The second episode of Woody Allen’s first foray into television, “Crisis in Six Scenes,” ends with Allen’s character, Sidney, and a police officer played by David Harbour discussing the relative merits of adopted daughters. “Good luck with your daughter,” the cop says to Sidney. “You know, we adoptive parents, we’re always taking a risk, aren’t we? It’s a bit of a crapshoot. But uh, it’s well worth it. I love mine to death.”
Sidney, eager to get the cops out, mumbles, “As you can see, I do, too.” He closes the door behind the policemen, and then looks back down the entryway of his house towards the camera. Kay (Elaine May), his wife, walks forward from behind the camera, saying in a low voice, “God, that was close.” Sidney walks towards her — and the audience — saying, “It’s now, officially there. We’re criminals. We’ve crossed the line. This is it.”
Amazon Studios’ “Crisis in Six Scenes” is supposed to be funny, and at times, it approaches actually being funny. But with scenes like the above in the midst of an already bizarre project, it is difficult to separate the art from the artist. Allen’s marriage to his longtime partner’s adopted daughter, Soon-Yi Previn, and the allegations of sexual abuse from his adopted daughter Dylan Farrow make any lighthearted jokes about the relative quality of adoptive daughters awkward, to say the least.
Still, this all pales in comparison to the essential awkwardness of the entire premise of “Crisis in Six Scenes,” a comedy set in the late ‘60s about what happens when Sid and Kay, a pair of elderly New York intellectuals, take in a wanted radical hippie. In a casting decision that stretches reason, hippie bomber Lennie is played by pop star Miley Cyrus. Lennie charms Kay, alienates Sid — who can’t stand that she keeps eating all of his favorite food — and seduces the houseguest, Alan, a nervous schmo who reads as a younger version of Allen’s Sidney. Along the way, she brings radical consciousness to the denizens of Sid and Kay’s comfortable and bourgeois abode, challenging their upper-middle-class liberal beliefs about how to best enact change. In the show’s funniest side plot, she dumps a bunch of lefty literature on Kay’s kaffeeklatsch book club, leading to some cozy, maternal discussions about overthrowing capitalist oppression.
Cyrus as Lennie is an unfortunate mistake “Crisis in Six Scenes” cannot recover from; in some universe, the pop star’s hamfisted treatment of simple declarative sentences might be charming, but she’s obnoxiously flat, believable as neither a product of the ’60s nor an impassioned radical. One scene has her sleepwalking. It’s such a terribly unfunny rendition of comic somnambulism that it seems to exist only to pre-empt the joke that Cyrus is sleepwalking through the role.
But Lennie’s emptiness, as a character and as a force of change, is not just Cyrus’ fault. Very little about the writing or directing lends her much humanity; she’s a less complex version of anyone’s college-aged kid home from school, turning up her nose at her “parents’” decisions while taking advantage of the comforts their bourgeois lifestyle provides. For some reason, she’s also a bomber, who talks about sleeping with “a Jew and a black” to absorb her partners’ different types of anger towards society. Her radical vision is never taken seriously, and neither is she. It’s not Cyrus’ fault that she is not talented enough to breathe life into lines as scintillating as “I met Alan. I gave him marijuana,” which is not, really, how anyone talks.
To be sure, many of the performances in “Crisis in Six Scenes” are mannered, following a particular branch of Allen’s ongoing cinematic style. Alan and his fiancée Ellie (Rachel Brosnahan, wasted in the part) are getting used to their upcoming roles of husband and wife, and the sideshow of their evolving relationship is both cute and flat, a human story in which the humans have been compressed into bite-size chunks. The finest episode of the six is the finale, and that’s because Lennie, and her scenery-chewing performance, is barely in it. Only then does the well-established setting of “Crisis in Six Scenes” find enough space to flower.
Allen’s decampment to television does not really feel like television; although “Crisis in Six Scenes” is in six episodes, there is little to distinguish it from an overlong Allen film. The episodes do not stand alone, and serialization does not add anything of note to the story.
Furthermore, Sid spends much of the show complaining about television, all the while formulating his own (terrible) pitch for a new sitcom, now that he’s no longer writing his (previously successful) novels. Sid’s “idiotic television series thing” adds another layer of winking at the audience about the reality of “Crisis in Six Scenes,” but as discussed above, reminding the audience of reality does not help.
If there is a hero in this story, it is Elaine May’s Kay, who is the only figure in the entire series that is neither mannered nor precious. That she puts up with Sid is its own feat, of course, but around her is everything — the foundation of their happy upstate life, the main source of income, the calm amusement by comings and goings of young people, and a desire for a tad more adventure and meaning, even in the twilight of her life.
But this is sidelined, compared to what is the main thrust of both the plot and the humor — which is that Lennie’s involvement with Kay and Sid sends Sid into nervous tremblings and indignant rants. If you like Woody Allen, these are probably charming, if not anymore particularly funny. A couple of times, his lines do hit: “I had a very strenuous haircut today, so I’m exhausted,” he says, with a trace of Alvy Singer’s collapsed ego.
But so much of the story relies on his charm. And it is hard to see the 80-year-old auteur as charming in the harsh light of the present. It would have been easier, probably, if there weren’t jokes about adopted daughters.