Woody Allen’s new Amazon mini-series, Crisis in Six Scenes, opens with an expository 1960s newsreel. Through flashing news clippings and protest photos, we’re urged to situate ourselves on the brink of societal annihilation. The war in Vietnam is raging, reefer madness is spreading, and the [insert movement here] is dominating college campuses across the country. Amidst all this upheaval, we’re introduced to Sidney Muntzinger, Allen’s off-brand J.D. Salinger avatar. This abrupt tonal shift to the seated curmudgeon, absorbed in a conversation about himself—his favorite topic—is the first joke of the series. Muntzinger is so deep in a decades-long tailspin of neurotic narcissism, he’s just about the last person to realize that the world is blowing up around him. This juxtaposition—between a timeless, self-involved Woody Allen id and the political chaos lapping at his consciousness—is at the heart of the series.
Unfortunately, the fact that Muntzinger is so at odds with the times, and such an unlikely protagonist for this story, is an easy joke that fizzles into genuine confusion. Allen frames his story around Lennie Dale (Miley Cyrus), a radical anti-war activist who’s on the run from the law. But because this story starts, and ends, with Sidney Muntzinger, we’re constantly pulled away from the real action, and forced to tune back into the aging author’s various anxieties and endless hand-wringing. This one-note Woody Allen performance leads to a tone-deaf take on one of the most fascinating periods in American history, filtered through the subjectivity of a man who has purposely placed himself on the outskirts of the revolution.
From these nosebleed seats, we crane forward in an attempt to see the tumult that Muntzinger is turning away from. Revolution comes in the form of Dale, who breaks into the Muntzinger’s home while Sidney and his wife Kay (Elaine May) are sleeping. At this point, Kay has to remind her husband that Lennie’s grandmother took her in and raised her as a child, and that she has a responsibility to give the teenage runaway temporary shelter. What initially lands as clunky exposition might just be further proof that Muntzinger really is as self-absorbed as he seems. As Kay struggles to house and feed her criminal houseguest, Muntzinger keeps muttering away about fake jewels and non-existent robbers. While there’s virtue in Allen’s willingness to make his out of touch character the butt of the joke, this level of cluelessness strikes a strange tone. When Lennie tells Kay that her husband is likely suffering from early onset dementia, we’re inclined to agree. Sidney continues to fumble through his own series, stumbling through a series of increasingly high stakes hijinks in a futile quest to return to the way things were.
The sixth installment of this failed Amazon experiment is the only one worth watching. Because Allen has essentially written a movie and then chopped it up for your viewing displeasure, the various plot points all come to a head in the last half hour. With the help of Lennie Dale and the works of Chairman Mao, Kay has inadvertently radicalized her book club. These bubbes descend on the Muntzinger household on the day of Lennie’s planned escape, spouting Marxist principles and explaining how to kill a man with a single ice pick. The two couples whom Kay has been marriage counseling over the course of the series are falling to pieces, and show up at the house demanding instant fixes. The Muntzinger’s house guest, Alan (John Magaro), seduced by Lennie’s charms and quite taken with the writings of Frantz Fanon, has injured himself making a homemade bomb.
Cue the entrance of his well-off parents, his debutante fiancee, and her family—debates about class and politics, as well as a surprise pregnancy announcement, naturally ensue. As Lennie’s accomplices—the only black actors with speaking roles in this entire series—arrive to bust her out of suburbia, Con Edison guys knock on the door to investigate the fake gas leak that Alan used to cover up his amateur explosives. This madcap episode is the closest we get to signature, triumphant Woody Allen. The characters are colorful, quick-talking, and more or less insane. Politics take second place to punch lines, requisite shots of autumnal foliage flood the frame, and Allen puts this whole sitcom fiasco to bed once and for all.
While Crisis in Six Scenes is certainly a slow tease, you would be forgiven for not making it to the season finale. Unlike Transparent, Amazon’s most critically acclaimed original offering, Crisis in Six Scenes doesn’t benefit from the creative license of its unconventional platform. Allen’s series doesn’t tell a new story, play with an established form, or shed light on under-represented characters. What it is, really, is mediocre Mad Men. Sidney Muntzinger, who freelances as an ad writer, is criticized by Lennie as a symbol of the mindless American capitalism machine. But unlike Don Draper, everyone’s favorite self-destructive ad man, Muntzinger has none of the empty hunger that Dale so un-subtly accuses him of. Draper’s depth as a seller and a consumer stems from his insatiability. His damaged psyche drives him towards sex, drugs, drink, love, and self-annihilation. Draper is desperate for any experience that drags him outside of himself, which makes him a perfect guide through culture and counter-culture. Allen’s Muntzinger is the complete opposite—an insular homebody whose only appetite is for the sturgeon that Lennie steals from his fridge.
Then there’s the tenacity with which Mad Men clung to its side characters, using Draper as a starting point to branch out into the millions of worlds beneath the newsreel surface. Crisis in Six Scenes teases at this brand of storytelling—a deep dive into the heart and mind of a young revolutionary—but it hardly delivers. For all of her fervently delivered political aphorisms and Che Guevara posters, Cyrus’s Lennie Dale is just Woody Allen in a poncho. On the surface, she’s a caricature of a self-righteous female activist, who describes her radicalization at the hands of two men she fell in love with—“a Jew and a black.” But even this beautiful revolutionary finds herself ranting about her shrink, a “strict Freudian” who had a silent heart attack during one of their sessions. While viewers might initially be relieved to find that Cyrus isn’t playing Allen’s girlfriend, I would buy Miley as love interest over Miley as Woody Allen proxy any day. Allen’s ability to make this character, a symbol of everything he isn’t, just another mouthpiece for his Allen-isms is a real feat. Unfortunately, it’s also an example of Allen’s Achilles heel—an inability to journey far enough outside of his own interiority to do justice to other characters and other worlds.
Crisis in Six Scenes is no Transparent, but it’s not lacking in transparency. The entire series is bookended by a meta-narrative in which Muntzinger ponders selling out and writing sitcoms. In the first scene, he tells his barber that he’s “working on an idea for a television series now.” When pressed to justify a career move that he clearly views as artistically compromising, he quickly explains, “It’s very lucrative and there’s not a lot of money in novels.” Muntzinger’s clear ambivalence echoes the sentiments of his creator. Allen has not been shy about his struggles to produce this series, confessing, “I have regretted every second since I said OK…I haven’t had a pleasurable moment since I undertook it.”
Midway through Lennie’s extended stay, we’re thrust out of the domestic drama to follow Sidney and his writing partner as they pitch to networks. Muntzinger’s dud of a sitcom concept is the story of a regular family, who happen to be Neanderthals. He attempts to assure the dubious executives that this half-baked idea is full of comedic possibilities. Allen’s Amazon series about the ’60s, for all its clumsy attempts to incorporate politics into the rhythm of Allen’s trademark comedy patter, is almost as undeveloped as Muntzinger’s caveman musings. The show clearly lampoons Muntzinger’s belief that he can plop a basic concept down in a historical context that he knows nothing about.
But Crisis in Six Scenes is proof that Allen can, and will, create in the face of his own ignorance and even apathy. Allen doesn’t seem to have given the politics behind Lennie’s character any more thought than Muntzinger has given his fictional Neanderthals. The joke—that Muntzinger assumes that human beings are basically the same, anywhere and at any time—is evident in Allen’s ahistorical approach. Obvious name drops and dates aside, Muntzinger is a character outside of time. His co-stars, despite their valiant attempts to give this show its time-specific color, don’t have enough space or depth to really do the ’60s justice.
By the end of the series, a moderately shaken up Muntzinger has decided to abandon his sitcom, and give himself one more shot at writing the great American novel. In his words, “Maybe I should dump this whole idiotic television thing.” Allen has a clear distaste for TV as a medium, but television doesn’t seem to like him either. At the end of the day, Crisis in Six Scenes is a missed opportunity. As a mediocre vehicle, it does a disservice to its talent—chiefly, the great Elaine May. It fails to present an innovative use of the form, or a new side of its acclaimed auteur. Ultimately, this apathy-inducing series can’t seem to recover from Allen’s own disinterest.