The Reeler


April 6, 2007

The TV Set

Pilot season satire's lack of ambition may be its saving grace

Firmly slotted in the backhanded category created for films that are not nearly as bad as they could be, The TV Set is, thankfully, not the second coming of Network. Utterly unconcerned with the implications of reality TV or lowest-common-denominator entertainment for a generation of desensitized viewers, Jake Kasdan's third feature is almost fresh in light of all the reality TV satires (American Cannibal and seemingly half of the upcoming Tribeca slate) clogging the market. The best idea here is that of treating TV writing (and creative work in general) as a job like any other, one where interference from higher-ups and compromises are swallowed down in the name of feeding the wife and kids. Most insider-ish Hollywood comedies blow up the bruises of artistic battle to epic stature; The TV Set's greatest achievement may be marginalizing the importance of its own subject.

Mike Klein (David Duchovny, seemingly dedicated to obliterating the last traces of charisma left from The X-Files) is a veteran TV writer who -- having lost control over a project before -- is determined that his new show, The Wexler Chronicles, make it to the small screen intact. In Kasdan's oddest conceit, integrity can be directly tied to facial hair or lack thereof: Klein sports a lavish beard, and so does his preferred choice for the lead. Distant second choice Zach Harper (Fran Kranz) lands the gig instead, his broad Gilbert Gottfried-esque delivery appealing to the network almost as much as his clean-shaven appearance. Stuck somewhere in the ethical middle is imported prime-time programmer Richard McCallister (Ioan Gruffudd), torn between backing Mike's vision and appeasing commercial realities, his indecisiveness signaled by his neatly maintained three-day mountain man look. Given all this, it's no surprise that the decided villain -- network exec Lenny (Sigourney Weaver) -- doesn't even have the option of growing hair.

The TV Set saves its cheapest shots for the executives; while the idiocy of financiers dabbling in the creative process is notoriously rampant, it is doubtful that executives are oblivious morons 24/7. Kasdan ends up satirizing the TV production process, but also giving the executives dialogue that could only come from the disgruntled minds of rejected writers. "Original scares me a little," Lenny explains. "You don't want to be too original." There's also a brief but tired mockery of reality TV via a fictional show called Slut Wars: what we need at this point is not yet another film decrying trashy tastes, but someone willing to engage head-on with their ability to fascinate. Kasdan himself doesn't demonstrate a great flair for originality; wanting the film to be both a critique of bad creative processes and a successful example of good drama, he comes up a little short on both. The big dramatic moments are generally pretty dull, and what we see of The Wexler Chronicles seems middle of the road as well, hardly worthy of intra-network disputes.

The TV Set is at its best in the neo-documentary moments, when it demonstrates with very little distraction how pilots are test-screened (instructing viewers to twist knobs indicating their current satisfaction level every minute, destroying all concentration and reducing the possibility of a long-term payoff in favor of cheap, short pay-offs). Characterization isn't at a premium here, though aside from creating monstrous TV executives, Kasdan generally allows his actors space to breathe and keep things grounded. The slow unraveling of Richard McCallister’s family, for example, is treated with greater subtlety than one of those awful family comedies where the dad has to learn a valuable lesson about prioritizing family over getting the big contract; here, McCallister is not uncaring, just surprised by the new demands of his job.

Briskly clocking in at just under 90 minutes, The TV Set's documentarian aspects keep it afloat among a relative lack of cringes. The problem with most Hollywood satires is that they blow themselves up into cause célèbres; The TV Set becomes praiseworthy for its lack of ambition, which is oddly appropriate for a show about network television.

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