Writer-director Jake Kasdan’s 2006 film The TV Set begins happily enough, with TV writer Mike Klein (David Duchovny) having gotten his autobiographical script picked up by a major network. He even has an intense young actor, T.J. Goldman (played by a bearded Simon Helberg), picked out to play the lead. When his manager (Judy Greer) suggests T.J. might be “too hip for the room,” Mike snarks, “Too hip for the room…what does that mean? Too Jewish?” The manager’s prediction comes true, but that’s not all. Bit by bit, the tragicomic The Wexler Chronicles is transformed into a broad, fart-laden sitcom entitled Call Me Crazy starring prickly over-actor Zach Harper (Fran Kranz). What has been lost in this series of network notes to the beleaguered author? Everything that made the initial script sensitive, nuanced, and personal—everything that made it recognizably Jewish.
The TV Set
In many ways, The TV Set is the elder Millennial’s Network (1976). Both screenplays sprang from the imaginations of Jewish men (TV Set’s Kasdan, Network’s Paddy Chayefsky) looking to lampoon their experiences working in television. Network is the more radical film, ruthlessly exposing the interconnections of politics, violence, and the TV news cycle. The world of TV Set is a gentler alternative, mostly populated by blithely incompetent jerks; it belongs within the cringe comedy library, alongside a show like The Office (US), which debuted a year earlier.
But like Network, The TV Set is an artifact of its moment. Television historian Amanda Lotz calls the years between 1980 and 2000 the “multi-channel transition,” sandwiched between the heyday of CBS, ABC, and NBC called the Network Era and our current post-Network Era. In these 20 years, the Big Three networks struggled with the advent of Fox, The WB, and UPN, not to mention basic cable networks like MTV, Nickelodeon, Lifetime, and Comedy Central. Network executives asked simply, frantically, how they might compete. One answer, according to The TV Set, was sinking money into trashy reality programming like (the fictional show-in-a-show) Slut Wars. Meanwhile, middle-brow television showrunners like Mike Klein idealize a gritty Hollywood past—exemplified by 1970s movies like Taxi Driver, Serpico, and, well, Network—and yearn to take risks in their own creative endeavors. Unfortunately for Mike, his boss, the head executive at the Panda network, offers these words of warning: “Original scares me.”
But The TV Set goes one place that Network doesn’t, with Kasdan’s script exploring how Hollywood suffers from a persistent case of internalized anti-Semitism. Network television has historically struggled to achieve an imaginary ideal of not-too-Jewishness with vaudeo stars like Sid Caesar, Milton Berle, and Jack Benny—obviously Jewish (to Jews) but still assimilable into white, middle-class America. Meanwhile, the very-Jewish Molly Goldberg in CBS’s The Goldbergs (CBS, 1949-1956) left New York City in its final season to take up residence in the suburbs, as the series’ title was tactfully changed to Molly.
This is to say, for every Ross Gellar (real-life Jew David Schwimmer), there is a Monica (I love you, Courteney, but no one is buying it). The success of Seinfeld came as a shock to television executives who believed it was “too New York, too Jewish” to find a mainstream audience, and, had Fran Drescher caved to network pressure, the spectacularly Jewish lead of The Nanny would have been Italian. While the peak of network television prestige is long past, these questions of Jewish performance and assimilation politics remain just as vital 15 years later.
Because The TV Set is about the whitewashing of ethnic identity and Jewishness, the contours of this conversation can be tough to see. Like many comedies set in the world of show business, Kasdan’s film is interested in how the Kosher all-beef sausage gets made—and how a writer’s vision can get lost in a flurry of executive-enforced suggestions and re-imaginings. The movie’s intro explains, with a graphic sequence evoking the credits of The Morning Show, that a small percentage of produced pilots get “picked up,” meaning “the rest never see the light of day.” Mike Klein might technically be the creator of Call Me Crazy, but The Wexler Chronicles ends up in the trash heap of promising, if niche, entertainment.
In that spirit, I want to look at the version of The TV Set that never got made and the future it couldn’t help but predict.
Mike Klein’s nemesis in the film, Lenny, is played by Sigourney Weaver, who gamely hams it up as an older, only slightly cuddlier version of Faye Dunaway’s cut-throat executive in Network. Every show Lenny greenlights must pass muster with her teenage daughter; her near-death experience inspires her to spend more time at work, tooling with the primetime schedule; she harps endlessly about the blockbuster potential of giving Lucy Lawless her own comedic vehicle. She might be right on that last point, but nonetheless, Lenny sucks, and her hatred of the title The Wexler Chronicles, together with her aversion to anything “artsy,” “smart,” or “blue state,” signal coded, possibly market-driven, anti-Semitism.
But what if Lenny had been played by Kasdan’s initial first choice, the obviously Jewish Ben Stiller? Many Hollywood decision-makers, past and present, have been Jewish, including MGM’s Louis B. Mayer, Columbia’s Harry Cohn, Disney’s Bob Iger, Fox’s Barry Diller, Harvey Weinstein, Scott Rudin, and Amy Pascal. (If this list makes you cringe, you’re in good company.) Even with these folks at the helm, Jewish representation on-screen remains spotty, abashed, and apologetic. So, although Weaver turns in a delightfully manic performance, casting a Jewish actor in the part would have highlighted an important subtextual thread of The TV Set: that Hollywood is drawn to Jewish artists and narratives but cannot imagine a world in which these stories can be told in full.
Here is where the figures of Simon Helberg and Lindsay Sloane come in, Helberg playing the actor who doesn’t get cast, Sloane the actress who does. Their characters and their real-life counterparts tell a fascinating, if obliquely problematic, story of network Jewishness today.
Helberg’s T.J. is not long for the world of The TV Set. Having grown a beard under Mike’s advisement, he proceeds to gripe, “I look like Serpico!” Mike thinks this is great, but Mike thinks wrong. (You better believe that David Duchovny was clean-shaven when he played hunky FBI agent Fox Mulder on The X-Files.) Mike may be naïve about the network’s expectations for what constitutes leading man handsome, but T.J., a working actor, is not. He wouldn’t be surprised to hear Lenny’s words, murmured in private among her fellow executives: “You can’t hang a series on a fucking theater actor with bad hair and a beard. Not in this country.”
The next year, Helberg quickly became a household name as Howard Wolowitz on The Big Bang Theory (CBS, 2007-2019). Though Howard grows and matures across the 12 seasons of Chuck Lorre’s sitcom juggernaut, his character began as a stereotypical Jewish nerd—a lithe horndog with a loud, pushy mother. The Big Bang Theory relied on broad sitcom acting, timed to studio audience laughter, so Helberg did his job and turned in broad, sitcom Jewishness.
But if over-the-top ethnic caricature is one option, TV Set’s Laurel Simon, played by Sloane, offers another. A former child actress who has worked steadily in shows including CBS’s The Odd Couple and USA’s Playing House, Lindsay Sloane might not be immediately recognizable as Jewish—much like her character in The TV Set. When we meet Laurel Simon (note the last name), she admits she has worked hard to transform from the quirky best-friend-type into the sexy leading lady. Lenny loves that she doesn’t “let her hotness get in the way of her cuteness” or vice versa. Laurel is appealing without being intimidating, endlessly relatable but also aspirational. All of this is to say, she may be Jewish, but she’s not too Jewish, a quality that is preferable in actors but indispensable to the working actress. As Laurel flirts with Jonathan Silverman (in a cameo as himself) at the network upfronts, you see in action an arranged marriage of carefully curated, network-friendly Jewish personalities.
The TV Set’s final credits feature a goofy clip of member-of-the-tribe Seth Green hosting Slut Wars. “America voted,” Green intones. “Carla … put your clothes on and get out of here.” Seemingly out of the mouths of Kasdan and his co-executive producer, Judd Apatow, this moment caps off their argument with a definitive flipping of the bird. If this is the future of Jews on network television, oy vey, and also, we’re out.