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Friday, October 28, 2016

Crisis in Six Scenes

Woody Allen's foray into television was big news, but the result, Crisis in Six Scenes, left critics unimpressed. I just finished the show last night (as the title indicates, there are six episodes, each sit-com length of about twenty minutes) and while I see what they're talking about, I'm enough of an Allen fan that I got a lot of chuckles out of it. It's certainly nowhere near his greatest work, but for what it is it has its moments.

The time is the late '60s. Allen plays one of his nebbishes, a writer named Sidney Munsinger. He lives in suburban peace with his wife (Elaine May) in upstate New York. She's a marriage counselor, which allows for a few good gags, such as one that has one couple who agree on nothing except their hatred of guacamole, and another where the man frequents prostitutes, so May suggests he pay his wife, but the wife starts charging more money.

These are very typical Allen tropes, and there are many more, especially the way Allen plays Munsinger as a hypochondriac and general nervous Nelly. His life is turned upside down when an escaped radical (Miley Cyrus), who is the daughter of a friend of May's, takes refuge in their house. Allen is virulently opposed, especially when Cyrus calls him a capitalist tool (she says, "I don't hate you, I just hate everything you stand for") and eats his fig newtons and naval oranges. Over six episodes Allen deals with this situation, and a houseguest (John Magaro) falls for Cyrus and becomes radicalized.

The juxtaposition of Allen's middle-class Jewish humor and the radical elements of the '60s provides for some humor, especially when May's book club starts reading tracts like The Quotations of Chairman Mao and Das Kapital. Maybe I'm just a sucker for this sort of thing, but the notion of little old Jewish ladies planning to protest naked makes me laugh (Joy Behar, as one of the ladies, says before she does so she has to lose at least five or six pounds).

And as long as Allen is on screen, I'm there. He has some great, if not tired, lines, such as "I'm allergic to tear gas," or worrying about jail because he is ideal for being sodomized. The fifth episode finds Allen and May acting as couriers with a suitcase full of Cuban money, and these two old people being involved in such a scheme is inherently funny.

However, Crisis in Six Scenes can be very bad. Cyrus is miscast, in fact, she's no actress. The Magaro-Cyrus thing just doesn't work--when he blows himself while trying to make a bomb it's gone beyond silly. There's also a subplot about Allen pitching a sit-com about cavemen (which is essentially The Flintstones) that goes nowhere. The entire series is about two hours, so with trimming, this would have been an okay film--stretching it out to a series didn't do it any favors.

But still I enjoyed it overall. The last episode has almost every character in Allen's house. The doorbell keeps ringing--"I'm expecting the Mormon Tabernacle Choir," Allen says. Then it rings again. When asked if he isn't going to answer that, he says, "It might be the Marx Brothers," a reference to the stateroom scene in A Night at the Opera.

Die hard fans of Allen, and I admit I am one, will find this series worthwhile. Those who don't like him will probably hate it, and those who have no feeling one way or another will probably respond with a shrug.

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