“Crisis in Six Scenes” is underwhelming from the first

THERE is a telling moment at the start of “Crisis in Six Scenes”, Woody Allen’s new television series. It is the late 1960s and writer Sid Munsinger, played by Mr Allen with familiar idiosyncratic verbosity, is in a barber’s chair in suburban New York. The barber confesses it took him the entire winter to finish Sid’s novel—he simply could not stay awake. Sid says he is taking a break from novels to work on a sitcom: “it’s very lucrative and there’s not a lot of money in novels, so”. Even as he says it, Sid does not seem convinced that his career is going in the right direction.

That one of film’s most prolific and celebrated directors should turn his attention to the small screen says much about the state of television today. “Crisis in Six Scenes”, which premiered on Amazon on September 30th, is set in a time of socio-political upheaval in America. Sid, a neurotic novelist aspiring to J.D. Salinger-like prestige, has instead made his money copywriting. His wife, Kay (Elaine May), is a marriage counsellor who takes a bottle of wine to bed. They live in a palatial white clapboard house with a hot fudge sauce machine and all the other middle-class material comforts of the age. They prefer to watch this most interesting passage of American history—featuring the Black Panthers, Woodstock and Vietnam War protests—at a safe distance, on the evening news.

One night they are disturbed by an intruder. Lennie (Miley Cyrus) is a distant family friend and a political activist who has escaped from prison and needs a place to hide. Kay feels protective of and intrigued by the idealistic, passionate young woman. Sid insists, without success, that she leave. As the household becomes increasingly enthralled by Lennie’s radical creed—she enjoys quoting Mao and Marx—the comedy rests on Sid’s resistance to her ideas, his inability to get with the times. 

“Crisis” contains moments of mirth, particularly in the later episodes when the action unravels and descends into farce. A scene in which Sid and Kay become ageing revolutionaries on the run from the police in Brooklyn earns a chuckle—“it was our first time jumping roof-to-roof!”—as does Kay’s inadvertent radicalisation of her book club. Mr Allen seems to want to make a broader point about the readiness of well-meaning people to subscribe to second-hand political rhetoric and the hollowness of the sanctimonious middle-class. He makes it by the least subtle means. Lennie is dogmatic without reprieve and her coiffed blonde hair and very clean poncho render Ms Cyrus’s character as nothing more than a quaint approximation of an activist.

“Crisis” is Mr Allen’s first foray into television since he wrote sketches for the small screen at the start of his career. A Luddite by modern production standards—he has used the same typewriter for decades—the director has made nearly one film every year for the past half century. “Crisis” suffers from Mr Allen’s reluctance to engage with a new form. It feels like a feature shoehorned into a serial. The action is spliced at arbitrary junctures to form episodes and the narrative drags for the first four instalments, only to abruptly resolve at the end. With unconvincing, caricatured performances from all the main characters bar Ms May, even as a full-length feature “Crisis” would lack substance.

This is not lost on Mr Allen himself. In an interview with Deadline Hollywood, an entertainment industry website, he said that he had “regretted every second” since signing up to the project. It follows to assume, then, that the director shares some of his character’s distrust of the medium. In a late episode Sid wonders if he should just “dump this whole television thing”. A second season of “Crisis in Six Scenes” seems fanciful. 


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