September 29, 2016 - 7:15 AM
NEW YORK - With Woody Allen's "Crisis in Six Scenes," the screenwriter has let down his director — who coincidentally also falls short. And then there's the leading man, who phones in his performance.
"Crisis" is right.
It was a major coup when Amazon announced in January 2015 that its upstart streaming site — not Netflix, not HBO — had snagged Allen to write, direct and star in his first TV series.
How exciting! This legendary filmmaker, an artist who pecked out his scripts at a portable typewriter and said he hadn't even known what a "streaming site" was, was going digital as he neared his ninth decade.
But the picture darkened when, a few months later, he told Deadline.com that he had been "struggling and struggling and struggling" to bring the series to life, and "regretted every second" since agreeing to do it.
Viewers may feel their own pangs of regret after sampling his "Crisis," whose six half-hour episodes debut Friday on Amazon Prime.
Sure, the series will engage hardcore Woodyphiles who not only celebrate his many great films but are also willing to defend his dismal misfires ("A Rational Man"! "Whatever Works"! "September"!).
It might also draw fans of Miley Cyrus, despite her being fully clothed here as a militant, Marx-spewing 1960s revolutionary named Lennie Dale, a member of a group called the constitutional Liberation Army imprisoned for blowing up a draft-board office.
Meanwhile, the series might serve as a useful crash course (or refresher) in the clashing points of view that rocked the turbulent '60s.
Allen plays Sid Munsinger, a kvetching, semi-successful novelist who, in his autumn years, wants to finally make a big score by creating a hit sitcom. The wonderful Elaine May plays Allen's wine-mellowed wife, an unflappable marriage counsellor.
Then, in the middle of the night, Lennie lands on their suburban doorstep, on the lam after a prison break with the law on her tail. To Sid's horror, sympathetic Kay grants Lennie open-ended refuge in their home.
The remainder of the series trades on two elements:
— Sid's understandable though tiresome panic (expressed by Allen on autopilot) that he and his wife will go to jail forever if Lennie is discovered.
— The growing impact Lennie and her radical views have on the kneejerk liberals whose world she has upended.
The series is at its most valuable (however limited that may be) as a dialectic between those who argue (as Lennie shrilly does) that "you have to break some eggs to make an omelet" and other characters, mainly Sid, who counter that the best way to peace and social justice is by working within the system (though they don't often get around to it).
Sequence after sequence stages characters to bat this issue back and forth.
For instance, in their bedroom, Kay tells Sid, "We grouse about the (Vietnam) war. We keep talking about how there's so much inequality for blacks, so much social inequality. But what do we DO about it?"
"We don't bomb! We don't shoot!" sputters Sid. "We VOTE!"
Kate (gently chuckling): "You haven't voted in the last six elections."
Sid: "Right! What's the point?"
A half-century later, that same debate still rages — what IS the best way to effect social change? — but, as Lennie would be the first to point out, talk is cheap. What "Crisis" needs is more action. Instead, it relies on plodding dialogue, not drama. And certainly not comedy. Woody-worthy laugh-lines are painfully few.
And even the potentially madcap moments (notably — and spoiler here though it's unlikely you'll make it this far — a deluge of Kay's clients and her fellow book-club members all descending on the house in the chaotic finale) fall prey to sluggish pacing.
As with any of his films, Allen has recruited an able cast, which includes John Magaro, Rachel Brosnahan, Joy Behar, Michael Rapaport, Christine Ebersole and Lewis Black.
But this TV project — shoehorned into Allen's unrelenting feature-film-annually regimen — feels half-hearted and, at times, even threadbare. It has given Allen license to revisit and re-examine an earthshaking era from decades past, but breathing life into the narrative he made of it, sadly, was a step he wasn't able or apparently willing to take.
"Crisis in Six Scenes," therefore, unwinds as an intellectual exercise. And for its audience, a dreary exercise to watch.
EDITOR'S NOTE — Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at email@example.com and at http://www.twitter.com/tvfrazier. Past stories are available at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/frazier-moore
News from © The Associated Press, 2016