||Shooting at a very big target with a peashooter, Jake Kasdan’s anemic little comedy is a weak satire of network television programming, telling you nothing you don’t already know and doing so without providing much more than an occasional mild chuckle. The lame title alone—it’s about the people who work in television, get it?—is indicative of its low sharpness level.
The plot of “The TV Set” has to do with the emasculation of a highbrow pilot script created by dour, dedicated writer-producer Mike Klein (David Duchovny, in professorial beard) under pressure from clueless network executives led by ratings-mad network president Lenny (Sigourney Weaver). She’s the champion of such pop favorites as “Slut Wars,” and thinks that his proposed dramedy “The Wexler Chronicles,” about a young lawyer who returns to his home town after his brother’s suicide, is just too smart and depressing to get an audience. Beginning by manipulating things to force Mike to cast broad comic Zach Harper (Fran Kranz) in the lead over his own choice for the part, she gradually gets the show molded into something much more conventional, ditching the suicide angle, adding broad sitcom touches (as well as some jiggles) and even bestowing (with the help of focus groups, of course) a new title—“He’s So Crazy!”
The crux of the story is Mike’s artistic dilemma—does he go along with the changes and get his show on the air (something he needs, with a wife—Natalie, played by Justine Bateman, and a child to support, not to mention his debilitating bad back), or stick to his guns and see it die in pilot hell? The pressures on him are paralleled by those felt by Lenny’s new head of programming, Richard McCallister (Ioan Gruffudd), a transplanted Brit with a reputation for quality who’s caught between his boss and Klein, while his own marriage is dissolving over the demands of his job.
The backstabbing, falsely supportive sleaziness of the entertainment industry isn’t exactly virgin territory, but it can still be fun, in a glib and facile fashion, if handled smartly. But Kasdan’s approach is too blunt and the points he’s making far too shallow. A scene in which a focus group is depicted grading Klein’s show, for example, is so sitcommy that it loses all credibility. And Kranz is encouraged to overplay too broadly. Even Weaver—though it’s fun to watch her do a routine as over-the-top as the one she did in “Working Girl”—falls into the same trap.
On the other hand, Duchovny underplays in a one-note, sad-sack performance that saps the energy from the picture, and the entire plot thread involving Gruffudd is treated so seriously (with the “Fantastic Four” star trying to give the part almost Shakespearean depth) that it seems totally out of place in this company. From the technical perspective the picture is mediocre, too; it’s obviously a modesty-budgeted indie piece, but still needs to have created a more convincing industry environment than it does.
What really sinks “The TV Set,” though, is the picture’s failure to portray a real deterioration from quality to mediocrity in Klein’s script. The scenes that we’re shown at the start as representative of his “brilliant” writing are bad to begin with, yet we’re supposed to find it an artistic assault that in the end they’re gussied up with fart noises and facial mugging. For Kasdan to have made the point he’s aiming for, the original material needs to be exceptional in some way, and gradually bastardized into conformity. It doesn’t help, either, that a big chunk of today’s television series, on the networks as well as cable, is actually pretty good—better, in fact, than this movie (and many others). “The Office,” for example, is far more cutting than Kasdan’s picture.
Almost a quarter of a century ago, Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman made a comedy about the TV business in the telefilm “The Ratings Game.” Though two decades younger, Kasdan’s movie doesn’t represent an improvement on it.