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‘TV Set’ is a hilarious sendup of network TV

David Duchovny makes a perfect likable struggling everyman. By Christy Lemire
/ Source: The Associated Press

How’s this for meta? The comedy “The TV Set,” about the making of a television pilot, feels like an actual television pilot — for a good show.

While it doesn’t exactly break any new ground about the entertainment industry (hello, “30 Rock”), it has an irresistible absurdist vibe, a dryly observant sense of humor that makes it — to borrow the vernacular — must-see.

Writer-director Jake Kasdan (who directed “Orange County” and worked on the cult fave TV series “Freaks and Geeks”) gives us hilarious industry scenarios that feel painfully real, if a bit too insider for some.

After a series of flops (“Trust the Man,” “House of D”), David Duchovny returns to reliable form as likable everyman Mike Klein, a longtime writer trying to get his coming-home dramedy, “The Wexler Chronicles,” on the fall schedule.

Mike drew from his brother’s suicide for inspiration, a plot point that network president Lenny (a fabulously blase and self-absorbed Sigourney Weaver) thinks is too depressing — and 82 percent of viewers polled agree. Lenny is also emboldened of late by the success of the network’s bonanza reality program. And so begins a series of agonizing yet very funny negotiations over casting, dialogue, tone and camera angles, which makes you wonder how anything ever gets on the air.

Mike finds he must compromise on every detail that matters to him, including the important choice of who should play the main character, Rob Wexler. He prefers a more understated, theater-trained performer; the suits go for the obnoxiously broad Zach Harper, played by Fran Kranz, who gets some of the biggest laughs simply by being so cringe-inducing.

At first it seems Mike has a steadfast supporter in Richard (Ioan Gruffudd), an executive who’s recently been lured from the BBC for his impeccable taste. But then again, everything in “The TV Set” is fluid.

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In a clever touch, several television character actors co-star, including Justine Bateman (yes, Justine Bateman!) as Mike’s pregnant wife; Judy Greer as his manager, who constantly fudges the truth to smooth things over; Andrea Martin as the surly wardrobe maven; and Willie Garson as the wannabe auteur director of “The Wexler Chronicles” — a title, by the way, that Lenny also hates and wants to change.

“The TV Set” has insightful things to say about the conflict between art and commerce, and while it will keep you laughing throughout, it also reinforces a rather bleak reality. Crap begets crap, which has been scientifically approved by a carefully chosen cross-section of the lowest common denominator — or, in Lenny’s case, by her 14-year-old daughter.