It's all too tempting to draw a straight line between Jake Kasdan's new film The TV Set and his experience in television—particularly his failed attempt to launch a show based on his thoroughly enjoyable cult-hit movie Zero Effect. The TV Set is a trenchant, scathing film with an insider's insight, but also an insider's lack of perspective on the important parts of the story. Fortunately, it's also a well-acted and generally funny comedy that doesn't bog down in emotion even when it bogs down in its own plot.
As the film begins, writer David Duchovny is developing his green-lit pilot for The Wexler Chronicles, a partly autobiographical prime-time drama about a young lawyer dealing with his brother's suicide. Predictably, the project gets dumbed-down at every turn, with lead actor Fran Kranz mugging for laughs, network president Sigourney Weaver trying to pull the show's teeth ("Originality scares me a little. You don't want to be too original."), the pilot's director favoring artiness over comprehensibility, and so forth. Duchovny attempts to resist the compromises, but feels pressure from all angles, including his perky producer Judy Greer and his doleful pregnant wife Justine Bateman. The results are predictable, but Kasdan makes them dryly giggly, prompting viewers to laugh at Duchovny's increasingly ridiculous trials rather than getting caught up in his angst.
The TV Set could almost be a Christopher Guest bridging project—it's essentially Guest's The Big Picture for TV instead of film, though it's structured in the low-key, rambling, observational manner of Guest's later ensemble comedies. Some of the many slight Guest-like subplots are insightful, as when Franz awkwardly tries to live up to his idea of a leading-man image by hitting on his uncomfortable co-star; she in turn is image-aware enough to stay friendly for the show's sake. Others, such as an empty sideline involving Ioan Gruffudd as a depressed former BBC wunderkind, go nowhere and suck up time that could have been better spent. (Maybe Kasdan had someone particular in mind when he wrote that character; it's hard to explain his presence otherwise.) But all of the characters are struggling with industry compromise in their own ways, and even when it comes to nothing, The TV Set observes smartly, by staying sympathetic while acknowledging that on some level, they've all chosen their own rocky roads in exchange for their shots at fame.