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Crisis In Six Scenes ends with Woody Allen giving up

Illustration for article titled Crisis In Six Scenes ends with Woody Allen giving up
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A bomb went off at the end of the penultimate episode of Crisis In Six Scenes, and I didn’t mention it in my write-up. This was partially because it registered more as a blackout gag than a major plot turn, but also because very little that’s happened in this Woody Allen project has carried much weight – dramatic, comic, or otherwise. The final episode attempts to take some of these inconsequential threads and tie them into some kind of payoff, and it doesn’t do a terrible job of it. But there’s only so much it can do with threads that are so thin to begin with.

To the project’s credit, some bits that felt like throwaway padding (albeit often preferable to some of the main stories) came back around for the last episode, most notably the two couples in counseling with Kay (Elaine May). They’re part of the ensemble that gets mashed together in the foyer of the Munsinger household for several well-choreographed shots that take an inventive approach to farce staging. Rather than actually slamming any doors or running in between rooms, Allen pushes and pulls his camera around a crowded hallway, sometimes peeking into other rooms while more and more guests arrive, the household doorbell acting as punctuation to the amassing, often very confused group.

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In addition to Sid, Kay, three of Kay’s patients, and houseguest Alan, there are appearances from Alan’s parents, his fiancée Ellie’s parents, Ellie herself, Kay’s book group, and a couple of black activists, all bumping up against each other. Noticeably absent for most of this sequence is Miley Cyrus’s Lenny, who rushes down the stairs around the halfway mark and enters the fray a little late. It’s too bad she doesn’t get in the action earlier, because the crowd makes for some relatively rapid-fire jokes, especially from the book club biddies, who are toting Marx biographies and excitedly crowing about their newfound skills with combat and weapons. Lenny doesn’t get to participate in this, and Allen doesn’t have a great payoff for withholding one of his leads through one of the best sequences in the series.

It’s this portion of his TV series that also most closely resemble a stage show, at least superficially. In reality, it would be difficult to put this together on stage – at least not with this kind of focus. Using a camera, Allen can use the frame to quickly shuffle characters around for emphasis, and ping-pong between different groups of characters by reverse shots “looking” up and down the hallway. This number of characters might be manageable on stage (especially when most of them are pretty thinly drawn) but this kind of set-up has particularly cinematic pleasures that not nearly enough TV shows bother with.

So there’s Allen’s minor contribution to peak TV: some strong yet unobtrusive comedy filmmaking. Now how did this episode wrap up Crisis In Six Scenes?

With kind of a shrug, as it turns out. After a strong, funny first half, the final stretch of the episode and series isolates Allen and Cyrus from the rest of the cast, sending them on a drive to rendezvous with an airplane. This is a good idea in theory, boiling down the show’s central ideological conflict to two of its leads. It’s less fruitful in practice, when Allen mutes any comic tension by sticking Cyrus in a trunk. In place of an additional byplay between Allen and Cyrus, we get a Michael Rapaport cameo. He plays a cop who pulls over Sid for going (in Sid’s words) “let me guess – too fast?” and gets starstruck by a novelist – just not the novelist that Sid happens to be. As a light comic scene, it’s amusing (in an episode that has more amusing moments than most of what preceded it). As one of the final scenes in a 130-minute Woody Allen miniseries, it’s… underwhelming.

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So Lenny gets away, and Allen’s Amazon experiment ends with Sid and Kay getting ready for bed, their lives returned more or less to normal. Here Allen engages in some meta-commentary to match the opening scene of the first episode, having Sid say, in reference to a project he intends to replace his novel-writing: “I was just thinking I should dump this whole idiotic television series thing.” Not to make too much of this, but did this show in some way push Allen to his breaking point? He certainly has made flabby, half-entertaining, diluted movies before; that’s probably going to happen when you make a movie a year from your 40s and going into your 80s. The varying quality of these films has never appeared to bother Allen much, beyond his admitted nagging feeling that most of them could have been better than they were, and only a handful of movies really met his personal. This makes his half-admitting, however jokily, that doing a TV series was a bad idea stand out in his career.

If this offhand remark did signal anything about Allen’s satisfaction with Crisis, I do wonder what made this one different (given that he’s made no such remarks about, say, Cassandra’s Dream) (note: I kind of like Cassandra’s Dream). Was this as rough-drafted and rushed as some of his weaker films have only felt? Did (effectively) shoehorning an extra film shoot into his yearly schedule finally make his productivity feel more like a chore than a job? Was Rapaport a nightmare to work with on their one scene?

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Whatever the reason, it seems like this transfer of film content to TV sets (or laptops, or Apple Watches, or however the youth of American consume their prized Woody Allen filmed entertainment) is likely to be a one-off for Allen. In a weird way, Crisis on Amazon performed the same function for Allen as Netflix has for fellow Jewish comic luminary Adam Sandler: allowing him to do pretty much what he would have done anyway, but revealing the smallness behind many of his instincts simply by changing up screen size and delivery method. Surprisingly little changes when Adam Sandler makes a movie for Netflix instead of 3,000 screens, and similarly little changes when Woody Allen makes a movie from Amazon subscribers instead of 350 screens (at least 10 of which are screens in Manhattan that play his movies literally for months – you can definitely still see Café Society at multiple theaters in New York right now). The scope of TV or the limited frame of movies might make some artists better or worse; others respond with a late-period Woody-ish shrug.

Stray observations:

  • This episode’s ghosts of Woody Allen movies past: “I say that with love” after saying something vaguely insulting or insincere was one of my favorite running bits from Scoop. And the comforting visage of Michael Rapaport brings to mind his roles in Mighty Aphrodite and Small Time Crooks, though in this case he’s on the right side of the law. Allen’s character also rejects working in television, as he did in Manhattan.
  • I did my due TV-watching diligence and only watched a couple of episodes at a time, which makes them easier to judge as individual parts but harder to judge as they probably should be: as a single unit of filmmaking, TV-making, whatever. That said, I think if I’d watched this as a movie, I’d probably have given it a C+ (rare is the Allen movie I’d rate below a C, to be honest). If I’d watched this as the 90-minute movie that it could have easily been cut into, the sky’s the limit; maybe I would have gone as high as a B.
  • Thanks for reading along! See you all again for Crisis In Six Scenes Season 2?
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