Underrated/Overlooked: Joe Swanberg on The Show About the Show

The acclaimed writer-director on his favorite thing of 2016, the highly unconventional meta web series by fellow Talkhouse contributor Caveh Zahedi.
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Caveh Zahedi wants a TV show. It seems like everyone has a show, and he wants one too. The process of pitching, getting, and making that show is documented in excruciating and hilarious detail in The Show About the Show, my favorite thing of 2016.

The first episode is a series of recreations of Zahedi working, talking to his wife and collaborators, and pitching ideas to BRIC TV, a Brooklyn media company. Finally he lands on the idea of the show we’re watching (a show about making a show.) Each subsequent episode is about the making of the previous episode. If it sounds self-absorbed and cannibalistic, it is, but Zahedi and the show are so funny, quick and painfully honest that you’re unlikely to be annoyed as this snake starts eating its tail. Using a combination of direct address to the camera, staged recreations, documentary footage and interviews to tell the tale of each episode being made, Zahedi puts together a show that feels in control of its tone, yet out of control of the implications of its own existence. It’s like we’re watching a dangerous experiment that is being tried for the first time, and the mad scientist has no idea what’s going to happen.

Over the course of the episodes, Zahedi reveals the state of his own marriage and sex life (it’s been better), develops a crush on his lead actress, has various conflicts with members of his cast and crew, runs into trouble at work (he’s a film professor at The New School in New York City) and generally makes you wonder why he would do all of this to himself. Nothing registers as deeply or as emotionally as Zahedi’s own marriage to writer Amanda Field, and the way parenthood complicates their lives and careers. They have two children together, and despite a long, deep, committed relationship, we see parenthood taking a toll. It’s so refreshing to see an honest portrayal, even when it’s painful, of a subject like parenting, which parents themselves know to be a messy, difficult, exhausting process, but most media glosses over to arrive at the conclusion that kids are great and everyone should be having them.

I’m not sure if Zahedi was born without a filter, or has heroically avoided developing one, but his willingness to value honesty above all else as he navigates the series is directly responsible for many of the uncomfortable encounters that define the show, such as Zahedi admitting to a collaborator that he has feelings for her, or discussing his use of an illegal drug with students as his employer launches an investigation that may cost him his job. Through these encounters we are able to witness the mechanisms of modern society. The Show About the Show has more to say, and teach, about business, family, marriage, art, fear, bureaucracy and political correctness than anything I’ve seen in ages. Zahedi’s willingness to share his own struggles to keep his life, family and career together also reveal those in his orbit (and us at home, if we care to implicate ourselves) to be equally confused players in a societal game with ill-defined and constantly changing rules. The overwhelming impression I get from the show is that most of us are walking on eggshells through life, holding tightly to jobs, relationships and friendships that we’re afraid we’ll lose if we are honest about our thoughts and feelings.

Joe Swanberg has directed many acclaimed feature films and web shows, including Hannah Takes The Stairs, Alexander the Last, Drinking Buddies, Happy Christmas and the IFC.com series Young American Bodies. He also co-directed and acted in the breakout horror film V/H/S. His films have premiered at Sundance, Berlin and SXSW and regularly appear on TV and in film festivals and theaters around the world.