Crisis In Six Scenes debuted last Friday, and has received somewhat of a ravishing in the press. Sporting a Rotten Tomatoes score of 17%, you may be tempted to avoid Woody Allen's TV miniseries altogether. But don't! What the majority of the press have failed to engage with is — despite the series flaws, of which there are many — that this is Woody Allen's most vital political work for at least thirty-three years, since he made Zelig, a masterpiece of political allegory . Check out the trailer below:
Woody Allen isn't known for his outspoken views on politics. Mainly concerned with affairs of the heart, the meaning of life and questions of morality, the majority of his work has a humane timelessness that makes it feel it could have been made or set in any era from the early 70s to the late 90s. Yet Crisis In Six Scenes, despite being set in the late 60s, very specifically regards this current era. Let me outline why:
A Divided Country
Black Panthers. The Vietnamese War. The spectre of Communism. Student killings. The Civil Rights Movement. The rise of hippie culture. Right-wing nut Barry Goldwater running for president. The late 60s saw America tearing apart at the seams. What do we have now? Black Lives Matter. The War In Syria. The spectre of ISIS. Blacks being killed by cops. The rise of political correctness, and student activism on campus. Donald Trump running for president. The parallels are clear.
In Crisis In Six Scenes, Woody Allen is cleverly using the past as a way to illuminate the present. Sitting down with his wife Kay (a welcome Elaine May) in front of the TV, Sidney Munzinger (played by Allen) watches the news, which for them has become too unbearable to watch. As someone says:
"Did you ever think you'd see America like this? So polarized? Black versus white, male versus female, young versus old?"
A lot of people who survived the 60s probably didn't, but history has repeated itself. Why is this? According to Allen, its due to:
The casting of Miley Cyrus in this series was an extremely shrewd one. Coming up on Disney Television before shocking the world with a decades-old dance act, and smoking grass on stage, Cyrus knows how to be controversial. Therefore it made sense for her to play a revolutionary, a woman who is committed to making real change in the world, and to spar with the out-dated Allen himself. Sidney is a man who dislikes the way the country is going, and is opposed to the war, but he also likes his hot fudge machine. He is a liberal who has become too comfortable in his well to-do life.
The tension between the two of them resembles the Philip Roth novel American Pastoral, which explored a similar theme of old vs young with a lot more seriousness and a lot more Jewishness thrown in. Allen has gone for the comic tack, which works better for his own acting, as he is ten times a better comedian than a straight actor. Yet this works, as it shows how petty some of his concerns and arguments are in comparison to the un-ironic, impassioned delivery of Lenny the rebel.
Also staying at the house in the suburbs is Alan (John Magaro) who has his life planned out ahead of him: a nice job in his father's firm and an upcoming marriage to a sweet but ultimately disengaged girl (Rachel Brosnahan). Naturally, this being a Woody Allen venture, he falls in love with Lenny the second she gives him some pot. He too becomes enraptured with her ideas and questions what it means to live a conventional lifestyle. Admittedly, some of the dialogue and character development is stilted, and could have done with several re-writes, but the political message still remains clear.
What the show seems to be saying, is that its easy to blame the right-wing for the direction a country is going in, but sometimes liberals have to look at themselves to realise how easily complacency can let things get that way. Just look at Brexit, as a most recent example of the liberal elite not taking the rest of the country seriously. This shows the:
The Importance Of Activism
Lenny is an activist who upon being put in prison for bombing a public building has shot her way out and is now on the lam. Her disruptive way of thinking and acting thus sets the gears of the farce-like plot into action. Her alignment with the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement creates a clear corollary between the movements of the 60s and current concepts such as the Black Lives Matter movement.
The fact is, we wouldn't be having such important discussions about race if the Black Lives Matter movement did things in a conventional way. Their use of direct action, which tries to disrupt the system, is intended to make white people feel uncomfortable. This, according to them, is the only way that a conversation can start — and it works, as anyone campaigning on a liberal ticket is now expected to liaison with the group. I would argue this is important as long as nobody gets hurt.
Its impossible to say whether Allen has any idea who BLM are, given his reticence to talk about public issues, yet this still can be taken away from the series. Although it uses jokes about bomb-making and shooting those in authority for comic effect, it isn't arguing to go that far, only that if you are really concerned about changing the political system do something about it, whether that is joining a march or organising a strike. It's easy to criticise whilst lying back on the sofa, but it takes serious gumption to put yourself on the line.
I Predicted Political Critique, Ensemble Drama, The Story of A Family And That The Lead Character Would Be A Writer Here:
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Why The TV Format Actually Worked
A lot of critics were saying that despite getting the opportunity to work for TV, Allen didn't actually bother to adapt to the medium, hashing out a two and a half hour movie instead of an episodic series. I'd argue, that whilst the demarcations between episodes were at times erratic, the medium actually allowed him to build up momentum and explore scenes that he would normally cut in his movies — the average length of which is between 90 and 100 minutes.
Television more than film is about subtle transformations. The length of the medium allows more nuance for psychological change, change that doesn't require a dramatic conclusion. Albeit the scope of the series allowed for some wonderful farce, and the lengthy scenes concerning the hilarious radicalised old-ladies book club, but really it was about Sidney awakening to find that his view of the world was becoming outdated. This opening up to a new way of looking at things wouldn't have worked so effectively in a mere 90 minute film.
Sidney is a liberal, but I thought that the metaphorical extension of his desire to stop writing TV and become a novelist — similar to what Isaac Davies does in Manhattan — was him seeing that he had to do something worthwhile with his beliefs as opposed to merely relying on voting every four years. Maybe, in an actual metafictional move, this experience of making TV has made Allen realise that with his next work, he will truly do something to shake up the status quo. Who knows? Crisis In Six Scenes shows that the octogenarian still knows how to innovate.
And if none of that spiel makes you want to watch the TV series; this is Elaine May's first appearance in anything in the past 16 years! Try not to wait another 16.