Sometimes I wonder why anyone would choose to work in television at all. If the many behind-the-scenes portrayals of the industry, both satirical and serious, are to be believed, getting a show to the air is an uphill battle. The journey of a thousand steps is begun with the first compromise, and the only chance of success anyone has is having enough things to give up so that when it's all said and done, there's still something worthwhile left over.
In the latest entry in this genre, Jake Kasdan's The TV Set, the writer at the center of the brouhaha wonders very much the same thing. David Duchovny plays Mike, the creator and producer of "The Wexler Chronicles," an autobiographical show about how suicide brings a family together that he's trying to push through the frustrating process of pilot season. He is one of an army of creative types all trying to get the go-ahead for their series before the fall schedule is firmed up and another year goes by. When faced with the final all-or-nothing decision, with the final compromise before the deal is done, he wonders if he can beat the odds. He knows all TV shows go through this process, and he knows that some of them turn out well, so clearly there must be some kind of key to making that happen.
Amusingly, Kasdan has had experience satirizing television before, having directed several episodes of the underrated backlot soap-opera parody Grosse Pointe (which also featured Lindsay Sloane, who plays an actress in this film). His producing partner on The TV Set is the multi-talented Judd Apatow, who was a writer on one of the best ever series about making television, The Larry Sanders Show. These gentlemen know of what they speak, and they've succeeded themselves in actually bringing some good to the boob tube. Clearly the battles have left scars, and The TV Set stings with the kind of bitter heat that only real struggle can produce.
The battle between Mike and the network is between staying true to his original vision (maintain the emotion and subtlety of his script) and being more commercial (pander to the audience with broad comedy). This plays out in how the various participants in the television dance conduct themselves. Mike considers each move and wants to stick to what is true, whereas Lenny, the network president, is all about quick catchphrases and pep. As portrayed by Sigourney Weaver, Lenny maintains a single-minded dedication to the banal. Play it safe, go with what works, and don't take the risk of being "too original." It's a sly satirical conceit, one that means neither side is really safe from a sharp poking from Kasdan. Mike's pretensions cause him to take everything too seriously, to underplay his own convictions and ultimately sell the farm, whereas Lenny's life philosophies are as laughable as the programming she oversees. Both have physical ailments that parallel their career choices. As Mike gives up more and more ground on his show, his back problems become increasingly painful, until he can't walk under his own power; whereas Lenny has acid reflux and is constantly having to resist the instinct to gag on her own inanities.
The TV Set is structured in three distinct chunks: the casting, the filming, and the selling of "The Wexler Chronicles." In addition to watching the pilot morph into something unrecognizable, we also see the other people involved change in personality. Fran Kranz plays the lead actor, Zach, who goes from being sweet and dorky as a first-timer in pilot season to creepy and self-important. Running parallel to Mike is Richard (Ioan Gruffudd), the new kid on the network block, having been imported from the BBC, where he did edgy shows that displayed some intelligence. Beginning as Mike's ally, he ends up facilitating most of the compromises, and he also pays the biggest price. The only one who seems to stay the same is the lead actress, Laurel (Sloane). In a weird way, she ends up a little more grounded. All three of them are excellent, as is the cast as a whole. (Other featured actors include Justine Bateman, Willie Garson, and the always hilarious Judy Greer.)
The TV Set isn't a gut buster. There are actually extended stretches without laughs, where Kasdan slowly lays the groundwork for his next chuckle. It also doesn't provide a lot of outside context for the casual viewer. The television world is an insular one, and it may look like an alien planet to someone who doesn't pay at least a nominal amount of attention to the kind of dross that can make it onto the airwaves. If, however, you like your humor with a little bit of wry and enjoy how ridiculous this business we call "show" can be, then The TV Set will not only be right up your alley, but it will make you all the more impressed that your favorite shows reach your television screen with any shred of quality intact.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent projects include the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat; Archer Coe and the Thousand Natural Shocks, a loopy crime tale drawn by Dan Christensen; and the horror miniseries Madame Frankenstein, a collaboration with Megan Levens. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.