Mike Klein (David Duchovny) is a scriptwriter who suffers from chronic backpain and whose wife (Justine Bateman) is pregnant. Mike has developed an autobiographical TV dramedy about a young man trying to come to terms with the suicide of his brother. He’s sold it to one of the networks but, when he tries to shoot the pilot, he watches as his original concept is continually compromised and diluted by Lenny (Sigourney Weaver), the president of the network. After rejecting Mike’s choice for the lead role because the actor had a beard, Lenny forces him to cast Zack Harper (Fran Kranz), a mugging young actor who lets pre-stardom go to his head. Lenny continues to change Mike’s concept until he can barely even recognize his pilot. Will Mike be able to retain his vision or will network TV continue to be dominated by shows like Slut Wars?
Occasionally, you’ll see a film that was obviously made by a writer/director who was obviously looking to settle some old scores with the studio execs that he had to deal with in the past. Christopher Guest’s first film as a director was The Big Picture, a sharp and clever satire with Kevin Bacon as a film student who discovers there’s little he won’t compromise on to get his film made. Before Guest’s film, Blake Edwards lost a fortune making a film called S.O.B. because he wanted to get back at the people who he blamed for ruining Darling Lili. Continuing the tradition of those films but moving the action to the networks, The TV Set was directed by Jake Kasdan, the son of Lawrence Kasdan. Jake worked on a number of TV shows with Judd Apatow (most famously, Freaks and Geeks) and The TV Set feels like his chance to get revenge on any number of real-life studio execs. It’s an insider’s view of what’s wrong with television but sometimes it becomes such an insider’s view that it becomes hard to relate to Mike and or really care about his show, which sounded pretty bad even before the network suits got involved. Too often, it feels like the movie itself is more about settling personal grudges than saying anything about the state of television.
The TV Set has got a large cast, some of whom manage to create an interesting character despite Kasdan’s overstuffed script. I especially liked Judy Greer, who played Mike’s always-positive agent. I got the feeling that we were supposed to be as annoyed with Greer’s character as Mike often was but Greer gives such an energetic performance that it’s impossible to dislike her, no matter how far she went in her attempts to always put a positive spin on the bad news coming from the set of Mike’s pilot. I also like Fran Kranz and Lindsay Sloane, who played the two actors forced on Mike by the studio. Indeed, probably one of the film’s biggest problems is that all of the characters that we’re supposed to find annoying are played such likable actors that it’s hard to really sympathize with Mike when he starts complaining about them. David Duchovny sleepwalks through the role of Mike but he’s not helped by a script that can never seem to decide if Mike’s supposed to be a visionary or just a hopeless naïve victim of the industry.
The TV Set, which was made a few years before the start of the streaming revolution, ends with a warning that television will soon be full of shows like Slut Wars and there won’t be any room for artists like Mike Klein. The TV Set wasn’t wrong but what it failed to predict was that there would soon be other platforms on which the Mike Kleins of the word could broadcast their shows.