Woody Allen making a TV show for Amazon has a Mad Libs air about it. Woody Allen and Amazon? Like squares and three-dimensional wormholes, those don’t go together. Allen seems like he doesn’t know how the internet works—he apparently didn’t know what Amazon was before taking their money—and when Amazon signed Allen after his daughter Dylan Farrow again accused him of sexually abusing her, it seemed like maybe the streaming service didn’t either. Every year Woody Allen makes a movie. It is good, not very good, or bad, but it screens in Woody Allen safe spaces— theaters on the Upper West Side and their nationwide spiritual kin— nonetheless. Can Amazon be such a locale? Can Woody translate to television?
Crisis in Six Scenes, a comedy set in the late 1960s, is a not very good Woody Allen movie, stretched out over six episodes. It’s not an abjectly horrible Woody Allen movie either, but it surely doesn’t deserve its title: Allen has professed to giving his lesser movies forgettable names and the nicely punchy title Crisis in Six Scenes would more fittingly be replaced with something like Havana Nights. Allen stars as Sidney J. Munsinger, a predictably neurotic and hypochondriacal writer living in Westchester with his wife, Kay (Elaine May, who sounds so much like her daughter, Jeannie Berlin, who just appeared in The Night Of, that you could be forgiven for imagining they are the same person). Kay is a marriage counselor who sees clients in her home and hosts a book club where Kafka is botched over coffee and rugelach. The Munsingers are hosting Alan (John Magaro), a house guest and Allen’s younger stand-in, as the name spells out. Alan is a milquetoast nebbish groomed to go into the family financial business who has recently become engaged to the polite debutante Ellie (House of Cards’ Rachel Brosnahan), whom he was introduced to by Sidney, who sings her praises a little too much.
During the first episode, Sidney forgets to set the alarm on the house for the first time in years and an intruder breaks in. Kay goes down to confront the thief with a fire poker—Sidney right behind her—and they encounter Lennie Dale (Miley Cyrus), a young radical who is a member of the Constitutional Liberation Army. Lennie recently killed a guard during a prison break and now needs a place to hide out while she figures out how to get to Cuba. Cyrus occasionally shows off her sitcom training—she’s still got a Disney Channel way with a comedy beat—but otherwise espouses radical political dialogue memorable mostly for her gravelly timbre. Lennie stays at the house for weeks, giving Sidney and Kay many occasions to haplessly and unconvincingly tell others that nothing is going on. Before long Lennie has converted Alan, Kay, and Kay’s book club into Mao-quoting wannabe radicals, leaving only Sidney uncharmed, endlessly horrified that Lennie keeps eating his Fig Newtons and navel oranges.
Allen knowingly juxtaposes the widening gyre vibe of the late ’60s with our contemporary moment: “Did you ever think you’d see America like this? So polarized,” a dinner guest asks the Munsingers. A name like the Constitutional Liberation Army is about as much a wink at the Tea Party as Woody Allen is going to make. But despite the allegorical stakes of its setup, Crisis never gets serious. It’s not just that this is a comedy; it’s that the show treats revolutionary politics like a comedy of manners, all surface and no depth. Kay and her book club’s embrace of revolution is even sillier than Sidney’s resistance to it. Characters in Crisis talk about walking the walk instead of talking the talk, but the show itself is most passionate about those Allen staples: nice real estate, handsome accessories, well-chosen wall hangings. This is a show in which an errant bomb is played only for laughs.
During the making of Crisis in Six Scenes, Allen gave an interview in which he said he regretted agreeing to make a TV show. “For me, it has been very, very difficult. I’ve been struggling and struggling and struggling,” he said. Allen puts his anxieties about his new medium right in the show. In the very first scene, he shows up at the barber shop, requesting a hair cut that will make him look like James Dean, and is soon talking to the barber about his latest project: a TV show. It’s where the money is, but is it selling out? Is he embracing cliché? Later, he pitches a series that’s a stereotypical family sitcom, except the family members are Neanderthals. (Allen apparently missed Cavemen.) It’s supposed to be a terrible show—Sidney promises to include a fat daughter, so there can be fat jokes—but it sounded kind of fun to me. (I also missed Cavemen.)
The greater struggle is structural. Allen’s strength has always been dialogue, but a TV show is not just a stretched-out movie. Allen labors to give each episode a proper cliffhanger ending—my personal favorite is the one where Lennie gives Kay some radical texts for her book club—but so many of the conversations go on and on, not because they are better that way, but because there is time to fill. The first few episodes meander by, full of too-long dialogue and not enough action, while all the best moments are precise: Kay’s decision to brush her hair before going down to confront the burglar; Sidney’s contention that, untreated, chapped lips can be fatal; Kay’s clients, seemingly in a Woody Allen movie all their own, in which the wife allows the husband to pay her for sex so he’ll stop going to whores.
Crisis gets better as it goes on, perhaps because a climax is not so different in film and television. The last episode, when the action comes to a head and dozens of people descend upon the Munsinger home, has a lively, farcical vibe. Even better is the fifth episode, in which Sidney and Kay go on a clandestine adventure in Brooklyn, including a scene in which Allen and May jump from rooftop to rooftop. I would watch an alter cocker action-comedy directed by Allen. If he ever feels compelled to take the Amazon money again, maybe he can make a movie about just that.