The TV Set is a little wonder of a movie, as smart and sad and true as any comedy I’ve seen this year. But I fear it won’t get the love—and the viewers—it deserves because of its subject matter: the internal struggles at a major TV network during pilot season. Show business satire has become such a ubiquitous and self-regarding form that audiences may think they’ve seen this movie already, in the form of Network or For Your Consideration or even HBO’s Entourage. But take my word for it: You haven’t. First of all, The TV Set isn’t really a satire at all. For all the absurdity of the world it documents, there’s not a line, a character, or a scene that feels exaggerated for comic effect. All of these things could have happened in real life, and in fact, most of them are probably happening at a frantic pace right now (mid-April being the traditional end of pilot season).
Secondly, you don’t have to be an entertainment-industry insider to identify with this movie’s narrative of artistic compromise and the irresolvable conflict between work and family. If you’ve ever had to muffle your best instincts to please your boss, if you’ve ever found yourself doing something you never thought you’d do to support your family, you’ll get it.
The TV Set was written and directed by Jake Kasdan and executive-produced by Judd Apatow. The two worked together on the pilot (and several more episodes) of Freaks and Geeks,the prematurely axed NBC series that has to be one of the most artistically uncompromised shows in recent memory. The TV Set imagines what might have happened if a show like Freaks and Geeks had done what it had to do to stay on the air. The film follows the trajectory of a single show, a sitcom called The Wexler Chronicles. As conceived by its creator, Mike Klein (David Duchovny), it’s an autobiographical tragicomedy about a young man who returns to his hometown after his brother commits suicide.During the casting and shooting, Mike’s original script is diluted little by little: “What if the brother didn’t kill himself?” suggests Lenny (Sigourney Weaver), the ball-busting network president, as Mike stands in front of a chart of prime-time offerings with titles like Slut Wars and World’s Grossest Meals.
The network also insists on casting a lead actor, Zach (Fran Kranz), whose delivery veers wildly between barn-broad shtick and ersatz-De Niro earnestness. At each new betrayal of his vision, Mike—a scruffy, bearded schlemiel who clearly doesn’t belong in the corporate conference room—threatens (behind his bosses’ backs, of course) to quit the project. But his wife, Natalie (the delightful Justine Bateman, who’s overdue for a comeback), is expecting their second child, and Mike doesn’t have the luxury of turning down work.
Mike has one ally at the network, a recently imported BBC executive named Richard (Ioan Gruffudd), who believes in The Wexler Chronicles and promises to defend it against the slow drip of crassification. But Richard has struggles of his own: He needs to impress his new colleagues by squiring a hit show to completion while somehow convincing his wife, Chloe (Lucy Davis), that the move to L.A. hasn’t made him into a soulless workaholic.
Duchovny, looking a touch heavier and sadder than he did on The X-Files, finds just the right note for his portrayal of Mike Klein, a self-pitying, self-medicating basket case who’s also an honest and decent guy. The casting of Gruffudd and Davis was a sharp choice on Kasdan’s part, as both actors bring to mind the best of British television (Davis played Dawn on The Office; Gruffudd was Bosinney in the 2002 miniseries The Forsyte Saga). And Judy Greer, an Anne Heche lookalike with Lisa Kudrow’s comic timing, nearly steals the movie as Mike’s desperately chirpy manager.
The strength of The TV Set is how it doesn’t present the dumbing-down of America as the work of some greedy cabal in a boardroom (well, maybe a little, but isn’t that sort of the case?). Mike doesn’t sell out his show in one fell swoop. Rather, he gives way slowly under the weight of countless choices, compromises, and betrayals. Television, like democracy, can be abjectly dependent on the audience’s approval, forced to appeal to the widest possible base in order to survive. Kasdan has said he was inspired to make the film during the 2004 election season, and while the political parallels are never made explicit, they lend another level of richness to this deceptively slight 89-minute movie. The TV Set could make for an excellent series itself—that is, if its subtlety and dark humor could survive the rigors of pilot season.