Our world seems to be getting smaller. With so much to entertain us on a second-by-second basis, we rarely have to sit quietly with our thoughts anymore. There is noise everywhere. The Internet is all about video and noise where it used to not be. Televisions are everywhere – at the gas stations, the banks and the airports.
You’d think that, at a time when we have limitless choices, we’d have more originality in what gets pumped into our living rooms. And guess what? It’s our fault we don’t. We’re the ones calling the shots.
Jake Kasdan’s brilliant, satirical film, The TV Set ought to be making more noise than it has. It follows the evolution of a TV sitcom from the birth of an idea, through the casting phase, the production phase, the audience-testing phase and the final decision phase, where a network exec has the power to say which show will be put before the viewing public and which show will not.
David Duchovny stars as Mike, the television writer with a brilliant idea to create a sitcom that is funny because it’s tragic. It’s about a man coming home and trying to go on with life after his brother’s suicide. The first thing he wants is a particular kind of actor he believes is best. He has to showcase his actors before a bunch of suits – they decide who will be cast based on likeability, mostly. They pick the guy with the best comic timing.
Already, the idea has been dropped a notch. The next phase is the suicide angle. The head exec, Lenny (a hilarious, loathsome Sigourney Weaver), believes that suicide is too depressing for the American public. They will tune out. They also hate the title, “Meet the Drexels.”
He puts up a fight but there is inevitability to Mike’s resignation of his artistic vision. We know the network will eventually get its way. They are in the business of attracting eyeballs for advertisers, full stop. They are not obligated to further anyone’s artistic vision. Mike knows this. “This isn’t cancer research,” he says at one point. But he is ultimately responsible for what ultimately gets on the air. His show won’t even get on the air unless he complies with the network. If his show doesn’t go on the air, he doesn’t get work. His wife (Justine Bateman, lovely and memorable) has a baby and another one on the way.
But what a Catch-22 it is. The execs make all of the bad decisions, yet they’re not the ones taking the fall. The American public likes what it likes; in this case, Slut Wars is doing better business than any other show for the network. How does a show like Meet the Drexels, which tries for originality, wit and intelligence go up against an alluring piece of trash like Slut Wars?
Kasdan has mighty shoes to fill following in dad Lawrence Kasdan’s footsteps. But he distinguishes himself with The TV Set by writing a boldly original script that looks at all aspects of a network show on the way to pilot season. In fact, The TV Set would make its own great ongoing network series, provided they air it on HBO, or some network with the cajones to tell the truth, ratings be damned.
It’s difficult not to get depressed about everything we watch in The TV Set. It reminds us how our standards have been lowered over the last few decades so that we not only stand for all of this reality, but we hunger for it. If you ask 20 people in a room to turn a dial at the slightest bit of discomfort, as they do in the audience testing scenes in this film, you’re going to end up with something so mediocre no one is going to even want to watch it. The truly successful shows on TV have been challenging and groundbreaking. Even Survivor, in its own weird way, was groundbreaking when it started.
But how do you stop feeding the beast? You don’t. The film makes the specific point that change will not come soon, nor will it come easily. It’s as good a time as any to remember William Goldman’s famous phrase, “Nobody know anything.” That won’t stop people from acting like they do.