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Channeling showbiz hypocrisy in wry and wicked 'TV Set'

Sigourney Weaver plays the head of programming at a fictional network with breathtaking assurance and soullessness. (Think Film)

"The TV Set " is sneaking into town without benefit of much fanfare, and that's a shame for such a terrific little film. A tart, smart, closely observed satire of the television industry -- sub-topic: pilot season -- the movie's inside baseball, but it acknowledges we're all armchair umpires in this entertainment-obsessed culture. It isn't a screed like "Network ." The tone is conversational, the targets modest. Writer-director Jake Kasdan and his cast hit every one of them, though, and how often does that happen?

Plus, Sigourney Weaver finally gets to play the Mama Alien. Her character, Lenny , the head of programming at the fictional PDN Network, is a breathtaking caricature of assurance and soullessness. Presiding over a prime-time schedule whose breakout hit is called "Slut Wars " -- a 19 share across all demos -- Lenny knows what America wants. When she doesn't know, she asks her daughter (Allison Scagliotti ), who, according to one of her mother's minions, is "a very mature 14."

In another of the movie's small surprises, David Duchovny plays Mike Klein , the shaggily intelligent creator of a would-be network hit called "The Wexler Chronicles ." It probably won't get onto the schedule -- a minuscule percentage of produced pilots ever make it into our living rooms -- but it might. Lenny says she likes it. Well, she likes everything except the name. And the basic premise. And Mike's choice for the lead.

"The TV Set" has been made by people who know that Hollywood runs on hypocrisy, so there's very little screaming going on. People eviscerate each other with smiles, or they promise the moon before running for cover. The film's third major character is Richard McCallister , the network's newly hired head of prime-time programming. Richard's from the BBC, and everyone praises him as a white knight of quality TV; it's no accident he's played by Ioan Gruffudd , the dashing star of "Horatio Hornblower " and "Amazing Grace ." If this were a PDN TV show, he'd be the hero and he'd get a big speech about ethics and duty at the end. Kasdan and company know better.

Following "The Wexler Chronicles" over the months from casting to premiere, "The TV Set" is both wickedly astute and appalled at the slow, grinding process by which good ideas are dumbed into pap. Mike's show is a wry drama, and the off - screen suicide of the lead character's brother sends Lenny into fits. " 'Original' scares me a little," she admits, before strong-arming Mike into writing an alternate story line. "Shoot it both ways," she asks, "the bummer version and my version, and see which works."

Every so often Kasdan digs the knife in a little too hard, but you can't really blame him. A scene in which a droning, infantile focus - group leader instructs test subjects to turn a dial to register their pleasure or discomfort, rhesus monkey-style, is on the obvious side. It's also fairly close to the truth of audience - research techniques.

The large, milling cast provides most of the movie's pleasures, among them Fran Kranz as the network's fatuous choice for a lead actor; Judy Greer as Mike's perky network liaison (he can't believe she's never seen "Taxi Driver "); the very large M.C. Gainey as a temperamental cinematographer; Andrea Martin as a weary wardrobe woman; and Justine Bateman as Mike's wife , Natalie , who's intellectual, loving, needy, and eight months pregnant. "The TV Set" is merciless about the forces, commercial and personal, that box a creative person in.

"It's not Shakespeare," moans Mike, just before his back gives out under the weight of his latest compromise. "It's not 'The Sopranos.' But it's my show. I'm making the world more mediocre!"

Kasdan is the son of director Lawrence Kasdan ("The Big Chill, " "Body Heat "); this is his third film as a director and easily his best. "The TV Set" has the tone and awareness of a Hollywood kid who grew up paying attention to how the grown - ups lie and to how that might affect the things they make. The film also suggests we get shows like "Infidelity 101 " because we deserve them. "It's tragic," explains Mike patiently about his show. "That's why it's funny."

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The TV Set

Written and directed by: Jake Kasdan

Starring: David Duchovny , Sigourney Weaver , Ioan Gruffudd

At: Harvard Square, Embassy Cinema

Running time: 87 minutes

Rated: R (language)