In Focus

David Duchovny and the Drama of Television

A writer (David Duchovny) tries to produce a pilot for a series close to his heart in
A writer (David Duchovny) tries to produce a pilot for a series close to his heart in "The TV Set." (Thinkfilm)
By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 20, 2007

Does David Duchovny, star of screens small and large, take perverse pleasure in biting the hand that feeds him?

As long as we have him on the phone, it seems fair to ask, considering that not one but two of the actor's latest projects take sharp nips at Hollywood's stubby little fingers. First up: "The TV Set" (see review on Page 35), a satire in which the actor plays Mike Klein, a television writer and producer who runs into what's euphemistically known in the biz as "creative differences" when a deliciously crass network executive (Sigourney Weaver) starts tinkering with the pilot of his most personal project to date, a touching comedy-drama series inspired by the suicide of Klein's brother.

Then, later this year, Duchovny is set to star in "Californication," a darkly comic series for the Showtime cable channel in which he'll portray a successful author who goes to Hollywood to watch his latest serious book, "God Hates Us All," get turned into a Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes vehicle retitled "Crazy Little Thing Called Love."

So we asked. Does the 46-year-old Princeton grad and abortive doctoral candidate at Yale, best known for his long-running stint as brooding FBI agent Fox Mulder on the paranormal series "The X Files," get a kick, if only a teensy-weensy one, out of thumbing his nose at harebrained showbiz types?

"I guess," says Duchovny, his voice trailing off in ambivalence. The thing is, the actor says, he doesn't really see "The TV Set" as a hatchet job on Hollywood. According to Duchovny, that's largely due to the film's writer-director, Jake Kasdan. The veteran of the critically acclaimed but short-lived TV series "Freaks and Geeks" and "Undeclared" used his insider's knowledge of the industry, Duchovny says -- and the notion that no one deliberately sets out "to make a piece of [excrement] and put it in your living room" -- to paint a picture that's deftly accurate, but less than nasty.

"It certainly could have been that way in a less gentle filmmaker's hand," Duchovny says. "But Jake is essentially -- all his work is suffused with a real gentleness. His humor is gentle and smart."

Exactly how gentle is a comedy about a network whose flagship show is a reality series called "Slut Wars"? Gentle enough, in fact, for Duchovny to issue an invitation to the Los Angeles premiere to a few honchos from Showtime (for whom Duchovny is also slated to write and produce a second upcoming series called "Yoga Man"). "They all said, 'Oh, it's fantastic. We loved it. I'm going to go home and kill myself,' " he says.

Could the new employee perhaps have been trying to intimidate his bosses into leaving his projects alone? The actor laughs heartily at the suggestion but denies an ulterior motive. "They don't scare," he says. "That's why they have their jobs. They're tough guys."

Though he understands that cheaply produced reality television is good business, he laments its popularity, saying that it has, to some extent, "killed the writer." Nevertheless, Duchovny remains optimistic that the pendulum will eventually swing back in the direction of scripted dramas and comedy, calling our need for that kind of storytelling "ancient."

"I think it's cyclical, and I think people will tire a little bit of reality."

Sometimes they tire of un reality, too. Of his nine seasons on "The X Files," Duchovny explains his drift away from full participation during the show's final two seasons as exhaustion more than boredom. "That was really fatigue," he says. "It wasn't really 'I'm tired of it.' It was just 'I'm tired.' " What's more, the much-speculated-on second theatrical sequel, he says, is in the works.

Um, but hasn't he been saying that for four or five years now? Okay, he'll admit to a little uncertainty. "I've said that before, and I've been mistaken, so . . . yeah, I mean, every time I'm asked, I'm always like, ' Uhhhh, it's in the works.' But it's more real now." So we can definitely write this down? "Yes," he says with a laugh. "No longer use invisible ink. We'll go to pencil."

The success of the show and the 1998 film aside, Duchovny is reluctant to admit that he has been luckier than most. "Don't make me list the terrible things I've done," he jokes.

According to Duchovny, where "The TV Set" rings truest isn't its depiction of how shows get bungled by lazy or inept producers. Rather, it's how nothing but the best-intentioned and hardest-working creative people can somehow, seemingly inadvertently, end up making bad television.

Despite his own extensive experience in the business, as an actor and a frequent writer-director, Duchovny is at a loss to explain why some shows simply end up working and others don't. What's more, it's precisely that risk -- not to mention the air of mystery -- that makes it worth doing.

"That's the wonderful thing about it," he says, comparing the feeling he gets when it all magically comes together to the satisfaction of a safecracker. "It's just all these variables that just fall together like tumblers in a lock, and it happens.

"It's luck, fate, timing, God, whatever you want to call it. It just is what it is, and you can't . . . " Duchovny cuts himself off, releases a sigh of resignation, then continues. "If I could tell you what it is, I would be running the network, because I'd be able to just put these groups of people together and have them make great shows."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company