"I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book" -- Groucho Marx
The only good thing to come out of the cancellation of the television show Freaks and Geeks was the emergence of some pure comedic talents; writer-director Jake Kasdan being one of them. With The TV Set, Kasdan dives back into the seedy cesspool that is network television in order to provide us with a first-hand look at what goes on behind the scenes of one little show trying desperately to land a spot in the primetime line-up. From the lonely writer whose only goal is to transform his original vision into a new hit show, to the network executive who judges the quality of a product based solely on the opinion of her 15 year-old kid, The TV Set is at its best when its characters are at their worst. If you thought the folks on your favorite reality show were pathetic, wait until you meet those who fought to put it on the air.
In the vein of films like Network and Broadcast News, The TV Set revolves around the trials and tribulations of writer Mike Klein (David Duchovny). After selling his pilot script for a show called The Wexler Chronicles, Mike sets out on a journey to not only produce a successful pilot, but also sell his unique and personal vision to the same folks who think the new reality show Slut Wars is the greatest thing to happen to television since its inception. Though it's not based on any one particular experience, it's quite obvious that this film is very personal for Kasdan. These are people he's dealt with; these soulless, emotionless network devils are probably the same ones who canceled Freaks and Geeks because, let's face it -- the audience at home would take hot and sexy over awkward and ugly any day of the week. At least, that's what the people running the show like to think.
Mike's biggest problem is that he can never get everyone on the same page. His show, The Wexler Chronicles, is very personal in nature, as it revolves around a main character who returns to his small hometown, following his brother's suicide, after many years away. Since, in real life, Mike's brother really did commit suicide, he's adamant on this being the main ingredient in the show. But the network, lead by its brash, no-nonsense president Lenny (Sigourney Weaver), feel suicide is too much of a downer. Where's the fun? Where's the humor? To them, Mike's real-life hardships are nothing but meaningless inter-changeable plot points. Thus, the back-and-forth struggle begins -- in one corner, there's Mike, his pregnant wife (Justine Bateman) and his service-with-a-smile manager (Judy Greer). In the other, there's Lenny and her right-hand man Richard (Ioan Gruffuld), a former BBC exec shipped across the pond in an attempt to add a touch of sophistication to the whole pilot process.
For those familiar with the way pilot season works, The TV Set is a fun ride. In her best role since Working Girl, Sigourney Weaver makes the film -- so much so that when she's on on screen, the movie suffers. Her character is dynamic, yet extremely hallow -- heck, she uses her 15 year-old child to help pick which shows belong on the air. When Mike fights her tooth and nail to keep the suicide angle in the script because it's original, Lenny replies, "Original scares me a little." But that's the type of person she is. These are the people who are constantly green-lighting reality show after reality show because, in their minds, that's what people want. Even though Mike's script is based on his own harsh reality, it's not fake enough to pass off as entertaining television.
Like its main character, The TV Set does run into its fare share of problems. Though we're supposed to root for Mike and his show, The Wexler Chronicles isn't all too appealing. With so much attention given to the characters and their witty dialogue, it's hard for us to hop onboard and fight for Mike when his show, well, sucks. There's nothing exciting or original about it, and it only gets worse once we're on set -- forced to watch a boring subplot in which one actor becomes romantically obsessed with another. It's cute, but like all the other subplots Kasdan tries to sandwich in, it doesn't resonate. Nothing sticks. We don't care. It's obvious that Kasdan wanted to add a few every day elements to the script (like with Mike's pregnant wife worried about paying the bills, and Richard's wife upset with the fact that she's had to leave her home in the UK in order to become a stay-at-home soccer mom here in the States), but all they do is water-down -- and take us out of -- the overall story.
Kasdan does all he can to make Mike a sympathetic character -- the kind of guy we can all relate to -- but, in the end, he's not very likable. He's always complaining, he's never satisfied -- and since his ultimate goal (to get The Wexler Chronicles on air) doesn't interest us as much as Weaver's ratings-hungry personality, we're not emotionally invested in the film's hero. So, what we're left with is a funny film that takes itself a bit too seriously at times. Though that tonal shift does seem awkward, The TV Set is worth the price of an admission ticket ... if only to watch Sigourney Weaver hit one out of the ballpark. This is her greatest role in years, and one of the most enjoyable characters I've watched on screen all year. While it has its flaws, The TV Set ultimately succeeds in showing us just how real the fake world of television truly is.