Crisis in Six Scenes Review: A Crisis in Cohesive Storytelling

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Woody Allen’s Amazon TV series is rife with his signature comedic style, but his efforts to conceptualize the political unrest of the 60s fall flat.

The auteurist movement is having a major moment on television. Everyone from Louis C.K. to Lena Dunham has been given the opportunity to tell a story from their unique worldview. This year alone has seen new shows crop up from the minds of Donald Glover, Pamela Adlon, and Tig Notaro, to name a few. It’s exciting to see so many diverse and original voices drive these shows, especially when so much of TV is still franchise and reboot-oriented.

It makes perfect sense that Woody Allen, a master auteur of filmmaking, would want to dive into the fray. His neurotic, Jewish sensibilities have become a brand of their own, and—for many decades—resulted in success. Still, Allen himself admitted that filming for Amazon was a rather arduous task. Upon viewing the series, it’s not difficult to see why.

As you may have gleaned from the title, Crisis in Six Scenes plays out in six half-hour installments that, to be honest, feel like they could’ve easily been edited together into one long film. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Other streaming shows like House of Cards often employ a cinematic structure to their narratives so that the story flows easily between each episode. Yet, the passage of time there is very apparent. I’m really not sure of Crisis‘ timeline. It could’ve easily taken place over 3 days or 3 weeks.

The series centers around Allen’s Sidney Munsinger, a relatively unknown novelist who’s trying to sell a TV pilot, but dreams of being the next J.D. Salinger. He even adds a superfluous “J” to his moniker in order to make himself seem auspicious. Sid lives in a beautiful Connecticut home with his wife Kay (Elaine May), a marriage counselor. Despite the political and social turbulence happening in the world around them, the two have a very comfortable existence. This all changes when a fugitive named Lennie (Miley Cyrus) appears on their doorstep and asks to hide out for a while.

Much of the show’s humor is derived from Sid’s curmudgeonly demeanor being juxtaposed against the larger, looming threat of fervent change outside his door. The second episode features a highly amusing scene of him and Kay bickering over the emerald pendant he got her for Christmas—turns out it’s not a real emerald—as they prepare to confront Lennie, who has just broken into their home.

These domestic foibles are an area that Allen has, time and time again, mined some of his best material from. His back-and-forth with May feels very lived in, and it’s in these moments where the series truly shines.

Lennie’s intrusion upon Kay and Sid’s life, however, proves to be more problematic. Her character is all face value, so her cries for revolution are hard to take seriously. Cyrus is much more naturalistic here than she was during her Hannah Montana days, but she’s often bogged down by clunky dialogue that feels like it was lifted from a high school textbook on communism.

On top of that, Crisis simply fails to make a decent case for its 60s setting. Sure, Lennie’s radical idealism clashes with Sid’s pedestrian lifestyle, but there’s little effort put into actually exploring the turmoil of the decade. All of Lennie’s more militant actions occur offscreen, with most of the runtime consumed by Sid complaining while his wife and friends around him start to warm to the idea of becoming freedom fighters.

At its best, Crisis is often reminiscent of Allen’s 1994 TV movie Don’t Drink the Water, but it lacks the sense of urgency needed to take its culture-clash ideas beyond the point of a typical sitcom. I’m not saying that this series needed to be a statement piece, but the fact that our current political and social climate has some uncanny parallels to that of the 1960s made me think that the show’s broader themes would be better utilized.

Instead, we’re left with a show that wastes most of its big ideas on easy throwaway jokes. The final episode of Crisis is by far its best, as Lennie’s plans result in an excellently orchestrated comedy of errors, with a large group of characters descending upon the Munsinger home. It’s here that you’re truly able to see Allen’s genius as he expertly directs the cacophony of a packed house with ease.

When the final credits roll, however, it’s hard to pin down what the point of it all was. Allen can create a poignant and funny mediation on human relationships better than most of his contemporaries, but his efforts here feel blocked. Much like how Sid’s suburban lifestyle has kept him at bay from the real issues happening in the world, Allen feels too far removed from this story to have a firm grasp on how to tell it. Television might be the place for auteurs to be right now, but perhaps this one should just stick to what he knows best. Grade: C+

 

By Mike Papirmeister

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