Woody Allen’s first television show is not, in any meaningful sense of the term, a television show. Even by the ever-expanding definition of “television,” which now includes everything from self-financed internet larks to self-contained seasons to self-contained episodes, Crisis in Six Scenes falls short of the most basic benchmarks that separate a serialized story from a monolith.
After a long and tortured gestation period, Crisis in Six Scenes finally arrives on Amazon on Thursday. In some ways, it’s a fairly standard piece of Allen-core: The man writes and directs every episode, which is a given, but also acts, which he hasn’t done in a feature since To Rome With Love. It’s an old-school Allen role, too — a nebbishy, middling novelist named Sidney J. Munsinger in his standard milieu of New York and its surrounding environs. There are jokes about therapy and Karl Marx and various touchstones of the East Coast cultural elite. There’s also a much younger woman who comes in and throws Allen’s character’s life into disarray, in the form of Miley Cyrus’s late-’60s revolutionary on the run from the law. On paper, it’s Woody-by-numbers.
But of course, Crisis in Six Scenes is not your typical late-career Allen, or so Amazon would have us believe. Because Crisis is not a film, Allen’s chosen medium for 47 features in 50 years. It’s TV, and streaming TV besides. (Allen started his career as a TV comedy writer, but he hasn’t looked back since.) It’s also a trump card in the long-running arms race to poach the highest-profile filmmakers possible and wrangle them into a new format. Of all the big names HBO and Netflix have landed, Allen is by far the biggest. He’s a legacy brand.
What Allen has actually delivered, though, doesn’t jive with that brave-new-world narrative. Where Baz Luhrmann and David Fincher have struggled to adapt to a new set of narrative and budgetary constraints, Allen has simply ignored them. For all the hype surrounding Allen’s first series, he’s essentially made his 48th movie.
As the title indicates, Crisis weighs in at a mere six episodes, adding up to two hours and 18 minutes total, with a guarantee from Allen himself that this is all we’re gonna get. Basically, it’s the exact same length as one of the movies Allen supposedly took a break from in order to make this thing. (Well, maybe a hair longer; point being, no one’s gonna balk at spending two and a half hours in a theater.) But running time isn’t all that makes a film a film or a show a show — Amazon itself is in the middle of a solid winning streak with comedies that pack an entire season’s worth of action into a half-dozen episodes, whether imported from short-season British TV (Catastrophe, Fleabag) or homegrown (One Mississippi). Just because a season of television can be knocked out in a single sitting on the website you buy phone chargers from doesn’t mean it lacks the patterns and construction of, well, television.
No, what sets Crisis apart is what it does with that running time, and how it splits it up across installments that aren’t so much episodes as arbitrarily separated chunks. Streaming shows are infamous for shrugging off stand-alone components; what’s the point of a cliff-hanger when viewers can just sit back and let autoplay work its magic? Allen pushes that tendency to an almost absurd extreme. Crisis was the first series in Amazon’s history to fast-forward past its gimmicky “pilot season,” and it shows: Crisis’s initial episode doesn’t bother to introduce a conflict or even one of its three principal characters. All it does is establish the lives of Sidney and Kay (Elaine May), an octogenarian couple living out their retirement in Westchester County — and sweet isolation from the chaos enveloping the rest of the country. It’s great to be liberated from the manifold obligations of the typical network pilot, but Crisis fails to fulfill the most basic one: Give us a reason to keep watching beyond “It’s Woody Allen — admit it, you’re curious.”
The rest unfolds in a similar fashion. Thanks to the short season, it’s not bloated or lackadaisical. It just … blurs together, with each episode starting more or less where the last one ends. Crisis is the clear product of someone with little experience — or knowledge, or interest — in crafting a season of television. Amazon’s own press materials state that Allen “freely admitted he didn’t consider himself … a television addict” with a TV diet of sports and “a little news.” What few scripted series he’s seen have been “quite impressive.” No word on which scripted series — except Hannah Montana, which is how he discovered Cyrus (true story!) — or what he liked about them, though that’s not surprising. Crisis indicates Allen hadn’t given it much thought.
Instead, Allen’s working in the same forms he always has. Crisis’s resemblance to a movie is obvious, but its closest cousin is actually the stage play, another area in which Allen has more (i.e., not zero) experience than he does with narrative television. The only definitive, fade-to-black break comes halfway through, as if Allen’s working around an intermission. Almost all of the action takes place in the Munsingers’ home, as if Allen were choreographing a chamber piece. Action happens offscreen (a bomb exploding), and is then explained with dialogue onscreen (“I told him not to make a bomb without me!”), as if Allen were working around the absence of special effects.
While watching the show, I kept thinking of how much better-suited Crisis would be to a limited run on Broadway, where it’d be subject to fanfare and scrutiny more in line with its actual ambitions. (Allen, back in May: “It’s not going to start any new religions, I can tell you that.”) It’s even possible to bring the trappings of the stage to the screen: Horace & Pete did it, and so did a generation’s worth of multicam sitcoms. But that would only solve Crisis’s issues with form, not scale. “Woody Allen getting cranky that Miley Cyrus ate his leftovers” sounds like a network punch line, but there’s no laugh track here.
There’s literally no reason for this to be a television show instead — or at least, no artistic reason. Amazon gets the publicity coup of having The Only Woody Allen Show in its archive for all eternity. At the end of the day, that’s all it wanted.