Woody Allen has always been old. OK, this isn’t literally true; he was born in 1935, so obviously he had a childhood and a young-adulthood and all that. But in terms of his filmmaking career, Allen’s first movie came out when he was 31. When he was making his much-vaunted early/funny films, around the time that his current series Crisis In Six Scenes takes place, he was in his thirties. By the time he settled into his movie-a-year pace that included comedies and dramas and plenty of material movies in between (or, later in his career, a diffident sort of neither), he was well into his forties. That’s part of what makes his career productivity so impressive; not only has he made a movie a year for about forty years, he wasn’t really doing that as a heedless young man.
Allen’s on-screen appearances have decreased; every time he does a movie like Scoop or To Rome With Love, it feels like it could be his fond farewell; he has that and a strong work ethic and probably very little else in common with Clint Eastwood. And also unlike Eastwood, almost none of his later-career hits with critics or audiences have featured him in a major role. But he’s back again with Crisis In Six Scenes, which in its second episode has a lot of jokes about his advancing age. It’s not that Allen hasn’t made fun of the characters he’s played before for their old-man foibles; it was just hard for self-deprecation to take center stage when he was casting himself opposite decades-younger love interests through 2002, when he romanced Tea Leoni as a 67-year-old man.
In the second episode of Crisis, Miley Cyrus bursts onto the scene as Lenny, another family friend of central couple Sid and Kay. She’s a young radical on the run and trying to lay low following a botched bank robbery; Kay agrees to feed and shelter her, while Sid, in Woody Allen-ish fashion, hems and haws and “forbids” it, just like Allen did, to much funnier effect, in Manhattan Murder Mystery (and, if I recall correctly, one or two movies since then).
Allen hasn’t played opposite a starlet in a while, there’s still plenty of reason to be queasy when a striking young woman enters the Woody Allen universe. But Cyrus’s Lenny immediately takes a more antagonistic role towards Sid, reminiscent of the bickering that powered the best Allen/ScarJo collaboration, Scoop. It’s especially funny to hear Lenny run down Sid’s age, expressing incredulity that Kay would be married to an older man, not least because Elaine May is actually four years older than Allen, very much a rarity in his filmography (although both actors seem to be playing a solid decade-plus younger than their real ages here, especially given the time period). What’s more, Lenny asking if Sid is senile doesn’t seem to be intended entirely as youthful prejudice – he really is quite doddering, as the episode proves when it spends a solid four minutes at the outset on Sid and Kay discussing whether or not to head downstairs and check for an intruder (who turns out to be Lenny). There are even multiple references to Sidney neglecting his hearing-aid batteries.
Watching an older woman and a younger woman both harangue Woody Allen about his advancing age isn’t really enough for a satisfying episode of television, but the second episode of Crisis has other bits that render it a bit more enjoyable than the first. Two police officers show up when Lenny trips Sid and Kay’s burglar alarm, leading to an amusingly lopsided panic where the officers suspect almost nothing while Sid panics his way into acting extremely suspicious. This scene gets some extra juice for a gag where the cops nonchalantly discuss the many horrific exceptions to their characterization of the neighborhood as “crime-free.” The episode is on less sure footing when it introduces Lenny’s sleepwalking, seemingly (for now) just because Allen seems to find sleepwalking inherently funny. Anyone with nearly 50 movies to their name will probably recycle themselves a little, but maybe returning to comic conceits not unlike Curse Of The Jade Scorpion isn’t the strongest idea.
While this episode feels more contained than the episodes that immediately precede and follow it – it starts with an unexpected visitor, introduces Lenny and her value system, puts the family through some farcical motions in hiding her, and concludes with Sid determined to make her leave in the morning while Kay is less convinced – it’s also the point where this series really begins to feel like a protracted Allen movie. The first episode distended ten or fifteen minutes’ worth of comic exposition into 22 minutes; now this does the same for the first major plot turn.
A lot has already been written about Allen’s obvious refusal to mold his idea into TV episode shapes – semi-ironic, considering how plenty of streaming shows tend to sacrifice episodic distinctions for their longer narratives and sometimes shamelessly protract that narrative (I’m looking at you, Jessica Jones). But it’s undeniable that the barely-episodic structure of Crisis denies it some much-needed extra oomph – and strange that one of the show’s novelties is not its format, but Allen fully admitting that he really is an old man.
- Allen supposedly cast Cyrus in part because his kids watched Hannah Montana and he noticed pro-level comic timing within that garishly produced sitcom. It’s strange to think that despite all of the attention she’s received in recent years, Cyrus hasn’t acted much in a while apart from SNL gigs (and those were, as Vanessa Bayer’s Cyrus used to say, pretty cool). She does have a decent way with biting off dismissive remarks, though she’s conceived of as such an “other” in this episode that she doesn’t have the opportunity to do much more.
- “The sun comes up, and she’s gone, like Dracula” doubles as a funny line and a prompt for wondering if Allen considers Dracula a relatively current pop-culture reference.
- That’s David Harbour from Stranger Things (and a million movies) as one of the cops who comes to Sid and Kay’s door in the middle of the night. If you need someone to play a cop on a streaming series, you call David Harbour.
- As I’ve alluded, any current Woody Allen project will inspire thoughts of past Woody Allen projects, so I’m going to keep a loose episodic tally of those reminders here. Feel free to add your own. This episode’s ghosts of Woody Allen movies past: Manhattan Murder Mystery (Allen unsuccessfully “forbidding” his wife from doing something); Curse Of The Jade Scorpion (character walking and talking while unconscious); and, sort of, Annie Hall (self-destructive fear in the face of police officers). What am I missing?