At least Woody Allen warned viewers that his first-ever television series would be awful. The director, who has 50 years’ filmmaking experience behind him, even acknowledged that he’d erred in thinking that making a show would be relatively easy. “I have regretted every second since I said ‘OK.’ It’s been so hard for me. I had the cocky confidence, well, I’ll do it like I do a movie it’ll be a movie in six parts. Turns out, it’s not,” he told Deadline Hollywood at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2015.
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Still, people might have imagined that Allen’s frequent comments about the hellish experience he endured making the show and about the “pressure” Amazon subjected him to — including a huge paycheck and total artistic freedom — were just typical of his neurotic personality.
Well, after watching “Crisis in Six Scenes,” which went live on Amazon’s streaming service at the end of September, it seems Allen’s admission of failure was spot-on.
The comedy is set during the Vietnam War in the 1960s. Allen plays yet another incarnation of his usual Jewish character, this time the writer Sidney J. Munsinger; his wife, Kay (Elaine May), is a marriage counselor. One night, Lennie Dale (Miley Cyrus) — a young hippie on the run for trying to foment violent revolution — breaks into their home. Although Lennie is wanted by the FBI, Kay feels indebted to her family and agrees to let her stay with them. Lennie’s radical views and her mere presence, which charms Kay and makes Sidney nervous, turns their middle-class, intellectual life upside down.
With some shows, binge-watching can help to conceal their flaws and increase their appeal from episode to episode. But a marathon viewing of Allen’s series — six 23-minute-long episodes — only becomes progressively more unbearable.
One can adopt a more forgiving or simply curious attitude at the beginning. But as one wearying scene follows another, the discomfort level grows. The jokes are so drawn out and repetitive that you begin to suspect their main purpose is just to kill time. The dialogue almost collapses under the weight of so much cliché, and even the better actors (like May) can’t save the whole thing from coming off like something between an outdated sitcom and an improv class.
Perhaps one reason this comedy is so tedious is that Allen has no real grasp of how much television has changed since he started out as a writer on late-night shows in the 1950s.
“I don’t even know what a streaming service is. ... I’ve never seen any of those series, even on cable,” he told Deadline Hollywood in May 2015. Then, a year later, he admitted he’d been surprised by the process, telling The Hollywood Reporter, “It was much harder to do than I thought. I thought, ‘I’ll sandwich this in-between two films and knock it off. What’s the big deal? It’s television.”
Not every current television series is a masterpiece, far from it. But streaming sites such as Amazon and Netflix have proved that they’re an ideal home for writers who want to use the binge-watching model to tell a complex story with something different to say. Allen, long known for writing outstanding dialogue, has nothing interesting to say this time, about either the characters or the period in which the show is set.
His old-fashioned disdain for TV and the television audience also shows through. Just in case you hadn’t already heard what Allen himself thinks about the medium, his alter ego, Munsinger, gets into financial straits and — his image already somewhat damaged — unhappily considers writing “something idiotic for television.”
The new series has another disturbing element in the way Allen’s character jokes about girls who are adopted. “Good luck with your daughter,” says the cop, Vic (David Harbour), who shows up at Munsinger’s door. “You know, we adoptive parents, we’re always taking a risk, aren’t we? It’s a bit of a crapshoot. But, uh, it’s well worth it. I love mine to death.”
Sidney, trying to hasten the cop’s departure, says to him, “As you can see, I do, too.”
In reality, Allen’s 12-year relationship with Mia Farrow came to an end after she found nude photographs Allen had taken of her adopted daughter Soon-Yi, who was 19 or 21 at the time (her precise birthdate in Korea was not recorded). After the highly publicized breakup, Soon-Yi moved in with Allen, and they later married and adopted two daughters.
In February 2014, Allen and Farrow’s adopted daughter, Dylan Farrow, wrote a piece in The New York Times describing how Allen allegedly sexually abused her when she was 7. Allen was investigated in 1992 when Mia Farrow claimed her daughter had told her about the abuse, but the state’s attorney for Litchfield Judicial District ultimately decided not to press charges. Despite all the criticism that surrounded the decision, Allen’s career continued relatively unhindered.
Allen’s choices in this series — from the condescending attitude toward the television audience to the jokes about adopted girls — are hard to fathom. There’s nothing in the show that challenges or enriches the language of television, and the story is devoid of any intellectual, comic or emotional heft that would justify its existence and Amazon’s enormous investment.
Allen, in a hurry to meet his quota of making a movie every year, has already moved onto his next film, a Fifties-set pic starring Kate Winslet and Justin Timberlake. In other words, he took the money and ran.