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Review: As a TV series, Woody Allen’s ‘Crisis in Six Scenes’ offers many pleasures of a Woody Allen movie

At the age of 80, Woody Allen has written, directed and is starring in his first television series, “Crisis in Six Scenes,” made for Amazon and available to stream in its entirety beginning Friday. As may be said of Allen’s remarkably prolific and long-lived film career, it has its better and worse, its sharper and duller points; but as the work that has returned Elaine May to public view, it can only be welcomed, with rose petals and trumpets. And it does well by her.

It’s not Allen’s first foray in the medium. He wrote for television before making his name as a stand-up comedian; was a familiar talk and variety show guest once that name was made; made two semi-topical specials, “Woody Allen Looks at 1967" and “Woody Allen Looks at 1969" for NBC; directed and acted in a 1994 TV adaptation of his 1966 play “Don’t Drink the Water”; and acted opposite Peter Falk in a 1996 version of Neil Simon’s “The Sunshine Boys.” But this is something new from him.

Set at the end of the 1960s, it opens with Jefferson Airplane’s anthemic “Volunteers” on the soundtrack; it’s the last rock you’ll hear in the series, which turns quickly and effectively to the cool, soulful jazz of Art Blakey, Herbie Mann and Jimmy Giuffre. “American society is brought to the verge of revolution,” says a narrator, “and in the midst of this social turmoil is Sidney Munsinger” -- Allen’s character, a retired ad copywriter and occasional novelist. That Sidney is also working on a television pilot seems merely a byproduct of his creator’s also trying to write for the medium — not even a comment, really, more of a jotted note.

Still, as a television series, “Crisis” is very much a movie — a Woody Allen film, recognizably, from the white-on-black opening titles forward — stretched and stuffed to fill six 23- to 24-minute episodes. Scenes run longer than they would ordinarily; there is time for digression, to pay the doctor a visit and work in a few typical jokes about hypochondria — Sidney has a ringing in his kneecap, an “awareness” in his thumb — unrelated to the rest of the action.

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Sidney is married to Kay (May), a marriage counselor; into their big country-suburban house comes Lenny (Miley Cyrus, solid), stealing in like a thief in the night. Lenny, who has known Kay all her life, is now a fugitive leftist radical on the lam after a prison break. Although politics are discussed plenty, they are more pretext than the point — as was also the case in “Bananas,” another Allen work with a revolutionary backdrop, made a few years after “Crisis” is set.

The character is there to bring chaos and change — to argue with and insult Sidney, to energize Kay and to make Alan (John Magaro), the young family friend who is also staying with the Munsingers, question his engagement to Ellie (Rachel Brosnahan). “It’s almost like you’re a total psychopath,” Alan tells her, “but exciting.”

Except for his voice-over narration in this year’s “Cafe Society,” Allen has not acted in one of his films since 2012. His voice is lower now, his speed is slower. There are remarks about grandchildren, jokes about hearing aids.

But as later episodes grow more farcical and fantastic, he perks up, and whatever concern you might have had for his health, or your own reflected mortality, may start to fade. Indeed, one of the points of the series — not for the first time in Allen’s writing — is that trouble can be tonic: “It just gets the adrenaline going, doesn’t it?” Kay responds when Sidney suggests they may have committed a felony.

This isn’t Allen at his wittiest or wildest — his career is almost by definition a thing of peaks and valleys, and he can be satisfying and frustrating within a single film. But he has a voice, and he has not yet lost it. Anyone susceptible to that sensibility will find many familiar pleasures here.

Whatever else “Crisis in Six Scenes” is or isn’t, it is a vehicle for the perfectly centered May, 84, whose last screen appearance was 16 years ago in Allen’s “Small Time Crooks” and who quietly dominates, while Allen does his noisier thing by her side, nervously reacting both to the forces of authority and of anarchy. (Fumbling befuddlement is his stock in trade.) Kay is the heart and fulcrum of the story, the connection between Sidney and Lenny and between Alan and Ellie. We see her with her clients as well, and with her book group, to which, under Lenny’s influence, she has introduced a new sort of literature.

“It is, of course, ‘The Quotations of Chairman Mao Tse-tung,’ and its author is, um, Mao Tse-tung,” May says as Kay. “You know who he is, of course, he is the man who that jacket, that extremely stylish little jacket, is named after.” In substance and sound, its mischievous intelligence, this could have come out of an old Nichols and May routine — that’s Mike Nichols, her old partner in comedy. It’s good to hear that music again.

‘Crisis in Six Scenes’

Where: Amazon Video

When: Anytime, starting Friday

robert.lloyd@latimes.com

On Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd

Also:

Woody Allen finds himself at ease in his lush Hollywood story ‘Cafe Society’

Sometimes I wish he would go away: The uncomfortable evolution of being a Woody Allen fan


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