TV Set, The

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 10/03/07 18:50:32

"A step inside the Idiot Box."
3 stars (Just Average)

Hollywood, eternally addicted to narcissism, enjoys turning an eye toward itself. The rest of us - those poor suckers in the flyover states - get blasted from time to time with movies about making movies, often told with a cold, cynical tone and a “do you believe this is how we run things?” shrug. Helpless to fix the system, filmmakers often find themselves mocking it publicly.

This has, of course, led to the creation of some of the best movies ever made: “Sunset Boulevard,” “The Bad and the Beautiful,” “The Player.” But is the concept too stale for its own good? Consider “The TV Set,” which, as the title implies, details the ugly behind-the-scenes doings in the realm of television, not movies, but the genre’s the same. The film contains a knockout cast and comes from one of the sharpest young writer/directors around, Jake Kasdan (“Zero Effect,” “Orange County”), but even then, it can’t quite rise above a whiny attitude and a too-inside sense of “you had to be there.”

Inspired by Kasdan’s own struggles in television (as a director for “Freaks and Geeks” and “Undeclared” and as creator of a failed pilot based on “Zero Effect”), “The TV Set” finds David Duchovny as Mike, a successful-yet-struggling writer who’s given the chance to launch his own show, an “Ed”-like dramedy called “The Wexler Chronicles,” something about a befuddled twentysomething lawyer returning home after the suicide of his brother. By the time his show goes through the ringer, the title is changed at the whim of a dim-witted network president (a deliciously evil Sigourney Weaver) who freely admits “originality scares me”; Mike’s low-key preference for lead actor is dropped in favor of a hammy, sitcommy clown; the very premise of the show, seen as too much of a “downer,” is tweaked to now feature a mother who died of a heart attack and a brother, very much alive, who’s in prison. Later edits to the pilot horrify Mike (and us) even more as the show is continually dumbed down.

Kasdan’s screenplay is far from subtle, which, while fine for satire, is also what keeps the film from being as clever as it could have been. Weaver’s doltish executive, scenes of the mouth-breathing focus groupers and survey fillers acting as lowest common denominator, and mentions of top-rated reality shows (“Slut Wars” is a huge success) all have a too-broad, cartoonish vibe, which reveals Kasdan’s intentions: “The TV Set” is nothing but a stream of the filmmaker venting over all the troubles he had working in the industry, using the movie to get it all out of his system before moving on. Rather than focus on more inventive parody of the industry, we get a harsh, off-the-cuff rant, a laundry list of complaints.

Problem is, we’ve seen this all before. The jokes are too familiar - even as recently as last year’s “For Your Consideration,” with its portrait of increasing compromise and artistic betrayal. Kasdan’s script follows a well-worn path in his complaints, and because of this, the zing just isn’t there. His too-easy jokes involving fake shows reveal he’s so focused on yelling about how stupid the industry is that he didn’t give himself time to be clever about it.

Of course, there are a good number of very solid jokes to be found within; Kasdan is a funny guy with a sharp comic sensibility, and his anger doesn’t entirely bury his knack for wit. Even when we get to those broad, seen-it-before moments, we still grin, if not outright chuckle, because Kasdan knows how to best frame a gag.

What rescues “The TV Set,” ultimately, is the character work. While the jokes are broad and the villains broader, it’s surrounded by an agreeable yarn about good people trying their best not to sell out. Duchovny’s Mike is a likable enough Average Joe, and when we leave the cartoony problems of the show and deal with, say, his life at home (including a very pregnant wife, played amiably by Justine Bateman), the movie warms to us, and we smile. Little character moments - Mike dealing with his agent (Judy Greer); a British producer (Ioan Gruffudd) struggling to adapt to the Hollywood business model - give the film life and save it from its own tirades.

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