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Why they call it `the idiot box'

Jake Kasdan's `The TV Set' takes viewers on a wickedly funny journey through the minefield known as pilot season.

April 06, 2007|Kevin Crust | Times Staff Writer

There is nothing wrong with "The TV Set." Do not attempt to adjust the picture. They are controlling transmission. If they wish to make it louder, they will bring up the volume. If they wish to make it softer, they will tune it to a whisper. They can reduce the focus to a soft blur, or sharpen it to crystal clarity. They will control the horizontal. They will control the vertical. For an hour and a half, sit quietly and they will control all that you see and hear. You are about to experience the awe and mystery that reaches from the inner mind to ... the outer limits -- of pilot season.

Set in that strange world from which TV series emerge, Jake Kasdan's wickedly funny comedy follows the travails of a writer guiding his pet project through the Scylla and Charybdis of network television. An insider's guide to a process seemingly rigged to yield lowest-common-denominator programming, "The TV Set" will have you wondering how anything worthwhile ever makes it on the air -- and understand why the best stuff usually winds up on cable.

In general, the movie doesn't necessarily reveal anything we don't already know but delivers it in a personable, entertaining manner that places us inside the conference rooms and editing suites of Studio City (or Burbank or Century City or Culver City ...). Kasdan, a frequent collaborator of comedy maven Judd Apatow -- most significantly on the series "Freaks and Geeks" and "Undeclared" -- draws on those experiences to elucidate the saga of Mike Klein, a writer whose proposed series, "The Wexler Chronicles," is vying for a spot in the fall lineup of the fictional network PDN -- a.k.a. "The Panda."

A bearded David Duchovny plays Klein with a carefully modulated blend of intelligence, hope and skepticism. When his manager Alice (a dead-on Judy Greer) suggests that a hirsute actor (Simon Helberg) who is Mike's first choice to play the lead might be "too hip for the room," he asks if that's code for "too Jewish."

Attempting to avoid the wreckage of countless unproduced scripts and unaired pilots, Klein must proceed as diplomatically as possible. Sigourney Weaver costars as Mike's nemesis, a network executive named Lenny who proudly declares that "original scares me a little" and is beholden to the opinions of focus groups and her 14-year-old daughter.

Aglow with the success of the reality series "Slut Wars," Lenny is further emboldened to "tweak" "The Wexler Chronicles" into something barely resembling Klein's initial vision. From casting to the title and premise, the writer faces an uphill battle. With both Lenny and Zach Harper (Fran Kranz), the network's choice to play the lead in the pilot, Kasdan deftly walks that fine line between creating caricatures and nailing the type of person you've unfortunately dealt with in your own line of work.

Writer-director Kasdan doesn't overly stack the deck in favor of Klein. "The Wexler Chronicles" is not presented as some mangled masterpiece but simply as a dramedy that has great personal stakes for its creator.

On the flip side, the suits -- including force of nature Lenny, Richard McAllister (Ioan Gruffudd of "Horatio Hornblower" and "Fantastic Four"), a BBC executive ostensibly brought in to add some class, and the practical head of the network (Philip Baker Hall in a cameo) -- and their uninterrupted pursuit of ratings possess a crazy kind of business logic of their own.

The movie has the smarts and pacing of good TV, and all irony aside, it would make a terrific pilot for a TV series. Among its attributes are an aces ensemble cast that also includes Lindsay Sloane as the TV show's female lead, Justine Bateman as Klein's very pregnant wife, M.C. Gainey as a grizzled director of photography and "Sex and the City's" Willie Garson as the persnickety yet clueless director of the pilot.

Much of the film's humor has an inside baseball quality that assumes an audience versed in such terms as "the upfronts" -- which regular readers of this section will recognize as the annual confab in which the networks flog their latest wares. However, it isn't necessary to speak fluent Variety in order to appreciate "The TV Set."

In addition to skewering the process in which TV shows get on the air, Kasdan has also hit upon a more universal condition. Nearly everyone can relate to that point in one's life when youthful ideals are checked at the door and we swallow our pride and our best intentions to keep collecting that paycheck to cover the rent/mortgage, car payment and child care.

Kasdan mirrors Klein's predicament with that of McAllister, who begins with high standards, serving as an astute facilitator between Lenny and Klein, but experiences the gradual erosion of those standards as he becomes more intent on survival. Like Klein, he finds himself in a difficult position balancing his job with the best interests of his family and wondering how much of his soul is for sale.

It was 24 years ago that the young Kasdan had a cameo in his father Lawrence's "The Big Chill," playing a boy of about 8 who asks Tom Berenger's character, a Tom Selleck-like television star, for his autograph immediately following a funeral. When Berenger points out that it might not be an appropriate time, the shrewd tyke says, "I'll give you a buck."

It's nice to see that the kid has lost none of his healthy pragmatism toward the business.


"The TV Set." MPAA rating: R for language. Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes. In selected theaters.

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