What’s that old quip about how laws are like sausages? If you like them, you should never watch them being made? “The TV Set” demonstrates that it’s true of television programs, too. Sit back and enjoy the shows from your living room couch, but for heaven’s sake, don’t pull back the curtain and watch the brutal, creativity-stifling, focus-group-pleasing process of making them.
This black, sad, hilarious satire is probably a grade-A movie for people who work in the industry (the ones with a sense of humor, anyway). It has the ring of something that insiders will appreciate more than observers. But even as one who merely watches, enjoys, and adores TV, I get most of the film’s jokes — and as someone who’s tried to write entertaining items for mass audiences under an over-cautious leadership, I can relate to the soul-crushing nature of “creativity by committee.”
Our window into the insulated world of TV is Mike Klein (David Duchovny), a smart Everyman writer with a wife, Natalie (Justine Bateman), who is pregnant, which means a steady income is needed. Mike has toiled away on various TV series, and now he has a shot at getting his own project off the ground. It’s one of those guy-returns-to-his-small-hometown comedy-dramas, called “The Wexler Chronicles,” and when we meet Mike, he’s working with the fictional PDN network on casting the pilot.
Mike has a guy in mind for the lead (the character based on himself), a good young actor named T.J. (Simon Helberg). He’s brought in another guy, Zach (Fran Kranz), just because the network wants to have options, but he knows Zach won’t get it. He’s too inexperienced, too broad and unsubtle in his delivery. T.J. is much, much better.
The network likes Zach, of course; you saw that one coming. His braying, unfunny sitcom shtick at the audition has the suits in stitches, and he’s cuter than T.J., too. That last part’s especially important because Lenny (Sigourney Weaver), the ball-busting, married-to-her-job network president, shows all the pilots to her 14-year-old daughter before making any decisions. Lenny chooses one actress for a role because, as she puts it, “She doesn’t let her cuteness get in the way of her hotness.”
Mike’s on his way to an ulcer already, worried that the network interference will ruin his pure, personal script. His manager, Alice (Judy Greer), has the task of sugar-coating bad news for Mike. She begins every conversation with, “They love it! They have some concerns, but they love it!” And of course the “concerns” are minor things like, oh, you know, they want to change the entire premise of the show. But they love it!
On Mike’s side is Richard McAllister (Ioan Gruffudd), a new arrival from London, where he was a BBC programmer. He’s still getting used to the Hollywood way of doing TV, and after being inspired by an enthusiastic soccer mom who’s a wannabe TV writer (everyone in L.A. has a script they’re working on), he urges Mike to fight for what he thinks is best for his show.
We follow the pilot through the filming and test-marketing process, all of which is excruciating for Mike and hilarious for us. As expected, his leading man, Zach, is constantly trying to make the comedy “bigger,” and the show’s spineless director (Willie Garson) won’t rein him in. Zach is one of those young actors who think the key to being a successful, serious thespian is to behave erratically and ramble on about your “process” and “staying in character,” and to be difficult on the set. He’d like a romance with his co-star (Lindsay Sloane), too, but that ain’t happenin’.
Lenny, meanwhile, wants to shoot two versions, one with Mike’s idea for the central dramatic event, and one with a cheerier one. There’s a scene where Mike, his wife, and an editor are in the editing bay, cutting together both versions. They’ve intentionally made Lenny’s so bad, so cheesy, so manipulative, that there’s NO WAY the focus group will prefer it over Mike’s better-written, more intelligent original version. You can guess what happens with that.
The film was written and directed by Jake Kasdan (“Orange County”), and as you might suspect, Jake is venting his personal frustrations in “The TV Set.” He worked on “Freaks and Geeks” and “Undeclared,” both short-lived series that were too smart to survive on network television. Mike has back problems in “The TV Set,” just as “Freaks and Geeks” writer/creator Judd Apatow did during the run of that series. There are probably other inside references, too, that I didn’t catch.
David Duchovny, missing in action the last few years, is a welcome presence as Mike, an honest, good-natured man whose creative juices are being drained from him before our very eyes. The film suggests the reality of being an industry insider better than most Hollywood satires do. Mike faces the very real dilemma of sticking to his guns and losing the show (and his income), or giving in to the network’s preposterous demands and supporting his family. Would he be “selling out,” or would he just be doing what a man’s gotta do?
Also MIA lately is Sigourney Weaver, and her caustic performance as Lenny is indeed a sight for sore eyes. Lenny is the only character on record whose near-death experience made her more of a workaholic, not less, and Weaver acts with the authority of someone who knows what these Hollywood types are like, gleefully puncturing the stuffed shirts and inflated egos that she has undoubtedly dealt with throughout her career. (I have to say, too, that for a woman who will turn 58 this year, Sigourney Weaver looks fantastic.)
You can see why smart actors like Weaver and Duchovny (and the others; it’s really a strong, witty cast) would want to be in this film: It’s an intelligent script, and it gives them a chance to exorcise the Hollywood demons that have tormented them. It very astutely sends up the idiocy of focus groups, the absurdity of smooth-talking L.A. doublespeak, and the dog-eat-dog world of trying to get a show on the air. “The TV Set” is therapy for actors and writers, and other people’s therapy is almost always fun to watch.
(P.S. Be sure to stay through the credits to see a clip from the PDN reality series “Slut Wars”!)
B+ (1 hr., 27 min.; )