Hey you guys,
When I found out Jake Kasdan was writing and directing a comedy that traces the development of a television pilot from casting to completion I was intrigued, in no small part because I'd been through a process myself with Movie Club With John Ridley, a poorly rated, mildly disreputable basic-cable movie review panel show critics and audiences alike heralded as "short-lived" and "cancelled".
The movie was released to good if not ecstatic reviews and paltry box-office. I suspect that's because the film's satire is so specific that its target audience is people who've worked in television, a very narrow and tiny demographic. The T.V Set was Executive Produced by Judd Apatow, who doubles as the inspiration for the lead character, a writer/creator played by David Duchovny. Yet audiences obviously found the foibles of a stressed-out television writer a much less enticing subject for comedy than the universal teenage urge to get laid and/or drunk (Superbad) or unplanned pregnancy (Knocked Up. Hollywood sure finds its inner workings more fascinating than the general public does. Like everyone else, Hollywood folk love to see their experiences reflected onscreen. Unlike long-distance truckers however show folk possess the power to turn that urge into an audience-boring reality.
There are different levels of verisimilitude and identification when it comes to movies. For example Freaks & Geeks–a television show Kasdan and Apatow worked on together–captures the emotions and dynamics of high school life better than just about any TV show I can think of. But watching The T.V Set I found myself thinking "Wow, I totally lived this". Of course my show was a movie-review show, not a dramedy about a guy coping with his brother's death but I could relate on a very personal level to the dominant themes, particularly the push and pull of commerce vs. art and the ongoing homogenization and neutering of strong, singular voices. There were specific details that uncannily mirrored my own experiences. In The T.V Set for example, an executive defers to the taste of their fourteen-year-old progeny because she's "mature". On my show one of the producers grandly announced that their fourteen-year-old daughter had "notes" on how to improve the show.
Like The Squid And The Whale much of The T.V Set seemed ripped directly from real-life, even the stuff that seems far-fetched. It's gloriously life-sized, a collection of wonderfully observed little moments that build into a subtly scathing satire of the dumbing-down of the American mind and the way television infantilizes an audience it once had hopes of elevating. A vast wasteland indeed.
There's a casually insightful scene deep in the film where The Upright Citizen's Brigade's Matt Besser plays a focus group coordinator who delivers instructions on the focus group process as if talking to a group of slow-witted first graders. Of course if you talk to people like they're mouth-breathing idiots (turn knock left if TV make you happy! Turn right if television box make you sad! Boo! Boo! Bad TV!) they'll give you idiotic opinions. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The T.V Set is at heart about the poisonous necessity of compromise. It's about how you can begin with something honest and personal and true and water it down until it looks an awful lot like According To Jim. In her review of the The T.V Set our very own Tasha Robinson criticized Ioan Gruffudd's former BBC wunderkind character as not adding anything substantive to the film. I politely disagree. To me Gruffudd is the film's wavering moral conscience, a guy who knows better yet panders to the network's bottom-feeding instincts as a way of holding onto his job.
There's a wonderful scene where Gruffud is asked to give a big speech about his network's upcoming line-up. He hesitates at the very beginning and you begin to wonder if he's about to launch into a righteous Edward R. Murrow or Network-style tirade against the emptiness of television or the interminable race to the bottom. But no, Gruffudd instead launches into an empty sales pitch for shows he realizes are mostly terrible. Gruffudd's passivity and reluctance to go bat for what he believes in is almost as insidious and destructive as boss Sigorney Weaver's oblivious desire to sex up and dumb down everything she touches.
The T.V Set avoids being preachy in no small part because Duchovny is wholly complicit in the creative destruction of his own show: like Gruffudd he could fight for his vision or tell his network bosses that he'd rather not do the show at all than let it limp onto the airwaves a grotesque caricature of its former self. At the end of the day Gruffudd and Duchovny's instinct for self-preservation and hunger for professional success overrides their better angels.
The T.V Set ends on a bitterly ironic note: (SPOILER AHEAD) Duchovny's fatally compromised show gets a pick-up that feels like a fate worse than death. Duchovny's show succeeds in getting on the air because the man behind it has failed. Duchovny's show lives but any resemblance between its final form and its creator's original vision is purely coincidental.
Here are my questions for you, dear reader. What do you guys think of The T.V Set? I'm especially interested in what people who've worked in television have to say about it (cause, let's face it they're way better than everyone else). Secondly is there a movie or a book that you treasure in large part because it so directly reflects your own experiences of an experience or job? Usually it works in the opposite direction for me: I am continually amused and horrified by the ridiculous portrayals of the media in entertainment. I imagine that lawyers and cops and doctors probably feel the same way about shows about their field. What do you think?