Written by Musgo Del Jefe
For full disclosure, I have to say that when I initially heard the title, The TV Set, I thought (and hoped) that I might be getting something along the lines of the brilliant, The Groove Tube (1974). Just as The Groove Tube used short sketches, interspersed with commercials to satirize TV and the popular culture of the day, I thought maybe I'd get a cutting edge comic piece similar to that. And then the opening credits rolled.
As the title card announced, this is "the story of a pilot." Considering that our lead character Mike (David Duchovny) has a pregnant wife (Justine Bateman), this movie could've been about the "birth" of a TV show. But that potential subplot along with many others gets held at arms length as the movie progresses. That may be part of the problem with this film. It's not the sum of its parts.
At its heart, this is the story of Mike, a writer, trying to get his dream project produced and on the network schedule. The writer and director, Jake Kasdan, was a writer on one of the more brilliant shows of the past decade, Freaks and Geeks, a show ultimately cancelled despite critical acclaim. His insider knowledge of the workings of the industry can either help the arc of the film or really bog it down. How will Mike maintain his vision? Will he have to change along the way?
We start at the final casting call for the lead actor and actress of the show. Mike wants TJ Goldman (get it – Gold / Man) as his lead character Rob. TJ has a "cutting edge" beard just like Mike. Zach Harper (Fran Kranz) isn't given a chance by Mike. But Zach is given the part by the Network President (Sigourney Weaver) because of his emotion. TJ is all surface, no emotion. The scene with both actors performing the same scene is not played for the full humor – the network execs do overreact to Zach's performance but differences could've been exaggerated more and then it wouldn't have to be explained to us in the next scene.
Once Zach is cast as Rob and Laurel (Lindsay Sloane) is cast as Amanda, we have our premise set and the movie feels like it can officially begin at 16 minutes in. I like the potential of the filming of a TV show within a movie. You have so many items to play off of each other, thematically. You have the plot of the show, The Wexler Chronicles (lawyer returns home after his brother's suicide and falls in love), you have the interaction of the same actors outside of the TV show (each character playing two roles essentially), and the interactions happening around the people making the show. It's ripe for comedy and most recently it was done for a movie within a movie in For Your Consideration. Once the filming starts here, it's hard not to compare the two films. Sixteen minutes in and just as we start to shoot the show, the network wants to change the premise. They don't want the brother to commit suicide. And this starts the ultimate question of the film – where do you "hold your ground" on your dream?
Act 2 starts as the filming of the pilot episode begins. Much like For Your Consideration, the interior show (here The Wexler Chronicles and there Home For Purim) isn't very good but the actors take it seriously. That's always the key for humor and these scenes are absurd and humorous. As the actors in the pilot fall in love, it looks like we have a budding romance between the same actors outside of the show. The dichotomy of these scenes is clever but not well fleshed out. Zach is a hard character to read. This "emotional" character at the beginning seemed full of youthful pep and enthusiasm. Once the show starts filming, he seems to turn inexplicably manipulative and self obsessed.
By Act 3, we're getting closer to the "birth" of the show. Mike's back problems are getting worse from the stress and his wife is getting closer to giving birth (she's eight months pregnant as the testing process approaches). We've also got a subplot of the Head of Primetime Programming, Richard McAlister (Ioan Gruffudd aka Mr. Fantastic). He is from England and is really pushing Mike's vision of The Wexler Chronicles. He is also having marriage problems and his wife is threatening to take their child and move back to the U.K. This drama keeps popping up out of nowhere every 15 minutes and taking away from the core story. It really feels forced and like padding to the story. The drama of losing a wife and kids is too heavy on the scale next to making a TV show and really does a disservice to this film.
Ultimately, Mike realizes that this show, like life isn't always how your original vision started "but you make it work." That's a great theme. Much like Home For Purim is changed in For Your Consideration, so The Wexler Chronicles is changed to Call Me Crazy along with other changes. Call me crazy but there's a lot of potential here. If the story concentrated more on Mike and his wife and the actors in the TV show and less on Richard and the comedic subplots of Lenny (Weaver's character), that lesson, "but you make it work," would carry some weight. Richard gives an impassioned speech about returning to "scripted stories" and a "smart show." This movie, like The Wexler Chronicles has a vision. It has good writing, great acting, and some truly funny scenes. However when it's all over you don't come away from the film feeling that it worked.
The film does leave you laughing. The two funniest scenes show that Jake Kasdan should be making the next The Groove Tube and they're buried at the end of the film. The first is the Promo Reel for Call Me Crazy that combines every TV cliché that NBC has ever put into a trailer for one of their new shows (and this one includes fart jokes too!). The second is a scene from the network's other success, a reality show called Slut Wars hosted by Seth Green. Trust me, there's a movie that really satirizes TV that's ripe to be made.
DVD EXTRAS. Double commentaries highlight the DVD release. Most interesting of the two is Jake Kasdan and Freaks and Geeks executive producer, Judd Apatow, talking about the genesis of this movie and other anecdotes about the TV industry. If only this movie had tied up all it's lose themes the way an episode of Freaks and Geeks was able to in 60 minutes. I'm afraid they were taking Lenny's advice – "Original scares me a little. You don't want to be too original."