A Television Crisis

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Woody Allen’s brand-new TV series Crisis in Six Scenes is entertaining, but unable to satisfy—or to justify its format.

Everyone who knows me knows that I am not much of a TV person. I’ve seen hypes like How I Met Your Mother, Mad Men and Breaking Bad (to name only a few) come and go without ever bothering to sit down and try any of them myself. To my knowledge, I am one of the few people in the Western world that are under the age of 30, in possession of a TV and a computer—and that yet have never watched a single episode of Game of Thrones (yes, I get that incredulous look a lot). The only TV shows of the past few years that I can remember following with any degree of consistency and passion are Doctor Who, Broadchurch and Sherlock. Yup, that’s about it. Yet, last year, when news first broke that Woody Allen was writing and directing a TV series for Amazon Studios, I was more than mildly curious. And when the release day – that I had long before marked red in my calendar – finally came around, the TV grump in me performed a wondrous transformation into that emblematic character of the early 21st century: the binge-watcher.

To be fair, binge-watching Allen’s first-ever series isn’t all that difficult: Consisting of a mere six episodes that run a little over 20 minutes each, the show, modestly named Crisis in Six Scenes, clocks in at less than two-and-a-half hours—in its entirety. Considering Allen’s usual 90-minutes rule, this may seem like a lot. But in an age where an adventure novel for children gets blown up to 474 minutes – or almost eight hours – of cinematic screen time, Crisis in Six Scenes, in keeping with Allen’s films, seems downright petit. As it turns out, this isn’t a bad thing: For otherwise, its writer-director simply would not have had enough of a story to tell.

In Crisis in Six Scenes, Allen takes us to the United States of the 1960s—not that this is really relevant: The Vietnam War abroad, the protests at home, the rallies, sit-ins, bombings, self-immolations—all these form merely the backdrop, the textured canvas, for what is, at times, a disappointingly tame sitcom. Far from taking anything like a real political stance, let alone tell a story of any worth in its own right, Allen utilizes the politically charged climate of the show’s setting to pit two comically contrastive characters and their attitudes against one another, and to exploit them for laughs: Sidney Munsinger (routinely played by Allen himself) is a middle-class, Jewish writer whose comfortable suburbian life is challenged when Lennie Dale (horrendously overplayed by Miley Cyrus), a political extremist wanted for acts of terrorism, appears out of the blue, seeking refuge in his house. The two characters’ clashes provide ample potential for Allen’s signature barrages of comic insults—so far, so funny.

And one thing is certain: Crisis in Six Scenes has some of the finest and funniest lines of dialogue that Allen has written since Scoop (2006). Yet, his latest creation is strangely lacking in depth and motivation: The characters are so clichéd that they neither provide identification nor friction, the political crisis is constantly alluded to without any real consequence or reflection, and the resolution in the final “scene”, or episode, is reminiscent of a high-school stage comedy, rather than the dramatic or comedic heights of Allen’s best films. To keep it short, Crisis in Six Scenes is funny, and sometimes outrageously so. Yet, to stress that is to arrive at the show’s shortcomings, for it has an effect similar to watching a stand-up comedian on stage: You laugh heartily, but once the show is over, you have little to take home from it, and little reason to go back.

Even I, comparably inexperienced TV watcher that I am, can see that all of this isn’t necessarily the fault of the format. It is often claimed that TV is the cinema of the 21st century. Be that as it may, Crisis in Six Scenes will almost certainly never be mentioned among either the greatest TV series or the greatest of Allen’s works. Maybe Allen had the wrong attitude to start with, as his openness about the fact that he largely signed up for the money may suggest. Maybe he simply doesn’t like the idea of writing for TV: His last production for the small screen, Don’t Drink the Water (1994), was a completely forgettable film. Whatever the reasons might be, it is comforting to know that Allen does not, and indeed will not, focus on this format, instead intending to stick with his routine of one feature film per year. His latest, Café Society (2016), showed that he is as good as ever at writing and directing for the cinema. If his foray into TV writing has shown us – and probably Allen himself – anything, it is that he should simply keep on doing what he does best and steer clear of any experiments. The latter includes casting Miley “Hannah Montana” Cyrus in a leading role—or in any role, really.

As for me, I’m sure I’ll give TV shows another try. Maybe.

Crisis in Six Scenes (US 2016). Created, written and directed by Woody Allen. Starring Woody Allen, Miley Cyrus and Elaine May. 6 episodes, ca. 23 min. each.

Photo: “TV Error” by Sibbe Kokke, licensed under CC-BY-2.0.

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