Episode 4: The Corrections Pilot

In 2012, Noah Baumbach and Jonathan Franzen teamed up to work on a television adaptation of Franzen’s breakthrough novel The Corrections for HBO. Starring Ewen McGregor, Dianne Wiest, Chris Cooper, and Maggie Gyllenhaal, the resulting pilot was something of a disaster and was quietly shelved by the network. Filming was never completed, it also never aired, and few people who weren’t involved in its production have seen it.

But we have! In this episode, Erin, Alex, and Eric are joined by Variety TV Critic Daniel D’Addario to discuss what works and what doesn’t in this strange relic of the early years of “peak TV.”

Pilot Summary

The episode begins on an airplane. Gitanas (Rhys Ifans) sits next to an unseen Chip Lambert (Ewen McGregor). “You felt you could be successful without making lots of money. You didn’t understand America,” Gitanas says. Thumbing through a copy of Sky Mall, he delivers a lacerating monologue about the post-Soviet spread of American capitalism. “We don’t even say bust anymore. We say correction. And who gets corrected? Do the happy people get corrected? The wealthy people? No. It’s people like you and me.”

It then cuts to earlier that day. Alfred Lambert (Chris Cooper) and Enid Lambert (Dianne Wiest) are getting ready for their trip to New York. Meanwhile, in New York, Chip is frantically cleaning up his apartment to prepare to host his parents. We’re then transported to the airport, where Chip picks up Enid and Alfred, who is shaking with Parkinson’s. Taking a cab into the city, Enid tells Chip about their upcoming cruise to see fall foliage in the northeast. They then arrive at Chip’s building, where Enid talks about the large house one of Chip’s classmates recently purchased.

Entering Chip’s apartment, we are introduced to his girlfriend Julia Vrais (Greta Gerwig) who promptly breaks up with him, precipitating a fight about a screenplay Chip has been working on. Chip realizes that he needs to make important corrections to his screenplay, and rushes out of the building to retrieve it from Julia’s boss.

We then flash back to months earlier. Chip, Julia, and several interns at the film production company Julia works with are out for drinks. Chip, in his late-30s, asks the young girls he is with if they are “familiar with the feeling of shame” and discusses his theory that their generation is the first in history to grow up without feeling it. Chip then talks about how he masturbated so much that he ended up plagiarizing and faking his  10th grade Science Fair project, but ended up winning the grand prize. “It was the worst thing it ever happened to me,” he says.

Still in flashback, we cut to a bridge game that Enid is playing with three of her friends, including her frenemy Bea Meisner. Enid and her friends are talking about vacations they are planning. Bea is very patronizing to Enid and, when Enid mentions Chip is working for The Wall Street Journal, Bea insists on looking through copies of the newspaper for his byline. Enid mentions with a trace of shame that she isn’t sure if Chip is still teaching at Dartford College and notes that he and Alfred had a “terrible disagreement” the last time Chip visited.

Driving home from Bea Meisner’s “upscale home” to her own “modest” dwelling, Enid realized Alfred has left the lights on and the garage door open. Alfred is depressed and not keeping up with exercises which will help his Parkinson’s disease. They get in a big fight about the fall foliage cruise, which Alfred insists they can’t afford. Enid insists they do it so they can be “somewhere else, anywhere else” if only for a few days. She ends up deciding to pay for the cruise herself, with her own money.

We then flashback even further, to the late-70s/early-80s. Chip (Lucas Hedges) is working on his Science Fair project, which is a bust. His sister Denise tries to help. The two bond after Chip mixes chemicals to make a small explosion. At the actual Science Fair, we learn that Chip did not win the grand prize, but instead is given an honorable mention. Gary teases Chip for being recognized for his obviously plagiarized project. Alfred buys his son a trophy after Enid complains that the honorable mentions do not receive trophies.

Returning to the present, we’re back with Chip, who’s standing in the rain outside his apartment building. Denise Lambert (Maggie Gyllenhaal) arrives. Chip asks her to deal with their parents while he retrieves his screenplay. Denise tries to discourage him, but Chip is insistent. Denise notes that Alfred is sick and that Chip has not seen his parents in three years.

Flashing back again to the night of the Science Fair, the Lamberts are driving home. Chip’s parents are excitedly talking about what his scientific aptitude will do for him—he can be a doctor, perhaps, or a scientist. A morose Chip informs his parents that he is done with science. The episode ends.

About Mr. Difficult

How did Jonathan Franzen become America’s most divisive novelist? Is he even good? And what’s the deal with his relationship with birds, anyway? Mr. Difficult is a podcast devoted to exploring these and many other questions related to this great American novelist. (Or is it the great American novelist?) Join co-hosts Erin Somers and Alex Shephard and producer Eric Jett as they discuss each of Franzen’s six novels, as well as his nonfiction.