An insider pic likely to produce a few knowing guffaws from the industry but only occasional chuckles from John Q. Public, “The TV Set” reps a mild parody of the process behind tube pilot development, but can’t quite balance caricature with more serious side elements. Results are breezy though toothless, with too much repetition and not enough originality, despite clocking in at less than 90 minutes. Jake Kasdan’s third feature is more likely to get picked up than the weak series at its center, but capturing the desired market share will prove elusive.
A veteran of the ego-crushing process of small-screen development himself (“Freaks and Geeks,” “Undeclared”), Kasdan knows his target, showing up the ways in which group decisions suck out originality and pander to the lowest common denominator. But like the fictional drama being pitched, ideas aren’t given room for development, and too many situations feel like they’re culled from sketches held in reserve for no one project in particular.
At auditions for his new pilot, genuine nice guy Mike (David Duchovny, in standard everyman mode) comes up against ballsy network prexy Lenny (Sigourney Weaver), whose concept of gutsy casting is putting Lucy Lawless in a sitcom. Together with a cohort of ad execs and yes men, she ignores Mike’s choice for the lead in “The Wexler Chronicles,” instead won over by enthusiastic pup Zach Harper (Fran Kranz) and his less-than-subtle acting style.
Mike is reluctantly willing to go with their decision but refuses to bend on the show’s serious content. After receiving assurances from newly appointed head of primetime programming Richard McAllister (Welshman Ioan Gruffudd, “Fantastic Four”) that his vision will remain, production gets underway.
But Mike’s control over his brainchild can’t last long.
Milking amusing situations out of ratings-obsessed TV execs and self-important thesps and agents is the easy part, though Kasdan shows rehearsals and alternate takes so often that auds will be repeating lines rather than laughing at comic situations.
The real problem is his desire to balance things with some sense of seriousness, not just Mike’s fight to preserve his original intentions but McAllister’s struggle to hold on to his family and force quality onto philistines who use him as window dressing. Several side plots feel tacked on.
As usual, Weaver does the best she can with the lines given, though her Lenny is played in a broad manner, occasionally teetering toward an imitation of Faye Dunaway at her least subtle. Duchovny is solid if bland, and while he’s not expanding his repertoire, he’s well-suited to the role. Justine Bateman, as Mike’s pregnant wife, exudes warmth and intelligence, coming off best in the few scenes she’s given; it’s easy to imagine wanting to come home to this woman after a tiring day.
Kasdan’s wise decision to shoot in widescreen Panavision pays off in the way it distinguishes between small-screen actions and the cinematic pic itself, and d.p. Uta Briesewitz’s frequent use of controlled handheld lensing provides the appropriate sense of casual buoyancy in comic scenes.