I don’t doubt that television is an extraordinarily difficult field in which to cultivate an artistic vision. It is unabashedly business-oriented, focused on ratings (and ratings of narrow demographic groups, at that) to the exclusion of virtually everything else. So the satire in The TV Set—the story of a sitcom pilot’s troubled development—feels almost naturalistic, the humor derived not from exaggeration but from a bleak laugh-so-you-don’t-cry sensibility.
And yet I still had the nagging feeling that the movie is stacking the deck, and that annoyed me. The humor is funny but whiny, grating after a while. It hits its target, but when your primary target is a crass TV executive, that’s not a particularly difficult target to hit.
David Duchovny plays Mike, a writer-producer developing a television comedy inspired by, of all things, the suicide of his brother. But from the very beginning, his vision of the show is compromised by Lenny (Sigourney Weaver), a TV executive who considers the word smart derogatory and the word original frightening. Mike might have an ally in Lenny’s new underling Richard, hired away from the BBC—and Mike needs such an ally desperately because his manager (Judy Greer) doesn’t offer much support, and his wife (Justine Bateman) is pregnant with their second child, so he can’t afford to throw away his shot at getting The Wexler Chronicles on air.
The TV Set takes a bleak view of American television. It lampoons the networks’ misuse of focus groups and polling and sneers at Lenny’s latest ratings bonanza, a reality-show abomination called Slut Wars. The details clearly reflect writer-director Jake Kasdan’s extensive experience with American TV (he was a cocreator of the cult favorite Freaks and Geeks), but his rosy view of British TV strikes me as naive.
The screenplay glorifies the BBC and paints Richard as a writer-respecting, quality-nourishing executive with impeccable taste who can’t hope to thrive in the United States. Just to make sure we get the point, the movie casts Ioan Gruffudd of the acclaimed Horatio Hornblower series as Richard and Lucy Davis of the beloved The Office as his wife. Together, the two actors stand as symbols of the fabulousness of British TV, the glistening diamonds to America’s dirty lumps of coal.
Well, as the Brits would say (at least the Brits on TV, god love them), that’s just so much balderdash, poppycock, and codswallop. (Hee!) Studying in England for a few months in college quickly taught me that, despite many Americans’ entrenched Anglophilia, British television features a few great shows, some rather good shows, and a whole lot of junk—kind of like American TV, actually.
Just look at the cast of The TV Set! Duchovny starred as Fox Mulder in The X-Files, which, for the first few years at least, was a refreshingly unorthodox series with great characters and a devoted fanbase. Greer and Bateman both had recurring roles on Arrested Development, a brilliant sitcom known for its bitingly dark sensibility and wickedly smart writing. Seth Green, who turns up in a brief cameo, played Oz on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, another critically adored show with a fanatical following. Each of these shows was “smart” and “original”—clear evidence that not every network executive shares Lenny’s attitude and some work of artistic merit makes it onto American airwaves.
But I’m coming down too hard on The TV Set. As one of The X-Files’ devoted fans from back in the day, I’m always thrilled to see Duchovny, who has a real knack for comedy. Kasdan has a great ear for dialogue, and his behind-the-scenes storytelling is well-observed and interesting. I guess I’m just tired of this kind of petulance. Yes, there’s lot of crap on television, but there’s a lot of gold, too, especially if you’re willing to venture onto the cable channels, where a lot of the riskier, more inventive work can be found.
Yes, TV gives us Flavor of Love and Jericho and CSI: Miami and Desperate Housewives and ‘Til Death and American Freakin’ Idol and Studio 60 (suck it, Sorkin). It also gives us Battlestar Galactica and Veronica Mars and Project Runway and The Daily Show and Ugly Betty and Friday Night Lights and The Office and a host of other shows, not all great but all good, all with something to offer despite the indignities of the pilot system and the mercenary nature of television.
The Mikes of the TV world have my sympathy—no one enjoys having his dream trounced—but let’s not overgeneralize about an entire medium. I laughed a bit at The TV Set and then I rolled my eyes, shrugged my shoulders, and went home to watch the season premiere of The Sopranos.