The TV Set, though quite entertaining, sadly feels less like a sendup of the TV biz than the truth of it. Writer-director Jake Kasdan’s “story of one pilot” follows a sitcom from casting to the filming of the first episode through the perspective of its writer. Mike (David Duchovny) is bearded and dry and has based his series, The Wexler Chronicles, on his own experiences after his brother killed himself. Naturally, he’s excited about the opportunity—until the suits pick a broad actor over his choice for the lead, the hypersensitive director frames ridiculous shots, and the network starts to wonder if the whole suicide thing is really necessary. “Suicide, to me, is kind of the premise for everything that happens,” Mike carefully tells Lenny (Sigourney Weaver), the executive in charge. “I know,” she responds. “But let’s think about it for a second—what if it weren’t?”
Like a small-screen version of Robert Altman’s The Player, The TV Set aims at a slow-moving target. Kasdan, who directed episodes of the beloved but short-lived series Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared, neither completely vilifies the television industry nor puts Mike on a pedestal. Sure, making the network’s hit a reality show named Slut Wars (“Carla, put your clothes on and get outta here!”) may be caricature, but in the era of Trading Spouses and The Bachelor, the idea barely needs to stretch to cross that line. Instead the film simply makes us witness to what are likely common conflicts during a program’s development. With the exception of a BBC producer (Ioan Gruffudd) whom the network brought on board to add “some of [his] class thing,” it’s the ratings whores versus the talent throughout the process, with Alice (a perfect Judy Greer), a double-speaking agent, stuck in between: “They love it,” Alice frequently reports to Mike. “But they have some concerns.”
The TV Set is a breezy 87 minutes, with witty dialogue that adds phrases such as “the boner factor” and “I’m between marriages” to the lexicon. Weaver is nicely slippery as an executive who can effortlessly turn a personal anecdote of a near-tragedy into an argument to back up aggressive business decisions. And after a string of awful films—though he gets a pass for last year’s Trust the Man—Duchovny is funny and likable again without resorting to Mulder-isms. Even bit parts make an impression, from a surly cameraman to a network marketer who instructs a test audience as if they were children.
Kasdan adds a layer to Mike beyond merely being idealistic and in love with his material. (Though he does moan about potentially “making the world more mediocre.”) He’s the father of one baby and another on the way, and his wife (Justine Bateman), while agreeing that the network is molding the series into mass-appeal crap, suggests that he stay flexible for the sake of a paycheck. Mike’s attempts to swallow attitudes such as “You don’t want to be too original!”—along with the handy painkillers he got for stress-related back spasms—is a bit soul-sucking to watch. But The TV Set, unlike the probable final version of The Wexler Chronicles pilot, never gets ridiculous or dull. And the next time you turn off yet another terrible show, you’ll surely remember that its creator may not be to blame.