The inevitability of artistic compromise in the face of bottom-line chasing execs isn’t exactly unmined satiric territory, but that doesn’t stop Jake Kasdan from throwing himself whole-hog into another retread of “The Player,” albeit one that benefits from its appropriately TV-style small scale. Kasdan’s reasons for devoting his time to such a bitter pill are undoubtedly his own past experiences in dealing with chowder-headed network bigwigs and having to watch projects close to his heart go through the gristmill so as to appeal to an increasingly infantilized TV audience.
For sure, the usual parade of sharp-tuned comic actors and a healthy dose of insidery sniping help make “The TV Set“‘s fleet eighty-something minutes flash by in a wink (or is it a wince?), but as with most Hollywood-based cautionary tales of selling out, this doesn’t seem to be much of a battle between true art and commerce; it’s hard to believe that the “Ed“-like series pilot being pitched and shuttled into pre- and post-production by David Duchovny‘s harried, hairy writer Mike Klein originated as some sort of groundbreaking gem. Without a real sense of the show within the show, anonymously titled “The Wexler Chronicles” (starring the puppetoon-ish white-guy mugging of lead actor Zach Harper, played by the skillfully unwatchable Fran Kranz), “The TV Set” glides along like a particularly superficial yet adept episode of “The Larry Sanders Show.”
In fact, “Larry Sanders” isn’t an inappropriate reference point, considering it’s where Duchovny first got the chance to reshape his vaguely disinterested, agnostic smirk for a comic format. His appealingly narcoleptic-apoplectic delivery here, that combination of outrage and obsequiousness that makes Woody Allen‘s neurotic rages so reliably unintimidating, proves that Duchovny should be on his way to an Alec Baldwin-type career resurgence as a sitcom secret weapon. Real-life TV execs take note: give the man his own “30 Rock.” (He’s never better than when, in the middle of a conversation, he offhandedly looks down as his own lazily protruding gut with disgust.)
Thankfully, this wisp of a film – aided in no small part I’m sure by Kasdan’s director dad Lawrence’s wide-ranging L.A. connections – also makes great use of Sigourney Weaver, back in sturdy, supercilious “Working Girl” mode as PDN network president Lenny, who doesn’t so much cut her opponents (i.e., her hired artists) down with a steely stare as break them with a false smile. Naturally, she takes her programming cues from her bratty teenage daughter. The film’s one tonal imbalance comes from the parallel storyline of the existential angst and selling-out of BBC executive turned network stooge Richard (the suddenly everywhere Ioan Grufudd) – melodramatic and shrill, Richard’s storyline stands in heavy-handed contrast to the rest of the film’s savvier shruggery.
Kasdan, Duchovny, Weaver, and also Judy Greer, as Mike’s endlessly non-reassuring manager, keep things buoyant, but ultimately, not much is at stake in “The TV Set.” “The Wexler Chronicles,” as it’s heading for a coveted slot in the fall prime-time schedule against such high-profile reality shows as “Slut Wars” (a low blow, but not an unfunny one), seemed as toothless from the beginning as it does in its heartlessly re-edited version at the end. Perhaps it’s because Kasdan’s film comes from the hotbed of a culture that views a Cameron Crowe film as “intelligent art-house.” Here’s an idea: a cutting, satiric look at the ego-driven, so-called artist who has no studio interference whatsoever as he hurtles towards making his uncompromised, middlebrow personal dream project a reality. The result? “Elizabethtown.” Now that’s really scary.
[Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot and the managing editor at the Criterion Collection.]