Television often gets a bad rap in movies, with screenwriters eager to point out its most craven and compromised instincts — perhaps as revenge for all of those “golden age of TV” articles that love to talk about how an episode of The Shield is better than, like, a thousand movies, or something. But rarely is the satire as exacting as that in Jake Kasdan’s The TV Set, now on DVD. This is not to say it’s a subtle film, but that its step-by-step trip through pilot season proceeds with single-minded devotion and attention to detail. The ending, after just 85 minutes, may seem abrupt, but by this point the film has exhausted itself.
Series TV set David Duchovny plays Mike, a writer struggling to his baby, The Wexler Chronicles, to air. This involves a wealth of crushing disappointments and miserable compromises; with a pregnant wife and a kid at home, he can’t afford to walk away with his artistic dignity intact. Thus The Wexler Chronicles begins as the story of a morose lawyer coming home after his brother’s suicide and eventually becomes a sit-dramedy about a hapless goof dealing with the less untimely, apparently more audience-friendly death of his mother (by heart attack, deemed less depressing than suicide).
The charge towards mediocrity is led by network exec Lenny (Sigourney Weaver), who would seem purely evil if Weaver didn’t play her as so hilariously, frighteningly plainspoken (her pride over running every programming decision by her fourteen-year-old daughter gives her a twisted, misguided humanity). It’s made clear within the first five or ten minutes: even mainstream, accessible quality has no chance here.
That The TV Set is executive-produced by Judd Apatow will only come as a surprise in light of the film’s relative obscurity (it got an inauspicious limited release in early 2007, before Knocked Up and Superbad ruled summer box-office). The subject matter is so close to the early careers of both Apatow and Kasdan (a showrunner and director, respectively, on the late, lamented Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared) that the satire has a stinging immediacy; they know this material cold.
This accounts for a bizarre division of commentary tracks: one, more typical, led by Kasdan and featuring cast members talking about the making of the film, and a second with Kasdan and Apatow speaking about the experiences that informed the film. As the progression from script to finished pilot guides the film’s plot, the plot then guides the filmmakers through their real-life memories of working in television. The beard on an ill-fated actor character in the movie, for example, inspires an anecdote about Apatow refusing to order an actor to shave his beard mid-filming, causing the show in question to get scrapped entirely. At another point, Apatow gets so worked up describing the creative death involved in working for network TV that he starts hollering profanities at unnamed studios and suits; Kasdan is more detached but equally cynical.
In short, this second commentary is entertaining and informative — which, strangely, makes the film itself seem almost unnecessary. These audio tracks — Duchovny, for his part, is dryly hilarious in the more genial first commentary — coupled with an abbreviated running time solidify the film as something a couple of bright guys needed to get out of their systems, lest rage paralysis set in. Though sharp and amusing, this is a placeholder for Kasdan, whose terrific debut film, Zero Effect (1998), showed promise far beyond industry carping (however justified). The TV Set on DVD, with its various articulations of anger and frustration, makes for entertaining therapy; now it’s time for Kasdan to let go and love again.