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Crisis in Six Scenes brings Woody Allen to TV. The movies can have him back.


Crisis in Six Scenes
Woody Allen and Elaine May star in Crisis in Six Scenes.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Woody Allen’s Crisis in Six Scenes, the first TV series the famed writer and director has ever made, is a hefty disappointment.



It’s sluggishly paced, poorly acted (particularly when it comes to one important supporting character), and seemingly uninterested in its 1960s setting beyond the easiest buzzwords and symbols.

But it’s also a cautionary tale for a TV industry that’s increasingly enamored of hiring experts from the world of film: These might be two similar forms of media, but they’re different enough that one can’t simply move between them at will.

Crisis in Six Scenes has its moments, and it’s blessed with the immortal Elaine May as its female lead, which helps. But the best thing I can say about the six-episode series is that the finale is an above-average comedic trifle that made me laugh a few times — and required five full episodes of setup to arrive at.

In the end, what dooms Crisis in Six Scenes is exactly what drove Amazon to commission it in the first place: Woody Allen.

Woody Allen doesn’t know how to make TV, nor does he care to learn

Crisis in Six Scenes
This is kind of fun, though.

From the moment this project was announced, Allen has expressed a seeming disinterest in television as a storytelling form. He’s made it pretty clear that he only agreed to make a TV show because Amazon paid up. That attitude even leaches into the show itself, which features Allen’s novelist character, Sidney Munsinger, fretting about pitching an idea to the networks. (The pitch is for a dysfunctional family sitcom, but set among Neanderthals.)

The best explanation I can come up with for how Allen approached the construction of Crisis in Six Scenes is that he simply filmed what amounted to a movie script, didn’t cut anything — even if it didn’t quite fit — and then arbitrarily split it into six episodes.

The result runs just under two-and-a-half hours. That’s pretty short for a streaming series, even a six-episode one. (For comparison’s sake, Amazon’s six-episode Fleabag runs just under three hours.) But it’s an ocean of time for a movie comedy — or at least one not written and directed by Judd Apatow.

And Allen in particular has never been served well by longer running times, especially in his comedies. Few of his movies crest the two-hour mark, and many of his best ones land somewhere between 90 and 105 minutes. Indeed, while editing Annie Hall, Allen famously discovered that the movie he thought he was making was another movie entirely, so it’s clear the editing process is important to what makes his movies work. (In general, comedy often benefits from brevity as well.)

But Crisis in Six Scenes doesn’t really bother with cutting extraneous plot threads. There’s a lengthy subplot about an engaged couple — played by the game John Magaro and Rachel Brosnahan — that ultimately just sort of flails around. And Brosnahan’s Ellie is just the latest in a recent string of shallow, self-obsessed, dipshit younger women characters in Allen’s films, an archetype that’s perhaps best exemplified by Rachel McAdams’s terrible character in Midnight in Paris. (That’s too bad. Brosnahan, like McAdams, is better than her material.)

More troubling than Allen’s editing laziness, however, is how awkwardly it meshes with the episodic TV form. The first episode of Crisis in Six Scenes is all setup, and then the second episode introduces a new character before devolving into more setup. This utterly kills the story’s momentum, and even though it picks up in the second half of the season, there’s no guarantee most viewers will stick around that long.

If I were going to offer one piece of advice to movie experts venturing into TV, it would be to make their opening episodes as interesting as possible.

As it stands, most TV projects from "movie people" turn those early installments into what amount to really long first acts, filled with exposition and setup and pointless noodling. By the time things start to happen, viewers have mentally checked out.

On TV, each individual episode needs to be interesting on some level, even if it’s just the level of "this episode is the one with [fill in the major plot twist]." Approaching a television series as if it’s one long movie instead of a bunch of smaller ones that add up to a bigger story destroys what makes it tick.

Crisis in Six Scenes is a generation gap comedy so shallow it can’t even match The Wonder Years

Crisis in Six Scenes
Look, it’s Miley Cyrus!

At the center of Crisis in Six Scenes is the story of what happens when Sidney and wife Kay (May — who, again, is wonderful throughout) discover that Lennie, a young woman Kay has known since Lennie was a child, is hiding out in their home.

Lennie is a '60s radical who believes that political positions are useless without action, and she wants to tear down the corrupt system, the one that gives Sidney his hot fudge machines and other upper-class comforts.

Also, Lennie is played by Miley Cyrus.

I don’t want to come down too hard on Cyrus, who has been entertaining in other roles. (She was a hoot in Netflix’s A Very Murray Christmas, among others.) But Allen’s directing style is often limited to just winding up his actors and releasing them onscreen to jitter toward each other, and on Crisis in Six Scenes, Cyrus never seems entirely comfortable within that format. One scene where Lennie sleepwalks is so embarrassingly, uncomfortably bad from a performance point-of-view that it almost made me bail entirely.

And Cyrus’s poor performance is exacerbated by Allen’s take on the '60s, which largely boils down to "Young activists were right, but also kind of annoying, but also the older generations were too unwilling to examine their previously held beliefs."

Thus, Crisis in Six Scenes is about the most basic generation gap story anyone could tell, right down to the way the series opens with stock footage of "the '60s, man." It’s basically the story of the parents and oldest daughter on The Wonder Years — and that earlier show had much more emotional nuance than this one.

Allen does add some interesting elements — particularly Kay’s book group of older women, who spark to the writings of Mao and Marx after Lennie introduces them to said writings — but just when it seems like some part of the show might rope you in, he veers away toward something else. It leads to a scattered, frustrating exercise, a show that stutter-steps forward without any real sense of how episodic television functions.

And that’s too bad. A lot of the qualities that still make Allen’s movies worth watching — especially his gift for crowding a bunch of actors into the frame and giving all of them something interesting to do — are present in Crisis in Six Scenes final episode. But the road to get there is so needlessly long, and so pointlessly convoluted, that many viewers will be forgiven for having abandoned it long ago.

Crisis in Six Scenes is streaming on Amazon Prime.

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