All episodes were provided prior to broadcast.
For Woody Allen enthusiasts, Amazon’s Crisis in Six Scenes is an enjoyable piece of early autumn fluff. It’s a laissez faire effort, unrigged and unbothered, though one that, at its very best, might be Allen’s most comedically-inspired work since 2011’s Midnight in Paris. But as the auteur’s first venture into television in his storied 40-plus career, it’s certainly not without its faults.
The six-episode comedic mini-series — each written and directed by the filmmaker as busy as he’s nervous — is often clumsy and unsure of itself in its story pacing. It never quite finds its rhythm until the last two episodes, and the first few are a little sluggish and rather excessive at times. You get the sense Allen is mostly reformatting his usual film structure into the popular TV mold, which makes the whole project feel like an extended three-hour Allen film — particularly if you binge them all, like Amazon intends. That turns out to be a blessing and a curse.
Crisis in Six Scenes takes us back to the ’60s. America is on the verge of a revolution, and neurotic novelist Sidney J. Munsinger (Allen) wants to look like James Dean. Once, he was a hot-to-trot advertisement salesman-turned-bestselling author, but his last two books — a post-modern attempt and a novella — failed to capture public interest, especially with J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye flying off shelves. So it’s time to move towards television. Is it as good as books? No, but the business is booming! Plus, he’s got an idea.
“Let me guess,” his culturally-critical barber (Vinyl’s Max Casella) says, “The usual dysfunctional family with a wisecracking wife and kids and much-harassed husband kind of thing?” Before Sidney can speak, the haircutter continues, “Stick with what works for other people! Let them say cliched! What will you care? You’ll be humiliated all the way to the bank!”
That’s a meta little nod from Allen. The director isn’t keeping his frustration with — or his lack of interest in — television secretive, with this project or the press surrounding it. Crisis in Six Scenes is, indeed, Allen sticking with what worked best before, though in an extended format. It’s only revolutionary in the sense that it’s in a medium we’ve never seen Allen inside before. But he has no interest in levelling himself with Transparent or Fleabag. It’s another conventionally half-hearted effort from late-period Allen. Yet, that loose simplicity works in its favor.
Often times, there’s an agreeable airiness to Crisis in Six Scenes that hasn’t been found in previous Allen projects in some time. It’s more playful, sporadic and loose-fitting. Granted, your tolerance level for how long you can watch self-centered characters ramble and babble on about themselves, other people, social climates, war, political unrest, literature, television, political unrest, sports, food and kitchen appliances, to name a few, will be put to the test here. Even myself, as someone who loves to watch Allen rant his lungs out, found myself winded from watching his various on-screen personalities verbally duke it out in this limited series. There’s a reason most Allen movies barely push themselves past the 100-minute mark. A little Woody can go a long way… that came out wrong.
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Reportedly, Crisis in Six Scenes involved extensive improvisation to pad things out, which marks another first for the often script-focused writer/director. With Allen pushing himself outside his comfort zone, the series can often be divorced from the economic filmmaking that uniformly makes Allen’s films so focused these days. As the rest of the story follows, Sydney, his therapist wife Kay (Elaine May) and their younger temporary houseguest Alan Brockman (John Magaro) gradually find their straight laced lifestyles shaken when radical political activist Lennie (Miley Cyrus, perfectly cast) crashes their place while on the lam. This is, of course, against Sydney’s incessant, endless protestations. It’s a simple story from a simple filmmaker, yet one stretched too long to become as comfortable as the director’s better or, at the very least, more consistently entertaining films.
The storytelling isn’t necessarily sloppy; it just lacks enthusiasm at times, particularly around the middle installments. The first episode is witty and pure Woody, but the second is largely unnecessary to the story-at-large. The third and fourth are more-or-less filler, which sorta awkwardly establish the stakes for the next two. Then it’s in those concluding episodes where Allen fully regains his inspiration. It’s a mixed bag, but that was basically expected.
Supporting characters can be seen, then forgotten. Kay’s patients, in particular, never organically work their way into the miniseries until the very end. House of Cards‘ Rachel Brosnahan is mostly underused as Alan’s forgiving fiancee Ellie, serving mostly as a point-of-conflict for Alan once he’s taken by Lennie. Most episodes find their characters chatting a while before it’s time to move on.
Crisis in Six Scenes can be rushed and disheartened in its filmmaking, admittedly. With regard to its political plot points, Allen’s first TV effort could easily have been his most timely work in years — especially in reflecting our youthful idealism in Lennie’s anti-fascist rebel-rousing mentality. Yet, Allen doesn’t have anything particularly valuable to add to the conversation, so it doesn’t amount to any stirring political commentary. Though it’s not scornful or waving its finger either about how these two cultures now clash and mingle. The period detail serves merely as a backdrop for the story Allen decided to tell in this project. And that’s disappointing, because it reflects the better show that’s left unearned.
Yet, even with such low ambitions, Crisis in Six Scenes constantly finds ways to charm you. Even with its flat camerawork — which is particularly noticeable after this summer’s Cafe Society, among the director’s most visually gorgeous films ever — and kinda mechanical editing, Allen’s television introduction ends up a breezy, moderately pleasing delight. It’s a little ironic too, since it almost goes out of its way to be as clunky as possible. It doesn’t take itself too seriously and it doesn’t want to shake new ground, and that’s a formula Allen has excelled upon for decades. Crisis in Six Scenes is a lightweight amusement, especially if you’re an Allen fan like I am. Sometimes it’s nice to watch something acceptably average once-in-a-while, even during peak TV.
Above all else, it’s fun to see Allen on the screen again, in what could be his last performance under his own direction. The acting is almost all good, even if May is a little stilted at first. To be fair, though, this is her first acting gig in nearly 15 years, after Allen’s Small Time Crooks. It won’t stack up to the director’s better accomplishments, but it doesn’t want to be. It’s pure new Woody Allen entertainment, and that’s exactly what I wanted. It’s hardly a crisis and it gives the people what they want, even if it’s rather cliched by Allen standards. But it’s not like he cares, right? He’s laughing to the bank either way.
Amazon's Crisis in Six Scenes might be a Woody Allen movie stretched out into a mini-series, but at least it's a decent one.