Judge Brett Cullum plans to get out his ironies board. He's got a lot of ironies to do after watching The TV Set.
Mike: If I don't worry about the content in my show, then I'm part of the
problem. I'm making the world more mediocre!
In The TV Set we get to see a sardonic, all-too-real satire of producing a television sitcom pilot. It's a painful process, and this film shows every nasty detail; we get to see all subtlety and art yanked right out of a production by studio executives and test audiences who have equal hands in dumbing down the show for easy mass consumption. It's a smart film, full of great performances, but it's so "insider" I wonder if the general public will really care. The comedy isn't broad enough, the performances aren't over the top, and the plot is too depressing. It becomes everything the development executive accuses the fictional show in question of being. It's an ironic production that knows how to skewer the very world everyone in the production works for. This is a bunch of television and movie people showing you why everything they do has no artistic value.
A writer named Mike (David Duchovny, The X-Files) has come up with an autobiographical sitcom named The Wexler Chronicles about a man who comes back to his home town to deal with his brother's suicide. The idea is that this big-city lawyer finds himself and happiness through the tragedy which sparks his self examination. The pilot is chosen to be produced, and a network executive named Lenny (Sigourney Weaver, Alien) is helping to consult on how to get the show on broadcast schedule. She favors stupid television like her reality hit Slut Wars, and she only takes the advice of her 14-year-old daughter as she decides what to change. Lenny doesn't get the show Mike is making, but she does know how to make a crowd pleaser. From casting to retooling the plot, Lenny destroys any shred of integrity Mike's project has. The problem is, her ideas send the show through the roof with test audiences, proving that Lenny knows what will sell, better than anyone around her. But does that serve art or commerce?
This is director/writer Jake Kasdan's (Freaks and Geeks) third film, and the process he is lampooning here is one he and his cast are intimately familiar with. Almost every actor in the film has ties to television. David Duchovny, Willie Garrison (Sex and the City), Andrea Martin (SCTV), Judy Greer (Arrested Development), Justine Bateman (Family Ties), Lucy Davis (Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip), and Ioan Gruffudd (Fantastic Four) have all been tied to major television projects. Sigourney Weaver's father was a television executive at NBC, so even she has intimate knowledge of the business despite mainly being a film actress. Originally her part was written as a man, but Weaver makes the most of it by turning the character into a likable barracuda who knows how to get her way. Kasdan shoots the film in a widescreen aspect ratio to make the distinction, and uses techniques to insure we know watching The TV Set that this is a movie rather than a broadcast production. The narrative is all about the struggle of art against a business that will recognize only marketable images.
The main problem is the process of getting a show to series is long, painful, repetitive, and not much fun. The TV Set shows us this process with barely any filter. We are subjected to an hour and a half of people uncomfortably not getting to do anything they want, and being run over by executives who could care less about anything but ratings. It's a comedy that is more about the absurd situation and process than producing major guffaws. The performances are painfully realistic. At the core we see Duchovny's reserved "every man" take on Weaver's network executive. Weaver turns in a fabulously cruel performance that reminds me of Faye Dunaway's Network character painted even more broadly. "Originality scares me!" is her guiding mantra. Duchovny plays things close to the hip, realistic and simple. Justine Bateman stands out as the kind of pregnancy wife you'd be happy to come home to, and serves as the inspiration for why the writer puts up with all the pain. The supporting cast runs through its bits with precision as well, and the film is likable for being so down to earth. I suspect the people who will love this film are actors and writers who have been through this process or are most aware of how the industry works. Anyone who has an interest in the reality of producing fantasy will appreciate it. The TV Set will never have broad appeal, but to those of you out there who wonder what television is really like, here's your answer.
The TV Set had a short run theatrically, but the DVD is chock full of extras that make home viewing the best way to see it. The DVD transfer is clean and bright with gaudy colors on the set contrasting with more subdued color schemes in the office and home settings. The 2.35:1 ratio is preserved, and will appear with black borders on any size television. The five-channel sound mix is functional providing clear dialogue with just a few atmospheric directional effects. The real jewels found here are a pair of commentaries. First up is one with director Jake Kasdan and lead actor David Duchovny, with support from Lindsay Sloane and Aaron Ryder as they discuss the production and on set antics. Another commentary is provided by Kasdan again, but this time joined by fellow director Judd Apatow (The 40 Year Old Virgin), who worked with him on series like Freaks and Geeks to talk about the inspiration behind the film. There is the standard "making of" featurette, as well as an inconsequential deleted scene from the upfronts segment. It's ironic that such an insider inspired movie gives us even more deeply insider inspired extras. It's a great package.
The TV Set is a smart film, but perhaps it is too smart. The performances are great, the script crackles with insider terms, and the whole thing shows us what a frustrating soul-sucking experience television can be. It's a dark comedy that doesn't have many major laugh moments, and it skewers the industry the cast emerged from. The film should be mandatory viewing for L.A. residents, acting hopefuls, wannabe scriptwriters, and anyone who mistakenly thinks of television as glamorous or artistic. It's much more interesting than it is funny, and more insightful than it is entertaining. It's a well-made movie that will have a hard time finding a wide audience, because frankly most people don't care how crappy comedy gets on the air. It's a brilliantly produced DVD that expands on what the film did initially. It gives us the ultimate insider's guide to the "box of shit" that we all dearly love so much. Not guilty.
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