” he’s told. As a result of the mangling of his original concept, what finally makes it (barely) onto PTN’s schedule is titled Call Me Crazy! and has the most banal dialogue Jake Kasdan could put his tongue into his cheek long enough to write — as well as a big fart on the soundtrack when the central character visits his still-living but imprisoned brother and the brother walks away after the meeting.

The TV Set isn’t exactly fresh satire, but it’s still a nicely grim look at the world of mass entertainment and how incessantly and implacably the process of “development” smooths out all the rough edges and leaves everything on TV at the same level of banality (actually at several levels of banality), and it’s all too clear why Mike Klein doesn’t take the route of bailing out of there and walking out with his show and his integrity still intact — not only does he have a wife (Justine Bateman) and a child he can barely afford, but she’s well along in a pregnancy with a second one — and her looming belly says more than words ever could about why he has to eat all the network’s shit and keep his job (and his income). Duchovny turns in a workmanlike performance but is way overshadowed by Weaver, who’s remarkably severe and masculine-looking (through much of the film she looks like Mick Jagger in drag) and she’s absolutely marvelous in the role — but then again, the villain is usually more interesting than the hero …