2½ stars (out of four)
Art by committee nears some sort of absolute zero when it comes to network TV, especially with the sitcom. What can you say about a process whose heritage includes "My Mother the Car?"
Artists who take the plunge invariably tell the same tale of studio greed and pandering, and so it is with "The TV Set," from filmmaker Jake Kasdan, son of Lawrence and the sadder but wiser veteran of TV's "Freaks and Geeks."
In this movie, which Kasdan wrote and directed, he details the fictional story of a talented but somewhat hungry TV writer named Mike (David Duchovny), who's in the final stages of getting his pilot shot and possibly his new show on the air.
Mike is a man of high standards, while painfully aware of the lack of them in his industry. But he needs the work, as his empathetic but worried wife (Justine Bateman) keeps reminding him. While remnants of his aesthetic purity linger, as he struggles through the rough obstacle course of pilot production they slip away, bit by bit, victims of one philistine network move after another.
The pilot is for a series he calls "The Wexler Chronicles." In his early vision, it's laced with the kind of three-dimensional tragicomedy that the cookie-cutter sitcom process usually eschews. The main character's brother recently committed suicide, a storyline right out of Mike's own life.When told a certain gutsy aspect of the show boasts originality, one tough, vapid, crucial studio executive (Sigourney Weaver) replies, "Originality scares me." Her pedigree includes the recent reality hit "Slut Wars."
Mike loses his very first battle, detailed in the film's seductive opening sequence. He has two actors read for a part, his serious preference and a stooge (Fran Kranz) Mike hopes will prove so bad the suits will never hire him. He's trying, in other words, to trick studio honchos into selecting his edgier choice. Naturally, they hire the no-talent stooge, one of many actions that, inch by inch, destroy Mike's work and hope.
Kasdan's script is full of very funny lines, and Duchovny brings an understated, Dostoevskian gloom to his portrayal. Amidst a tight, impressive ensemble cast, including nice work from Judy Greer and Ioan Gruffudd, Kranz is particularly fresh and amusing as a bad actor with a big ego. But Weaver is a weak link, cast in a role that recycles her "Working Girl" harridan. This time, she lacks the grace and subtlety of that earlier performance, opting instead for the transparently shrill.
I'd be more enthusiastic, too, if I hadn't seen Bravo's "Situation: Comedy," a reality series a few seasons back, wherein Sean Hayes of "Will & Grace" took us on a thorough tour through the same backstage hurdles of sitcom development, letting real executives illustrate a lot of this in place of actors. For all its bright writing, "TV Set" is contrived and predictable, another morality lesson from a poisoned pen telling us what we've heard before: the wages of TV lead to sinful compromise and surround the artist with a confederacy of tube boobs.
'The TV Set'
Written and directed by Jake Kasdan; photographed by Uta Briesewitz; edited by Tara Timpone; production design by Jefferson Sage; music by Michael Andrews; produced by Kasdan, Aaron Ryder and Ron Schmidt. A ThinkFilm release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:29. MPAA rating: R (for language).
Mike - David Duchovny
Lenny - Sigourney Weaver
Richard - Ioan Gruffudd
Alice - Judy Greer
Zach - Fran KranzCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times