Have you ever turned on the TV and wondered what the hell the network was thinking when they gave the green light to a ridiculously crappy show while canceling your favorite drama? 'Freaks and Geeks' fans know what I’m talking about, and so does the series’ one time director Jake Kasdan, who created The TV Set to give us a glimpse at the network process that recently shoved aside the critically acclaimed drama 'The Black Donnellys' in favor of reality drivel 'The Real Wedding Crashers'.
A farce in the vein of Network and last year’s Thank you for Smoking, The TV Set takes off after Mike Klein (David Duchovny) as he sells his pilot script “The Wexler Chronicles,” based on his real life struggle with his brother’s suicide, to the major Panda Network. Though everyone seems to love his endearing drama, Mike quickly learns that all of his decisions, from casting, to the plot, to the title, have to be approved by the bottom-line driven Studio President Lenny (Sigourney Weaver), whose biggest influence is her fourteen year old daughter. Mike turns to his one ally at PDN Richard (Ioan Gruffudd), and his overly supportive manager Alice (Judy Greer) to help maintain his artistic vision, but when Lenny calls the storyline a “downer” and tries to transform it into a mass-appealing comedy, Mike has to choose between staying true to the craft and selling out to support his growing family.
The TV Set is an incredibly bleak look at a society where 'Slut Wars' is the highest rated show on television, and a heartfelt family drama can only survive if it is transformed into a quirky comedy. Weaver absolutely embodies the slimy dollar-driven Lenny, always sporting a garish Panda (the symbol of her network) and constantly phrasing her demands with a smile and a “what if…” ultimatum. But even as the villain, Lenny is incredibly likeable thanks to Weaver’s convincing performance. David Duchovny leaves “Fox Mulder” and his foxiness behind, to play the loveable “everyman” Mike, who can’t find the strength to fight the system alone. Meanwhile, up and coming Fran Kranz offers some sidesplitting laughs with his wide range of personalities as Mike’s problematic leading actor. Ioan Gruffudd is well cast, overdramatic scenes showing his family struggles drive home the point that to be successful you have to sacrifice something. For Lenny it is dignity, for Robert it is family, and for Mike, it’s his creative vision.
For all the great performances Kasdan gets, The TV Set lacks enough character development and clear plot to appeal to widespread audiences. The low-budget look and sound quality accentuates the film’s independent nature, though it’s not as distracting as it might have been in say a serious drama or action movie. Some of the jokes are a little too insider and a few formal terms like “upfronts” are never properly explained so that a general audience might get lost in the network process, but fortunately Kasdan also balances that by infusing the movie with the kind of slapstick and goofy humor anyone can enjoy.
The TV Set is a hidden gem, just like those few television shows that actually make it through the chopping block with some dignity left. Sadly, the film industry's release process isn't much better at catering to quality than network television, so the movie might be difficult to find in local theaters. So the next time you're flipping the channels only to discover “there is nothing on,” seek out the nearest independent theater, even if it is in the weird artsy neighborhood you never go to, and find The TV Set. The nicknames “boob tube” and “idiot box” will take on a whole new meaning.