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Why Woody Allen’s ‘Cataclysmic Mistake’ Making Amazon Series May Be Our Gain

Why Woody Allen's 'Cataclysmic Mistake' Making Amazon Series May Be Our Gain

At Cannes—where the director’s latest film, “Irrational Man,” premiered out of competition today—Woody Allen says he’s “regretted every second” since he inked an exclusive deal with Amazon Studios to write and direct “The Untitled Woody Allen Project.” “Oh, it’s amazing how you can regret,” Allen added. “I haven’t had a pleasurable moment since I undertook it.”

READ MORE: “Woody Allen Is Creating His First TV Series for Amazon”  

Allen, a maestro of the anxious and the neurotic for 50 years now, first expressed these concerns at the moment the series was announced, saying, “I don’t know how I got into this. I have no ideas and I’m
not sure where to begin. My guess is that [Amazon Studios vice president] Roy Price will regret this.” It’s unclear if this is just the filmmaker’s usual self-deprecation—he’s never been known for understatement—but the remarks have already made more news than anything to do with “Irrational Man,” provoking speculation that the series is a “looming disaster” for the emerging TV powerhouse.

In Allen’s very funny “Irrational Man” press conference at Cannes, he expanded on this theme in such hyperbolic terms that it seems he’s in on the joke: his decision to sign on with Amazon, he quipped, might end up producing a “cosmic embarrassment.” But even if we take him at his word, Allen’s loss of confidence may be our gain. The most engaging serial storytelling is rarely, to use his own phrase, “a piece of a cake.”

READ MORE: “‘Transparent’ and the New Queer Television”

Beyond the writer/director’s own hand-wringing, the interview in fact contains a few important clues as to the series’ emerging shape: Amazon lured Allen to write and direct six 30-minute episodes with “a very substantial amount of money and freedom,” which he has until the end of 2016 to complete. And no, Allen won’t be changing his one-film-a-year pattern to accommodate the streaming service—he “[doesn’t] even know what a streaming service is.”

This lack of preconceived notions about television and digital distribution is the most promising aspect of Allen’s hedging, holding out the possibility that “The Untitled Woody Allen Project” will defy hardened conventions of style and structure, setting and tone, that have begun to creep into the medium as “prestige” becomes code for a certain set of visual and narrative elements. Will the series be Allen’s twist on the sitcom? A nod to his days as a stand-up comedian, à la “Louie”? A three-hour film in six parts? In television, it is often the “fish out of water,” as Allen describes himself, who succeeds in breaking the mold—just look at Steven Soderbergh, who brought his sleek, modern aesthetic to bear on Cinemax’s brilliant period piece, “The Knick,” or indie filmmaker Jill Soloway, whose distinctive rhythms and unique point of view turned “Transparent” into Amazon’s first hit series.

READ MORE: “Review: ‘The Knick,’ Steven Soderbergh’s Master Class in Historical Fiction”   

Of course, there’s no such thing as a sure thing, and Allen’s uneven output in recent years is grounds for caution. Indeed, rather than money and independence, it’s been crash circumstances—namely, his ever-shifting locations—that have produced his finest films of late, from “Match Point” (2005) to “Midnight in Paris” (2011). But the fear of “cosmic embarrassment” has long motivated Allen. Adding subtitles, slapstick, and direct address, all seemingly poached from his screwball days, he reinvented the romantic comedy in “Annie Hall” (1977) by blowing it up from within, and his obliviousness when it comes to the unwritten rules of television could serve the same purpose for Amazon. The main beneficiaries of Allen’s “cataclysmic mistake” may be us, the viewers.

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