WHAT IT’S ABOUT Sidney J. Munsinger (Woody Allen) is a successful novelist and former ad man living comfortably in a leafy New York suburb with wife Kay Munsinger (Elaine May). It’s the late ’60s, and while the rest of the world is in turmoil, Sidney’s greatest concern at the moment is whether a new sitcom he’s developing for network TV consumption (which also sounds suspiciously like “The Flintstones”) will be well-received. He’s especially pleased that a friend of the family, Alan Brockman (John Magaro), is engaged to the nice, respectable Ellie (Rachel Brosnahan). But the Munsingers’ world is about to be reordered: Lennie (Miley Cyrus), a revolutionary and fugitive from justice, is going to pay them a visit.
This is Allen’s first TV series.
MY SAY Alvy Singer once observed that in Beverly Hills, “they don’t throw their garbage away — they make it into television.” His alter-ego, Woody Allen, once said, “Life doesn’t imitate art, it imitates bad television.” Put one and one together — or one quote next to another one — and a pattern emerges: Allen doesn’t much like TV. He doesn’t own one either. Both are facts, or bits of well-known trivia, carved into the monument of one of the greatest of film careers.
That’s why “Crisis in Six Scenes” is so intriguing. At 80, would TV’s prodigal son — this career did start on “The Colgate Comedy Hour” after all — rediscover his muse? Or reaffirm his antipathy? Last May, he told reporters in Cannes, “I should have never gotten into this,” then glumly concluded: “It is a catastrophic mistake.” We appear to already have our answer.
“Crisis” is not a catastrophe, but it is a mistake: A doddering, gaseous one at times, a breezy charmer that refuses to take itself seriously at others. But a mistake nevertheless. By eschewing TV all these years, the world-famous author of “Crisis” couldn’t possibly have known that television almost isn’t even “television” anymore, but that it’s evolved into something else — like Amazon Prime, for example. By contrast, “Crisis” is a time-capsule filled with ersatz Woody Allen and jokes that sound suspiciously like ones reworked many times before (Kay: “God’s not going to punish you — you’re an atheist!” Sidney: “But if I’m wrong, we’re in big trouble.”)
“Crisis” is billed as “six scenes” but instead think of this as a three-hour movie, in six scenes, with a setup followed by caper and ending in farce. The solidly respectable Munsingers view the wracked world beyond the safe confines of their country home only on the TV screens. Lennie brings the revolution to their door — and Alan, naturally, falls in love. In the meantime, there’s a lot of talk — talk about Lenin, and Mao, and Robinson Jeffers and Frantz Fanon. Lennie’s not just a name-dropper but full of sound, fury and Marxist/Leninist bombast. She’s also a profound bore. The “crisis” is essentially a crisis of conscience — Sidney’s, of course, not Lennie’s.
If “Crisis” can sometimes feel more like dinner theater than TV, it’s at least fascinating dinner theater, simply for what it is. A couple of members of Allen’s repertory company — that loosely bound group of great actors who appear Zelig-like in so many of his movies — have turned up for the historic occasion, including Douglas McGrath. Many other fine actors (like Michael Rapaport and Christine Ebersole) are here too. But Allen and May are the most fascinating of all — two legends with an incomparable body of work, side by side.
Watch closely, if you do watch. You probably won’t see this team again. Too bad their TV debut had to be such a blazing disappointment.
BOTTOM LINE Talky, tired, tame “Crisis” is a misfire.