A few questions.
1. Do you still like to watch Woody Allen do his Woody Allen schtick — stammering and gesticulating and panicking like a dyspeptic crank, his black-rimmed glasses stuck on his cartoon face like Velma on “Scooby Doo” — all while you’re looking forward to that inevitable mid-story moment when he goes to his doctor to whine about getting dizzy whenever he moves his right thumb?
2. Do you not care at all about a TV show’s plot and feel entirely prepared to look past lazy and uncommitted writing, dated punch lines, and monotonous vamping to fill time, particularly in this age of exquisitely and tightly shaped half-hour series including “Louie,” “Better Things,” “Transparent,” and “Master of None”?
3. Missed opportunities, are they completely fine with you, for instance, if a veteran filmmaker signs a deal to make his first TV series during the TV renaissance and then squanders it on bottom-drawer material that recalls some of his most dashed-off and feeblest films, almost as if he has contempt for the medium — and indeed, in a lame meta gag, he has the writer-hero he plays in the third-rate TV comedy trying to make third-rate TV comedy?
If you’ve been answering yes to these queries, then I prescribe six episodes of Allen’s new Amazon series, which he has given the Bergmanesque or Pirandellian or Whateverian title “Crisis in Six Scenes,” a phrase that doesn’t have much to do with the story except that it’s told in six episodes. By the time you finish the comedy, after watching Allen sputter and costar Miley Cyrus do her super-low-affect thing, you may be ready to change your answers to no. And by the way, even though “Crisis in Six Scenes” is on Amazon, which means no commercials, each episode is network-sized — only about 22 minutes long. That shortened length must have made it easier for Allen, and it will make it easier for you.
The story is set in the late 1960s, with Allen as writer Sidney J. Munsinger, who lives a peaceful upper-middle-class life in Connecticut with wife Kay (Elaine May), a marriage counselor who sees clients in their home. They have a house guest, their friends’ strait-laced son Alan (John Magaro), a student on track to be an investment banker and marry his girlfriend. This peaceful situation is upended when Cyrus’s Darlene “Lennie” Dale, a hardcore radical wanted by the police and the FBI, hides out in their house. She challenges their status quo, not to mention the viewers’ patience, as she natters on banally about “the pigs” and how “the whole system is just too rotten to be saved and we’re gonna have to start all over.”
Predictable madcap moments ensue, as the cops show up and fail to discover Lennie, or as Kay assigns Mao to her book group of older women. None of the gags are clever or funny, with Allen gibbering throughout and May acting frustratingly like a ditzy wife. At times, it looks as though Allen and May are improvising somewhat weakly, or else they’re just not fully prepared — it’s hard to tell and it ultimately doesn’t matter. The show is a waste of time, even by the lowered standards of Allen’s post-“Husbands and Wives” work.
Are we really supposed to feel affection for Allen’s character, like he’s just a grumpy old man, an amusing curmudgeon? Does Allen think Cyrus has real comedic chops? It’s anyone’s guess. All I know is that Allen’s simplistic portrait of the 1960s attempts to stir some nostalgia and light laughs and fails. It’s remarkable only for seeming like a lame vignette out of “Love, American Style.”
CRISIS IN SIX SCENES
Starring Woody Allen, Elaine May, Miley Cyrus, John Magaro. On Amazon, available Friday
Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.