It is a wonder anything of value gets made in the creativity-by-committee depicted in the sitcom satire The TV Set. In this dark comedy about the battle to produce a TV pilot in L.A.'s entertainment trenches, there are control-freak TV execs; showboating, infantile actors; neurotic writers and disgruntled technicians.
Consensus may be good for governments, but it is the kiss of death in television, according to The TV Set's writer/director Jake Kasdan (son of director Lawrence), who pillories the network process as a factory system jerry-rigged to churn out mediocrity. Alternately jocular and depressing for its peek into the corporate subversion of original vision, The TV Set takes place during the pilot season as a TV network casts, shoots and test-markets a sitcom.
The writer, Mike (David Duchovny), sweats bullets while network president Lenny (Sigourney Weaver) debates the appeal of his show, "The Wexler Chronicles." Mike's life hinges on the whim of the brash, authoritative Lenny and the fleet of suits and moronic test audiences she employs. His pregnant wife (Justine Bateman) encourages her husband to sacrifice his artistic integrity for the paycheck. He has his work cut out for him as the writer of an original series competing against ratings-grabbing reality-TV bottom-feeders like "Slut Wars," "World's Grossest Meals" and "Infidelity 101."
The queen bee at the center of all of this madness is the passive-aggressive Lenny, whose "advice" Mike ignores at his own peril. A woman whose decisions are dictated by ratings and precedent, Lenny values creativity only if it works in the marketplace.
"It's just so fucking artsy and smart!" she complains of his show, and the message is clear that cleverness and creativity aren't trustworthy when ratings and demographics are more reliable than some writer's innovative ideas. Her right-hand man, Richard (Ioan Gruffudd), is an "edgy" Brit brought over from across the pond to inject some fire and depth into the brand. "Richard, we need your class thing," Lenny reminds him. But Lenny's real ace in the hole is her favorite test audience, her 14-year-old daughter, whose opinion is golden.
Weaver is utterly compelling as the ordinary Satan to whom Mike sells his soul. Behind the haughty attitude, Weaver can convey the fervid, animal-like self-preservation that laboring too long in the TV ghetto can produce. Under Lenny's grinding influence, Mike eventually accepts profound changes to "The Wexler Chronicles," allowing the meat grinder of the production process to turn his steak into scrapple.
Like a labor that delivers a baby but kills the mother, the system allows little creativity to survive. Writers overhaul their vision and executives sacrifice their families to bite at the tantalizing apple of success and the big paycheck it brings. Ultimately, though, Kasdan has sympathy (probably because he once labored in TV himself) for these people caught up in a soulless process. People like Mike don't sell out for nefarious reasons; they often sell out for understandable ones, such as mounting bills and the frustration of going against the flow.
There's an Invasion of the Body Snatchers vibe to The TV Set grounded not in science fiction but in the reality of how easily independent thought becomes hijacked by group-think and safe, unadventurous precedent. The setting may be highly specific: the desperate, ratings-obsessed TV world where original scripts have been steamrolled by moronic reality TV. But The TV Set's message is ultimately far broader. Kasdan's smart social commentary turns out to be a sobering glimpse at the small compromises we all make that soon turn into big ones.
The only time we see anyone actually watching television, it is a sad, isolated-looking child, Richard's young son absorbing some "CSI"-style crime drama. It's just a fleeting glimpse of the culture we have become, but it is one that cuts deep.