There’s a scene in the third episode of “Crisis in Six Scenes” in which Woody Allen’s character, Sidney “S.J.” Mussinger, sits down to pitch a TV series to a couple of network executives. Mussinger is a published novelist in good standing, if not high demand, who’s been convinced to try his hand at television because of its lucrative financial rewards. So in he goes, wide-eyed and eager, with nothing but thinly sketched out characters open to a “myriad” of possibilities. The pitch is…interesting, though it’s hard to fault the executives for checking their watches and staring skeptically at Mussinger, unclear as to why he’d think this series about a family of cavemen would be fit for modern audiences.
Perhaps these are the executives who should’ve heard the pitch for “Crisis in Six Scenes.”
To say “Crisis in Six Scenes” is a disaster would be an overstatement. It holds together well enough as a simple story about an aging couple who take in a wanted Vietnam protester who changes their point of view on politics. But for the TV executives hearing Mussinger’s pitch, “modern audiences” means people of the late 1960s, and that’s where this period piece belongs. There’s simply little new or striking in the six half-hour episodes, much of which constitute Allen recycling old caricatures spouting the same philosophies and debates we’ve heard from him over the last six decades.
Meet Sidney Mussinger, a writer, husband, father, and grandfather who’s more than happy to spend all his time at home, watching baseball and writing stories. His wife, Kay (the great Elaine May), is similarly content as a marriage counselor, handling a small number of patients at her own home and hosting book club meetings in her spare time. The couple is also hosting the son of a family friend in their guest bedroom: Alan (John Magaro) comes from a well-off family and is set up to be well-off himself, working within the banking industry. He’s also found a fiancee during his stay, Ellie (Rachel Brosnahan), and appears to be well on the way to traditional capitalist success.
And then Lenny shows up. Played by Miley Cyrus with stilted line readings (unless she’s insulting someone), Lenny is an activist on the run who tracks down her mother’s old friend Kay in the hopes of temporary sanctuary. Her extremist worldviews quickly infect the home’s occupants, making Alan eager to act out against the Vietnam War, Kay eager to help her close friend’s daughter, and Sidney eager to get the little zealot out of his house.
If Allen is to be praised for anything in “Crisis in Six Scenes,” it should be his self-sacrificing role. Allen’s older fanbase will likely see a lot of themselves in the character, but Allen is quick to cast Sidney in the wrong. His opinion and character are often the butt of the joke, feeding the winning lines to the young activist so Lenny can be seen in the right.
There could be an argument for Allen making pointed commentary on the cyclical nature of our world’s crises. The Vietnam War may not be a perfect parallel (or even a logical one) to our current national issues, but his larger point is how we’re doing even less to solve our collective woes now than we were then. However, that would give full credit to half-baked themes in a series clearly made for the money thrown at its creator. “Crisis in Six Scenes” plays like an exasperated filmmaker recycling long-familiar ideas.
The best aspect of “Crisis in Six Scenes” is also its most infuriating. There’s a meta narrative that surrounds it, which is only valuable for the honesty in admitting failure. Allen’s character, Mussinger, opens the show sitting in a barber chair, listening to a severe critique of his work before mentioning he’s about to pitch a TV show, which offers good money but the new medium doesn’t seem to excite him. Combine this with the scene at the series’ midpoint in which he actually pitches the show, and a conversation at series’ end about his reaction to the process, and boom: You’ve got yourself a neat and tidy explanation for how Allen made something so unnecessary, if not why he chose this particular story.
There are at least two good ideas tucked away to the corners of this series, which more closely resembles a bloated, broken-up film. (The series clocks in around 142 minutes, maybe 136 without extraneous credits, which would make it the longest movie Allen has ever made.) First, we have Sidney and Kay’s relationship. Free from the anxious skepticism dominating many of Allen’s onscreen couples, these two seem to understand each other in a deep, unflinching manner. Even when he complains too much, Kay handles him with grace and understanding. Later, we see narrative possibility in a romantic comedy of two aging extremists working to bring down the government.
Perhaps less opportunistic but more immediately fleshed out is Kay’s book group. Allen has always excelled with large groups, crafting dialogue that allows for ping-pong exchanges. Watching the club progress from bored, batty debates to enlivened, intelligent engagement is sublime; their scenes stand out among the claptrap.
Allen has always written well for women, as proven by the 13 Oscar nominations (and four wins) for his female actors. I wouldn’t be opposed to hearing Elaine May’s name called on Emmys’ morning next year, but she’ll have to overcome an aggressively mediocre series to do it. “Crisis in Six Scenes” wouldn’t have worked in any era — not when we treated TV as the goofy kid brother to film, and especially not now when TV is challenging cinema on every level. We needed the best of Woody Allen; instead, we got an artistic crisis.