Stevi Costa uses a rewatch of a movie she completely forgot existed to tell you about her recent VIP experience with star David Duchovny.
My husband suggested I re-view Jake Kasdan’s The TV Set because David Duchovny is in it. When he brought it up, our conversation went something like this:
Me: But babe, I haven’t seen that.
Him: Yes, you have.
Me: Really? That title sounds totally unfamiliar to me. What is it even about?
Him: You’ve totally seen it. Duchovny, Fran Kranz, and Simon Helberg in a comedy about pilot season?
Me: Huh. That doesn’t ring any bells at all.
But, hey, you all know I love David Duchovny, so I was like, sure, I’ll re-view this thing I totally don’t remember watching ten years ago.
The plot is roughly as my husband described. Duchovny, sporting a beard that I totally am not mad about, plays the writer of a TV pilot called The Wexler Chronicles. The show is apparently a comedy that probably would have fared better on HBO than on a network, as it is about a young man trying to find himself after the death of his brother, returning to his hometown, and reuniting with his high school crush. I actually imagine that Duchovny is just playing an extension of his character from House of D, on the road to Californication. This is Tom Warshaw minus the “I unplugged my mom from life support” baggage. Mike Klein, his TV Set character, struggles with the changes his producers and the network want to make to his product, and is haggard by the stifling of his creative process in Hollywood. Add a sex addiction and we’re basically two left turns from Hank Moody.
Klein’s role in the film is to respond with internalized worry, frustration, and annoyance at every change the network makes. Duchovny does this by pulling at his beard, covering his mouth with his hands, and draining the life from his beady dad eyes over the course of the film. Our first signs that things aren’t going Klein’s way come at the auditions for the two leads, where Klein assures Simon Helberg’s actor character that he’s the one Klein wants to see in the role. Helberg reads the lines in a way that is achingly naturalistic. It is obvious to us that he is the better actor, just as it is obvious to us that the network will instead choose Fran Kranz’s desperate and broad line reading because screaming = acting in the minds of network execs/”the average viewer.”
These choices for broad appeal over good writing are pushed through by Sigourney Weaver’s network exec, Lenny, whose taste is at odds with Ioan Gruffudd’s recent BBC ex-pat, who wants to take on riskier projects and elevate the network’s profile. The two ask for changes that deviate from the initial plot enough that Klein has to rewrite entire scenes on set. Kranz’s actor character also causes multiple delays on set because he can’t seem to do the lines the same way twice, adding in strange emphases and weird accents, and inappropriately and awkwardly flirting with the lead actress at almost every opportunity. By the time the pilot goes to the editing bay, Klein has seen his baby defiled in so many ways that he ends up in the hospital and has no say in the final product, which ends up being retitled Call Me Crazy and is distilled into a trailer full of fart sounds at the upfronts. But, hey, it gets on the schedule. Changed as it is into an inarguably shittier product, Mike Klein’s show makes it through pilot season.
I don’t have much to say about this film. I find it just as unmemorable the second time around and I wondered, given Jake Kasdan’s talent for directing and producing great comedy, why it isn’t funnier. Is it simply too close to home for someone whose current job is producing New Girl, Speechless, and Fresh Off the Boat to make something that lampoons his industry? The TV Set is clearly a critique of how much the business of TV disrupts its capacity for artistry. But as a piece of art, it fails to do more than navel gaze. Like, okay, so what? I’m not a Hollywood insider, but I know enough folks who work in production to know that this is how the sausage is made, and I think the machinations of TV production and cinema are so obvious to most viewers these days that I don’t know what value there is in telling this story. Entertainment journalism for the last 30 years has been so focused on process that there is no mystery in the product. And there’s nothing revelatory in The TV Set, except for how good Simon Helberg is in that audition scene.
But if I’m thinking about Duchovny as a Kasdan stand-in here, and about how this film might fit into Duchovny’s post-X-Files career, then this film seems to play a small part of Duchovny’s evolution into “writer.” It seems that the majority of characters he has played since Fox Mulder all identify themselves as men of words. They write novels and screenplays and teach writing and fuck their students. Maybe Duchovny regrets not finishing his doctorate? Maybe he wishes he hadn’t dropped out of Yale and actually completed that thesis on magic in poetry he was working on? His success as an actor has clearly enabled him to be moderately successful as a writer, which he probably wouldn’t be recognized as were he not famous. But nonetheless, Duchovny’s late-career obsession seems to be dedicated to this writerly identity, and it has manifested in the projects he’s chosen to accept as an actor, and in everything else he does.
You may not know this about David Duchovny, but he has a band. So in addition to being a novelist and screenwriter (and actor and director), he is also a singer/songwriter. Like everything Duchovny does, his singing voice is serviceable and understated. His songs are bland but not egregiously bad, which makes them only slightly better than House of D because they don’t reek of white male privilege. (Except in the act of Duchovny’s middle-aged rocker turn, which is kind of only a thing white dudes get to do: decide they want to make music all of a sudden.) I know all of this because I went to see his band at the Crocodile here in Seattle in February. I will tell you without shame that I spent $125 on a VIP ticket so I could go to SOUND CHECK and listen to Duchovny and his band warm up, do a Q&A session with the man, and take a group photo with Duchovny.
During the Q&A session, people asked questions about The X-Files, which Duchovny seemed a bit annoyed by, as though all he wanted in life was to not be Fox Mulder anymore. Jo Jo told him about The Burl-X-Files, though, which seemed to amuse him. Many fans, though, asked him about writing. They asked about his habits as a writer. They asked about what inspired his songs. They asked him what tips he would give to a budding writer. They asked what he liked to read. (He disappointingly endorsed “the canon” and I rolled my eyes and tweeted about how I would offer to teach him about good writing. With sex.) The fans who came to that show were buying what Duchovny was selling. By playing only writers for the past ten years or so, he has managed to solidify his identity as a writer, and I guess I have to respect that game. After all, as I admitted in my House of D review, Duchovny’s love of literature and his penchant for poetics was a big part of what has made me crush so hard on him for basically my whole life.
But I didn’t go to that concert because I respect Duchovny as a writer or because I like his music. I went for the opportunity to meet him, for the chance that our Alternate Universe timelines might collide and I’d get a moment with Duchovny.
And I did.
See, in my Alternate Universe, I didn’t go to grad school, but instead went to L.A. to become an actor (and, let’s be real, bartender), ended up getting a bit part on Californication and that’s how I meet and hook up with David Duchovny.
In David’s Alternate Universe, he didn’t drop out of grad school, but instead gets a professorial job. In this Universe, I’m enrolled in one of his seminars, and that’s how I meet and hook up with David Duchovny.
At the David Duchovny concert, the group photo was arranged through a system of colored note cards that designated how many people would be in each photo. When our group was called, Jo Jo and I didn’t rush to the front like the weirdo Canadian starfucker guy we met in line. We were about five or six people deep in line . . . which meant by some pure magic of the universe that I got to stand right next to David Duchovny in the photo.
He wrapped his arm around my shoulder as other people filled in beside and in front of us.
David said, “This is our softball team photo.”
I, being the loudmouth that I am, said, “I genuinely hope some pizzeria somewhere puts this photo on their wall.”
David took a beat, got the joke, laughed, and said, “If we play well enough, they will.”
At the end of the photo session, he turned to me and said, “You and I were good. I think we did good.”
I may have forgotten all about The TV Set, but I guarantee you I will remember snuggling David Duchovny and making him laugh for the rest of my life.