World Premiere, 87 min., Color
Review by: Charlie Prince
David Duchovny shines in his own comic, imposed-upon way in The TV Set, which screened at the Tribeca Film Festival this month. I haven’t liked him this much in a role since the little-known (but, to my mind, very good) Playing God, a spoof on the modern crime film. This time around he’s in a film poking fun at Hollywood itself. His character, Mike Klein, has just sold a television pilot (”The Wexler Chronicles”) to a major studio, and now he must endure the wrecking ball advice of studio executives as they “improve” upon his original idea (including headstrong studio honcho Lenny, played by Sigourney Weaver). Will Mike stand on principle and defend the integrity of his idea, or capitulate to studio demands? Watching Duchovny navigate his project to the finish line is laugh-out loud funny and witty to boot.
“They loved it,” Mike’s agent, played by Judy Greer, reports back without fail after every conversation with the studio, a sure sign to Mike that she’s about to break some terrible news to him. It seems the recently-hired exec Richard, played by Ioan Gruffudd, actually does love it – The Wexler Chronicles, a sitcom surrounding one man’s attempt to move on with his life after his brother’s suicide, reminds Richard of the bold programming that made him a star at his previous job at BBC in London. But, of course, Richard works for Lenny, and she’s chock-full of suggestions on how to improve small aspects of the show, aspects like the name, the lead actor, the whole suicide thing (she repeatedly asks, does the brother have to commit suicide?). As the audacity of what is being suggested continues to increase, Mike’s health gets worse and worse, a combination of a bad cold and back problems. This pattern allows for some simple, funny cues – when Sigourney Weaver’s character makes a suggestion, implying the show won’t get picked up if her suggestion is not adopted, we know Mike is about to reach for his aching back.
Greer does an excellent job as Mike’s unflappably perky agent. Under the umbrella idea that everyone wants the same thing, that is to make the best pilot they can and get it on the air, she tries to smooth over the fact that they actually want radically different things by always portraying bad news as positive, and resorting to evasive double-talk whenever Mike presses for details (i.e. “their concerns are still concerning them.”). At other times she’s more plainly just misleading Duchovny’s character. For example, at one point early in the film Mike is certain he knows who he wants to play the lead, but his agent convinces him that he should bring in two people so that the execs won’t feel like the decision has been made for them. Mike hates the idea because the other candidate over-acts grossly (or can’t act at all) and the risk that he’d get the lead in his project is galling. His agent says it’s just a formality and they’ll see that Mike’s preferred choice is the better one (but, if they choose the other, it’s not the end of the world – which is what Mike keeps seizing on – it would be the end of the world to him). Of course, Weaver and the other execs are floored by the over-acting and Mike’s candidate does not get the part. Mike’s agent knew this was exactly what was going to happen, of course. Mike knows it’s going on too, and eventually asks her: “Don’t you get sick of doing that? Bending the truth so it’s less objectionable.” The only time Greer’s character seems to get flustered is when Mike is aghast at discovering she has not seen the classic 1978 television show Taxi. When it comes up a second time she defends herself by noting that she’s moved it up in her “queue” – a fantastically understated reference to Netflix. Very funny.
The choice for the lead actor is of course only one of many, many problems. As Weaver’s character Lenny repeatedly sabotages the heart of Mike’s show, numerous other problems pop up around him as well. His goofball lead actor becomes borderline unstable when his romantic efforts towards the leading lady are rejected, resulting in strange, pouty or worse acting performances for the camera. And small moments, like when the assistant director dismisses a union crane operator’s request, you know by the union worker’s reaction that they’re going to intentionally sabotage the next shot – a time delay that will result in them losing their star child actor who is prohibited by law from working more than an eight hour day. Mike struggles with whether he should stand up for making good TV, or he should be compliant to ensure the show gets on the air (usually these decisions are made with his pregnant wife in the room, who reminds him that they could use the paycheck). And even then, when Mike is on the verge of refusing to accept the studio’s changes, Richard comes to him. Richard’s credibility for quality programming allows him to say (in good, though naïve, faith) that he’ll fight for Mike’s story, noting that it has to be the brother that commits suicide. However, we know that Richard’s efforts at playing good cop will not outweigh Lenny’s bad cop antics, especially after she has a break-through ratings success with the crass “Slut Wars.” At the end, we watch Mike stare up at the screen in agony, in contrast to everyone celebrating around him, that he’ll now have to actually write – for years maybe – for this aberration of a show that had started off meaning so much to him.
Not a pretty picture of the television market, and hardly surprising given all the junk that is on television these days. But still, part of what makes The TV Set particularly funny is the context – it was directed by Jake Kasdan who has worked on several television pilots himself, and after the screening at the Tribeca Film Festival last week, he made it clear that most of the things you see in the film are very near to recreations of things that have happened to either him or his friends in the real process of trying to get a network to pick up a pilot – now that’s scary!
The good news is that given its stellar cast and the positive response at the Tribeca Film Festival, this film is almost certain to get distribution. The film is a far cry from the antics you’d find in your average Ben Stiller or Will Ferrell movie, but for those who like sarcastic send-ups with a little wit, don’t miss The TV Set.
© Charlie Prince
Filed under: Movie Reviews and Movie Reviews: USA and Contributors: Charlie and Rating: Good ★★★ and Film Festivals: Tribeca Film Festival 2006