Writers' strike got you curious? Get `TV Set' for your idiot box

December 07, 2007|By MICHAEL SRAGOW

Newspaper columns, letters to the editor and water-cooler chatter about the film and television writers' strike have veered from solidarity to sneers at supposedly spoiled and talentless show-biz scribes demanding a bigger percentage of an ever-expanding digital pie. It's hard to muster common-man sympathy for workers in a glamour industry based in sunny (albeit fiery and quaky) California.

Skeptics should rent or buy a DVD called The TV Set.

Despite rave reviews in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and The New Yorker last spring, it never opened in Baltimore. (The distributor, ThinkFilm, didn't respond to a request for an explanation placed through its local representatives.)

But this razor-sharp satire of the TV development process -- the gauntlet of suited committees and grabbed-off-the-street focus groups that any series creator runs in order to get his work on-screen -- has a phenomenal ensemble (Andrea Martin and Philip Baker Hall have cameos) and a sterling comic pedigree.

Jake (Orange County) Kasdan wrote and directed The TV Set, and Judd (Knocked Up) Apatow produced it. Kasdan and Apatow first worked together on the beloved TV series Freaks and Geeks and have since teamed on the wild parody of rock and country biopics, Walk Hard (due on the big screen this Christmas).

The TV Set is completely different from their previous work. Subtle and naturalistic, this grown-up look at professional compromise is real enough to make outsiders feel at home in a small, pressurized world -- to get the full meaning of the title, emphasize the "set" in The TV Set. And it's insightful enough to make audiences feel its characters' pain -- in an excruciatingly funny way.

Kasdan starts following his antihero, Mike Klein (David Duchovny), when he's nearing the top of the Hollywood-writers' pecking order. He's the creator and executive producer of a potential pilot called The Wexler Chronicles, about a New York lawyer returning to his small hometown after the suicide of his brother. But from the moment we see Klein talking to his glad-handing manager Alice (Judy Greer) before a network casting session, we can tell he's a worried man.

Bearded and 20 pounds overweight (and conscious of it), Klein has the look of a fellow who knows he has too much riding on one project. He's spent 15 years getting to the point where he can launch his own show. Although he recognizes it's not Shakespeare or The Sopranos, he wants to preserve the bit of himself that he's managed to put into it. The TV Set is about how he loses that quest in a thousand different nips and tucks.

Kasdan's script exposes everyone's survival strategies and illusions with X-ray clarity, including its hero's. Klein and the fellow he favors for the lead role (Simon Helberg, in a pathetic, hilarious bit as the hip, ethnic "TJ Goldman") obviously identify with each other too much -- the actor has even grown his own beard. Everyone in the audition room except Klein, including the network honcho Lenny (Sigourney Weaver) and her new, BBC-bred programming ace, Richard McCallister (Ioan Gruffudd), prefer the broader, goofier Zach Harper (Fran Kranz).

The movie proceeds in a series of charged, comically booby-trapped negotiations. Klein stumbles, rights himself, falls again. You can retitle his show Call Me Crazy, or impose taped fart sounds after shooting, but he's like one of those carnival rock-'em-sock-'em mannequins. You can never quite smack him down.

Weaver's aesthetically clueless yet managerially confident Lenny bases as many decisions as possible on the reactions of her 14-year-old daughter. Lenny doesn't just demand that Klein cast Zach in the lead, but also asks him to consider changing the series' premise: the brother's suicide. Weaver is fantastic as Lenny, an unapologetic philistine so cheerful, crude and oblivious someone like Klein keeps reading thoughts into her reactions. He thinks she sees through his good manners to his inner disdain because she looks as if she has a bellyache whenever she sees him. Actually, she suffers from acid reflux.

Duchovny is ideal for this movie; he brings sneak-attack humor and self-deprecating wisdom to a man of modest dreams. His Mike Klein always hits a mental pause button before he says anything irrevocable and manages to turn a mental squint into a stinging expression of masked disbelief. He's got the unique weariness of someone who invests his work with honesty and vitality, then barters those qualities away to win a slot on a network's primetime schedule.

The TV Set is the fullest kind of satire: It's full of anger and pity. And its accuracy isn't limited to television. The TV Set has more laughs than any 2007 adult comedy that did play in our multiplexes and art houses. Myopia, bad taste and weak knees also affect film distribution and exhibition. And don't get me started on daily journalism.

michael.sragow@baltsun.com

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