Each year the major TV networks commission dozens of "pilots," shooting complete test episodes of prospective series, most of which will never see light of day. Here, director Jake Kasdan smartly chronicles the agony and ecstasy of pilot season, and the often painful process of forcing art through the machinery of commerce.
Kasdan knows the territory too, having shot one of the best pilots ever, for the cult masterpiece Freaks and Geeks. That show's brilliant, unadulterated creative voice no doubt assured its demise, but also secured it a place in the TV pantheon and with ever growing legions of fans on DVD.
Such tube immortality is the ambition of sensitive but hungry writer Mike Klein played with twitchy sincerity by David Duchovny whose introspective coming-of-age dramedy The Wexler Chronicles is moving slowly through the pipeline of a fictional net. He has an ally in the thoughtful and young head of programming Richard (Ioan Gruffudd), who's freshly imported from the BBC, supposedly to class up the joint.
Stacked against them is a schedule loaded with such trash as Slut Wars, and ball-busting exec Lenny (Sigourney Weaver), whose instincts lean toward the venial and crass. She's the one who picks the comically broad spazz Zach (Fran Kranz) for The Wexler Chronicles' lead over Mike's handpicked choice, and deems the show's basic premise "depressing." Mike struggles valiantly, but at work he's under constant pressure to sex it up and dumb it down, and at home his pregnant wife (Justine Bateman) gently reminds him how nice the steady income will be.
At a glance, everything about The TV Set seems like a winner: uniformly great acting, sharply observed comedy and smooth direction. For dedicated media junkies (such as this writer), the movie feels real, and is an absolute kick, with a dark edge reminiscent of backstage classics like The Big Picture or The Larry Sanders Show.
The central boob-tube critique in The TV Set is witty, but not unique, and only partially accurate; the current TV universe is still chock-full of crap, but also harbors more quality shows than ever before. The real question is whether or not those less plugged-in will give a rip, or be able to muster much sympathy for the trials of people drawing fat Hollywood paychecks. Will it play in Peoria? In some ways Kasdan has made a film every bit as fragile and fartsy as the original vision of Mike's pilot, and it may be just as tough a sell.
Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.