Woody Allen does not seem to be a natural fit to helm a TV series now. Sure, he got his start on TV, but that was 50-or-so years ago, and since then, in his films, he’s rather viciously mocked TV and the people who make it (there’s “they don’t throw their garbage away, they turn it into television shows” in Annie Hall, the plotlines about Allen’s characters quitting sketch comedy shows in Manhattan and Hannah and Her Sisters, and, best of all, Alan Alda’s gloriously smug turn in Crimes and Misdemeanors). But Amazon clearly thought he would be the right creative voice for a modern TV series, because otherwise they just went after him (presumably by sending a dumptruck full of money in front of his apartment building) to make a show for them only because of his name value when he is completely baffled by how to make a TV series. And the latter option is certainly not backed up by his statements to the press, which definitely don’t come across as being delivered with levels of terror and futility normally reserved for people being held by terrorists. And, of course, the reviews of the show don’t latch onto Allen’s remorse about taking the deal as a sign of the carelessness that ends up sinking the okay, I think I’ve lost the thread of this intro, lemme try another one.
The last year Allen made two films in a year was 1994. The year’s “A” picture was Bullets Over Broadway, a hilarious, tightly-constructed farce about the petty struggles of the artist that won acclaim and an Oscar. The second film was Don’t Drink the Water, a TV movie (okay, maybe he didn’t quite hate television as much as I thought) that put his 60s stage play of the same name on-screen with a minimum of frills. It may have been funny (anything with Allen and Julie Kavner as bickering spouses has to be funny), but it was very clearly a throwaway, executed not much more than competently. 22 years later, Allen decided to create his television series right after doing his yearly movie, the really good Cafe Society. History has repeated itself, only to an even more severe degree this time.
Sidney “S.J.” Munsinger (Allen, in his first starring role since To Rome With Love) is a novelist and former ad executive who’s introduced (after the weirdly comforting white-on-black Windsor Light Condensed credits, this time scored by actual rock; Jefferson Airplane’s “Volunteers”) getting a haircut. He asks for a cut similar to James Dean’s, while his barber entertains him by calling his novels garbage and his idea to make a sitcom about a dysfunctional caveman family a tired (albeit lucrative) sell-out move. The beginning of this scene was released as a trailer. The trailer has a much higher joke that hit-per-second count than two-thirds of this show
The first episode of the series is devoted to exploring the lives of Sidney and his wife Kay (the wonderful Elaine May). Kay is a marriage counselor (she’s introduced convincing Lewis Black and Becky Ann Baker that their loveless marriage can be salvaged on the basis of their mutual dislike of guacamole) and she hosts a book club of blue-haired old ladies who think that Kafka killed his father and married his mother. They host a dinner party and explain to their guests (including Allen’s buddy Douglas McGrath), through some truly painful exposition, that Alan (John Magaro), a family friend, is staying at their house while engaged to debutante Ellie (Rachel Brosnahan). While all of them are appalled by the Vietnam War, none care enough to do much about it. This is all that is conveyed in the first episode, leaving a lot of dead space for May and Allen to occasionally fill with good one-liners. This makes the episode mediocre overall, a quality level that immediately goes downhill with the arrival of of Lennie Dale (Miley Cyrus), a friend of Kay’s who’s gone on the run after bombing a draft board with the militant group the Constitutional Liberation Party. Soon enough, she becomes another houseguest, seducing Alan with marijuana and revolutionary literature, eating all of Sidney’s food, introducing the words of General Mao to Kay’s book club, and just generally railing against the government. Cyrus only seems a little more comfortable shouting words like “fascist” and “plutocrat” over and over than Allen probably was creating this show.
I made the comparison to Don’t Drink the Water earlier, and it fits to a degree (both are about political mayhem in the 1960s), but maybe the better comparison could be made to Allen’s DreamWorks comedies, particularly The Curse of the Jade Scorpion and Hollywood Ending. Those films were 103 minutes and 114 minutes, respectively, and they were way too goddamn long for the pure trifles that they are. Both films seem indifferently-edited, scenes not cut off before they spiral into tiresome repetition, gags not landing due to the poor timing. Imagine those films had 30 minutes of more footage added to them and were arbitrarily cut into individual pieces and you can get the sense of what this show feels like. Really, it’s barely a show at all, with the half-assed cliffhangers at the end of the episodes being the only reminder that we’re watching a serialized show and not a Woody Allen film cut up into multiple parts on YouTube. The second and third episodes in particular drag into infinity, with individual scenes (like Kay and Sidney debating whether or not to go downstairs when she hears a noise, or Sidney trying to keep his houseguest a secret while he’s eating lunch with a creative partner) feeling like they last longer than the entirety of many Allen films. A bit in episode 2 where Woody quotes his “I’m forbidding!” bit from Manhattan Murder Mystery nearly verbatim sees him practically daring the viewer to watch that movie instead and see a fleet-of-foot comedy instead of a show paced like a mortally-wounded snail. Did I mention that it actually gets a whole better after this middle part?
From the middle episodes, I really expected to hate this show. Then I literally slept on it and watched the last two episodes, and it was like the first two acts of Whatever Works had the ending of The Purple Rose of Cairo attached to it. Starting with the very first scene of episode 5, a very funny bit involving a couple whose marriage is failing because of the husband’s reliance on hookers (I won’t dare ruin the specifics of this), Allen appears to be reenergized as a writer (maybe by his realization that TV shows generally have plots that have to go places), the dead space being filled with delightful scenarios (just imagine the prospect of Woody Allen and Elaine May trying to drop off a briefcase full of money) and great one-liners. And it’s almost just a warm-up for episode 6, in which Allen beautifully crafts a closed-room farce involving radicalized old ladies, gas company workers, distressed in-laws, and Black Panthers. And then the episode ends with the very best gag of the show, involving Michael Rapaport (returning to the Allen fold after playing dim-bulbs in Mighty Aphrodite and Small Time Crooks) as a star-struck state trooper. Combined, these two episodes are 40 minutes of comedic bliss, as close to classic Allen comedy as we’ve gotten in the last ten years. Tellingly, Miley Cyrus barely appears in these two episodes.
Look, I don’t want to turn this into a “Miley sux” thing. I may not be big on Miley Cyrus’s music, but she has a good voice and she’s just trying to make it on this big ball of dirt like the rest of us. I may have even been anticipating Cyrus’s turn on this show, Allen possibly revealing untold comedic potential in her. But oh, dear reader, she is not good here. Admittedly, she’s not helped by the awful revolutionary talking points Allen puts in her mouth (not to mention the clunky, Jade Scorpion-esque insults she throws at Sidney throughout the show), but even if he was giving her grade-A Marxist zingers, she plays Lennie like she’s in a Disney Channel production of Che: Part One (featuring the Jonas Brothers as the Castro brothers, of course), going really broad with the (already weak) laugh lines until any potential comedy from them is killed on sight. Her performance almost makes it seem like Allen intended the character to have taken on revolution because of boredom, shouting the talking points so that nobody suspects that her heart isn’t in it, but Allen doesn’t even begin to suggest that that’s the road he’s going down. She gets a little better towards the end of the show, probably because Allen eases up on the anti-government rhetoric and just has her be something resembling a human being in her few scenes. But overall, this is a terribly miscalculated performance, and I would not be surprised if Allen’s reported indifference to the show extended to directing her.
Other than Cyrus, the performers are largely up to the task of selling the show. Allen is Allen here, stammering, complaining, and inflating his ego when not dropping bon mots, and I love Allen as a comedic actor, so I think he’s great here. May is sadly underutilized through much of the show (although she has her moments early on, like how she explains to the police that them having their daughter in the house doesn’t contradict them earlier saying that they were alone because “she was a Caesarean”), but as it goes along she gets a lot more to do and a lot more opportunities to be utterly wonderful. John Magaro follows in the footsteps of the Woody surrogates before him (although at least Allen was subtler with those characters by not naming them “Alan”) and nebbishes it up, but he’s really quite charming in the part, and I hope that them meeting on Allen’s TV show doesn’t mean Allen will stay away from Magaro out of fear of the bad memories coming back. Rachel Brosnahan, I can’t really judge, because outside of the last episode, she gets very little to do, like if Blake Lively’s character in Cafe Society had three minutes of screentime. And the cameos are fun, especially Black and Joy Behar as a member of the book club. And technically, the show is as well-made as any recent Allen film, with his regular costume designer (Suzy Benzinger) doing expectedly good work, his art designer Carl Sprague graduating to production designer and doing expectedly good work, and newcomer-to-Allen DoP Eigil Bryld (who’s shot the likes of In Bruges, Not Fade Away, and the first season of House of Cards) doing expectedly good work, creating a nicely autumnal color palette to go along with quietly striking compositions (and the use of digital is pretty good, so Allen has at least comfortably shifted to one new form of media). The only quibble with the technical aspects is the music, a collection of often-repeated jazz tunes that feels more lazily-assembled than normal for Allen (there’s nothing here remotely on par with the thrill that came from the repetition of “The ‘In’ Crowd” in Irrational Man).
So, how do I ultimately judge this show? It’s one-third mediocre, one-third awful, and one-third delightful. The awful part probably makes this my least favorite thing Allen has ever done, just because I haven’t been this embarrassed by any part of anything he’s made before this, but it’s not as close as I might have thought, because that last third is so much funnier than anything in my other least favorite Allen project, Whatever Works. So I’ve decided to take a cue from Alan Alda’s playbook and say this; it breaks more often than it bends, but when it bends, it really bends.