Episodes

Episode 303

Episodes is mainly known as that show in which Matt LeBlanc plays himself. Beyond that it hasn’t received much attention, quietly chugging along for the last few years for a loyal audience. I expected that if I ever got around to watching it, I’d find something adequate but superfluous.

To my surprise, it’s a vigorous, acid-tongued delight and worth catching up with before the fifth and final season arrives later this year. The experience is a reminder that in the saturated age of Peak TV, minimal buzz isn’t the reliable filter that it used to be.

The premise, at least, always sounded irresistible. British comedy writers Sean and Beverly Lincoln (Stephen Mangan and Tamsin Greig) have an acclaimed TV show about the trials of an overweight British private school headmaster (Richard Griffiths). After they accept an offer to remake it for American television, their vision is torn apart by oblivious network executives who warp it into a show about a high school hockey coach played by Matt LeBlanc. Worse, LeBlanc turns out to be callous, amoral, and dysfunctional. Trapped in a creative nightmare, Sean and Beverly have to somehow churn out a show they now despise.

Hollywood’s history of remaking British shows and stripping them of their identity is ideal fodder for a showbiz comedy series. What’s surprising is that Americans are behind it. Created and written by Friends co-creator David Crane and Jeffrey Klarik, Episodes is by Hollywood insiders who side with the Brits, using their years of insider experience to craft an admirably scathing portrait of Hollywood ignorance and opportunism. Lyman’s Boys sounds like a typically quaint and genuine British series, where someone who looks like Griffiths can be the lead if the script calls for it. Conversely, Crane and Klarik present American network television as a cesspool of creative bankruptcy where appearance is everything. Both Pucks and its competition (particularly ‘the talking dog show’) are equally calculated and soulless, where quality is tolerated but secondary to the game of winning timeslots.

Crane and Klarik avoid outdated stereotypes about universally terrible American television by being specific in their target – network, not cable – and some of their observations are so nuanced and weird that they seem drawn from bitter experience. When glad-handing executive Merc Lapidus (John Pankow) convinces the Lincolns to remake their show, he raves about it with genuine feeling. Only after they’ve moved to LA and he displays his ignorance of the show does his right-hand, Carol (Kathleen Rose Perkins), sheepishly admit that Merc probably hasn’t seen Lyman’s Boys. Nonetheless, he keeps pretending otherwise, either unaware he’s been found out or just wanting to maintain the transparent ruse that he remotely cares about his programming.

As a co-production between Showtime and the BBC, Episodes gives an equal voice to both sides of the pond. Greig and Mangan are the heart of the show, and certainly not marginalised in favour of LeBlanc. Stylistically it’s a hybrid, in part because much of the show is shot in the UK (evident in hindsight but a shock to discover) but also because Crane and Klarik largely capture English character and affectation. They occasionally miss the mark, such as when Sean and Beverly rapidly lose their patience and yell at a security guard like they’re New Yorkers. But when the script falls short, Mangan and Greig make the moments as English as they can be.

And these two luminaries of recent British comedy have terrific chemistry with Joey himself. Friends is so emblematic of the American sitcom and so culturally dominant that it’s initially disconcerting to watch Green Wing’s Mangan and Greig sharing the show with him on such an equal footing where each nationality and comedy tradition is strongly represented. The real-world gulf informs the constant lack of understanding each side has of the other and generates a steady stream of culture-clash jokes that don’t feel derivative.

The cultures at odds aren’t just American and British, but insular, self-obsessed showbiz and the everyday world the Lincolns represent even with their own TV success. Despite their confidence and wit, they are thoroughly ordinary people and proud to be, which makes the intrusion of self-indulgent, temptation-saturated Hollywood particularly sad. Episodes achieves surprising pathos when it finally disrupts Sean and Beverly’s marriage. Greig and Mangan make such an endearing and mutually respectful couple that it’s wrenching to see what this world does to them.

Matt, more accustomed to reckless indulgence, keeps plumbing new lows. But we still feel for him when he’s down on his luck even though he’s incapable of lasting change. Despite being frequently selfish, impulsive, and dismissive, he doesn’t become a caricature. Crane and Klarik aren’t so giddy at making the former Joey a prick that the character becomes cartoonish or one-note. His sole friendship with Hollywood outsider Sean reveals how lonely and dissatisfied he is, and his betrayal of Sean’s trust at the end of the first season proves how self-destructive he can be. He feels compelled to sabotage anything meaningful in his life and then brushes it off as being carefree and trivial. But what he does to the gentle Sean, who unlike him hasn’t wallowed in this muck for years, wrenches even Matt. As he spends half of season two trying to make amends in a sincere but blundering way, it’s possible to feel sorry for this emotionally inept but secretly tender fool.

When the sheer number of offences pile up and risk implausibility in later seasons, Matt’s streak of vulnerability brings the character down to Earth enough to keep it credible. The real LeBlanc reminds us of his talent in how he flits between these extremes without jeopardising the plausibility of his fictional self.

Not that the show is a bleak social dystopia like the original The Office or Louie. The characters bounce back and it’s a pleasure just to hang out with them, even when repetition sets in, making it too easy to overlook that the show doesn’t really earn its four seasons. The first covers the creation of the Pucks pilot and the second and third only span the abbreviated first season. In the fourth Crane and Klarik finally start moving the situation beyond the universally loathed show, but still cling to it as familiar comfort. While the cliffhanger setting up the final season promises a new status quo, it’s not a terribly exciting one, seemingly keeping Matt and the Lincolns apart and setting up another awful experience running a TV show.

Episodes could be more formally ambitious or tackle more provocative ideas, but there’s no need. It aims to be caustically hilarious and succeeds, anchored by three charming performances. This isn’t the lightweight, middling sitcom you may have assumed. Even though the final season to date struggles to break new ground, with only seven episodes left Episodes is pithy and sweet enough to ensure it doesn’t matter.

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