Woody Allen returns to television — surely you remember 1969’s The Woody Allen Special featuring evangelist Billy Graham? — as the star, writer, and director of a very un-television-like series, Crisis in Six Scenes, which plays like a feature film divided into 23- or 24-minute segments. It co-stars the great Elaine May and a plucky Miley Cyrus.
Set in the late 1960s, it’s about a young radical (Cyrus) on the lam. She seeks refuge with Allen and May’s married couple, Sidney and Kay Munsinger. Allen lays on the atmosphere of the countercultural era with thick brushstrokes — montages of Vietnam War protests, the Jefferson Airplane’s “Volunteers” screaming on the soundtrack, references to the Black Panthers, Frantz Fanon, Al Capp’s Shmoo, and Chairman Mao (big laugh-line: An old lady pronounces it “Chairman Mayo”). Sidney publishes novels under the name S.J. Munsinger (a slight nod to one of Allen’s idols, humorist S.J. Perelman); these books don’t sell well, but he and Kay live in a nice suburban home, where May keeps up a part-time marriage-counseling practice. (Lewis Black and Becky Ann Baker show up as a particularly fed-up couple.)
When Cyrus’s Lennie Dale appears on their doorstep, Kay takes her in out of maternal impulse, despite the fact that the young girl has plotted to blow up a draft board, is a proud member of something called the Constitutional Liberation Army, and tinkers away at a bomb in one of the Munsingers’ bedrooms. This is actually promising stuff: Allen is reaching back to the political-satire era of his work, such as 1971’s Bananas, and if anything, making bomb-throwing jokes in 2016 — our Fox News era that finds any radical political gesture an occasion for terrified fury — could have been genuinely provocative.
Alas, getting any mileage out of Miley and her Bernardine Dohrn-with-a-husky-voice character proves unrewarding. Most of Crisis is spent listening to Sidney and Kay dither about hearing aids, Freudian analyses, and one-liners that sound dusted off from Allen’s decades-old standup act (“I read an article in a magazine that said you can add years to your life if you avoid anything pleasurable”).
Sidney and Kay, like virtually every character in Woody’s early comic pantheon, self-identify as “liberal Jews” who freely assert that “the government is stupid.” They are, however, appalled not only by Lennie’s extreme politics, but also by her appetite — Sidney kvetches over and over that she “eats all my navel oranges.”
Allen has claimed in interviews that he watches almost no television and that he agreed to do Crisis only after Amazon offered him too much money for him to resist, and the results here bear out his nonchalant ignorance of the medium. The pacing is eccentric — Miley doesn’t even show up in the first of the six “scenes” — and many times, director Allen seems to just plop the camera down and let Sidney and Kay natter on and on in scenes that sound as though they were improvising the dialogue. May, of course, was one of the greatest improvisers in history during her partnership with Mike Nichols, but with Allen — a comedian whose fame was secured with tightly written one-liners — she is prevented from finding the right comic rhythms. Tucked away in various corners of Crisis are a slew of terrific veteran comedians and comic actors, including Bobby Slayton and Judy Gold, who are not given any material worthy of their talents.
For all the senior-citizen jokes — Kay presides over a book club whose members include Joy Behar; we’re supposed to laugh when one elderly woman says she’s going to burn her bra — Crisis steers inevitably toward young-love romance. That familiar figure in so many Allen movies — the young-Woody-Allen-surrogate — is played here by John Magaro, and he’s named Alan just so you get the point. Alan falls for Lennie even though he’s engaged to someone else (Rachel Brosnahan), and suffers a crisis of conscience that includes his own revolutionary misadventures. (Lennie expresses Miley-size exasperation when she hears a muffled explosion upstairs and barks, “I told Alan not to make a bomb without me there!”)
It would have been easy for an 80-year-old filmmaker to have slipped into late-period conservatism, but to Allen’s credit, he never condemns the activism inspired by the anti-Vietnam War sentiments of the ’60s. It’s just that in trying to recast The Revolution as farce, he’s turned it into a nonstop barrage of failed jokes with badly dated pop-culture references. (Kay: “Chairman Mao say, ‘Death certain, life unpredictable.’” Sidney: “She got that from Charlie Chan.”) I think the best Amazon Prime can hope for from this wobbly Woody experiment is a modest sales bump in copies of Mao’s Little Red Book and Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth.
Crisis in Six Scenes begins streaming on Amazon Prime on Friday.