When it was announced that Woody Allen, the unstoppably prolific filmmaker of lo these decades, had signed on to “do television,” he made public his trepidation and the fact that he had “no ideas.” He told an interviewer that the Amazon execs who extended the invitation may live to regret it. That may have been the calculated bluster of an avowed film lover who came up and helped train a generation or two in the power of cinema when television was something of an enemy of the people, a medium lacking, well, “vision.”
Have no fear: If hardly a soaring triumph, Crisis in Six Scenes — a six-episode TV miniseries now available on Amazon — is well worth checking out and cleverly stocked with twists and that old Allen-esque punch-line machinery in action. With his debut on the “new TV,” Allen settles in for a long hang in the milieu of the late ’60s, with the moral and political ramifications of a fugitive idealist (Miley Cyrus) thrown into the relative calm of a bourgeois older couple’s home. In a way, this scenario allows Allen to revisit his ambivalence toward the counterculture and radical chic of his movies then in sync with those times and mores — including Bananas and Annie Hall.
Here, Allen stars as Sidney Munsinger, an older writer who started out in advertising, wrote a book (Let There Be Light, “about a proctologist who finds inspiration in the strangest places”), and is on the verge of succumbing to writing for TV (hmm). Elaine May — too long absent from public screens and a magnetic center on the show — is his tolerant, open-to-new-ideas wife, and Cyrus is Lennie Dale. She serves as the energizing wild card in the dramatic equation of Allen’s piece, a bombshell in the ’burbs, wreaking havoc, spouting Mao quotes, and accidentally seducing and politically rerouting an otherwise straitlaced young man headed for a “normal” life.
Charms are aplenty here. Among them are seeing the newer, hipper, post-Wayne Coyne–ized Cyrus, the ’60s radical on the lam at the ready with revolutionary rhetoric (“The fascist propaganda machine is in full swing,” and “Sports — another opiate for the people”), sparring with Sidney, who complains about her intrusion and depletion of his chicken and Fig Newtons and calls her a “stooge with hoarder mentality.” There are enough elements of action potential — the dragnet slowly working its way to finding the fugitive, the perils of in-the-home bomb-making, and women’s book clubs suddenly radicalized, a chaotic convergence of people and narrative elements in the final episode — to grease the wheels of TV-sized entertainment dynamics.
Perhaps highest on the list of great pleasures connected with Crisis is the wealth of screen time in the rumpled, baggy-clothed presence of Allen, who has been absent from most of his latest films, in full kvetch-patter. It’s no incidental plot point that, starting with the very opening barbershop scene and extending to the final scene, our delectably whiny protagonist is very reluctantly heeding the lucrative call of TV, almost an admission of defeat as a writer and artist. Of course, that would have been the late ’60s, a vastly different television landscape than today’s creatively fertile, Woody-ready scene.
In Crisis’s laxer moments, when the narrative cohesion slips even as the comic fizz keeps us tuned in, we get the sense of Allen throwing a lot of stuff at the proverbial wall and seeing what sticks, picking up his check on the way to his next film project — his next “serious” endeavor. Or has he just made his next film, with the budgetary blessing of Jeff Bezos? Doing the math, Crisis in Six Scenes (the very title and self-described structural nature of which gently spoofs the episodic nature of television), adds up to just over two hours of Allen content, with a story told in linear episodic fashion, albeit with some obvious cliff-hangers inserted to keep the viewer returning for the next exciting episode.
Crisis in Six Scenes plays on amazon.com.