I suppose it’s almost a miracle that writer/producer/director Jake Kasdan is still allowed to make movies. From Zero Effect to Freaks and Geeks to Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, Kasdan has brought his apparent jinx to several films and TV series over the past fifteen years. Perhaps he’s still allowed to work because the failure of these projects to find an audience at the time they were presented to the public is not his fault. He’s done great work on everything he’s touched, leading those projects to become cult favorites after audiences caught up to them.
But being told your work is best viewed after several years has elapsed has to be the ultimate backhanded compliment. Sure, it probably feels nice to eventually be vindicated, but in the “What have you done for me lately?” world of film and television production, it can only really lead to frustration. This frustration surely fed into The TV Set, Kasdan’s bitter satire about the network television development process. It’s readily apparent that the film is a personal project for Kasdan (it’s based on his experience working on Freaks and Geeks and attempting to turn Zero Effect into a television series), but it’s also a universal look into the compromise between art and commerce and how that compromise can quickly turn into bullying when commerce holds all the power. The fact that it has failed to generate the kind of fervent cult following that Zero Effect and Freaks and Geeks has amassed could have something to do with the cynicism on display, but that’s no excuse for the cold shoulder it received upon its release or its inability to find an audience on DVD.
Mike Klein (David Duchovny) is a television lifer. He has put in his time as a staff writer on various TV shows and has finally worked himself into the position to create his own show. Working from the tragedy of his brother’s suicide, Mike writes a pilot script that everyone loves. From Lenny (Sigourney Weaver), the president of the network, to Richard (Ioan Gruffudd), the head of programming, everyone agrees that Mike’s script is the best one of that pilot season. Now they just have to beat all the originality and creativity out of it.
The slow slide into mediocrity begins when Mike’s first choice to play the lead is overruled by Lenny in favor of Zach (Fran Kranz), a hack actor whose range stretches from over-the-top to way-over-the-top. Mike accepts this compromise after Lenny not-so-subtly threatens to kill the pilot if he doesn’t cast Zach. Resigning himself to working with a less talented actor, Mike throws himself into production.
But between Zach’s inability to maintain a consistent tone, a director (Willie Garson) who can’t stay on schedule, a surly director of photography (M.C. Gainey), a leading lady (Lindsay Sloane) who simultaneously flirts with and rejects a confused Zach, and Lenny applying constant pressure to drop the suicide of the main character’s brother–the inciting incident of the entire show, Mike starts to crack under the pressure. Instead of standing up to Lenny and her idiotic demands, he caves time and again, watering down and homogenizing his script until it’s barely a ghost of what he started with.
If this all sounds like entertainment industry navel-gazing and sour grapes, I suppose it is. But it’s intriguing, entertaining navel-gazing and sour grapes, and that’s what matters.
Kasdan doesn’t forget that the average audience member doesn’t understand the ins and outs of television pilot season. The film opens with some cleverly animated graphics that quickly explains how pilot scripts are commissioned, how many are shot, and just how few ever actually make it on the air. He then provides the audience with a relatable protagonist in the person of Mike.
I’ve never seen such a realistic portrayal of a writer on film. By turns cynical, depressed, hopeful, enthusiastic, and nervous, Mike is like several writers I know personally. He’s not the most socially aware guy in the world, but neither is he an antisocial dweeb, wallowing in frustration. While there are self-pitying aspects to his personality, he never comes across as an ungrateful wimp. He knows he has chosen this life and that he has a job to do to support his family. He’s also well aware that his fight to maintain at least a small part of his original vision is bound to make him sound like a self-important jerk. Duchovny captures all these competing personality traits and gives Mike a self-effacing sense of humor and sadness that centers the film, allowing Kasdan to skewer the absurdity of network television executives in the form of Lenny and her cavalcade of yes-men.
If the story had the possibility to contain a weak spot, it was in the potentially thin character of Lenny. But Weaver is so straight-faced and sincere in her passive-aggressiveness that she sells even the most outrageous of lines. I don’t want to spoil too many of Lenny’s ridiculous thoughts, but I’ll share just a few to give you a taste:
“Everyone always wonders, can Xena be funny? And I’m the person who’s saying: Fuck, yes! Let’s do it! I’ve always believed that Lucy Lawless has a great half-hour comedy in her!”
“It’s true, they’re both attractive, but Laurel is also really cute and I think that’s a good thing. She doesn’t let her cuteness get in the way of her hotness and that’s really special to me. Also, I think that Jesse has fake breasts and I believe that over the life of a series, the audience can feel that.”
“It’s a sexier version of the same thing, only they have Carmen Electra and a better concept.”
Kasdan’s contempt for Lenny and her ilk is palpable and he tries to cut this acidity by having Richard attempt to act as her conscience. Brought in from a successful tenure as the head of programming at BBC, Richard is supposed to be the voice of the artist within Lenny’s inner circle. But he quickly realizes that Lenny is a nearly unstoppable force and his instinct to always protect the writer could quickly lose him his job. It’s an interesting back-and-forth to watch Mike and Richard both betray their ideals and see the different effect it has on each man.
Beyond the horrors of production and dealing with obtrusive network notes, Kasdan also gives the viewer a glimpse into the everyday frustrations of working in the television industry. From Alice (Judy Greer), Mike’s chipper, double-talking manager to the toll it takes on everyone’s family life to the uselessness of audience testing, the film aims at many targets and scores a bullseye with all of them.
The TV Set received a barely there release in 2007. While it was hardly the stuff that blockbusters are made of, it deserved a better fate than it ultimately received. It’s failure to find an audience on DVD confounds me. While it is very specific in its targeting of the networks and their fear of anything that shows any originality, it remains a very funny movie with just enough broad jokes (the network’s biggest hit is a reality show called Slut Wars) to appeal to the mainstream while remaining a cautionary tale to aspiring Hollywood scribes to be careful what they wish for. It is an incredibly bitter film, but like most of Kasdan’s work, it’s well worth seeking out.
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