Back in 2004, when Matt LeBlanc’s Friends character was spun off onto his own series, the actor had to try to carry a whole show by himself while continuing to embody the cute-but-not-so-astute, nice-guy persona that he was due to outgrow. There was always a blank space at the center of Joey, a show that only lasted two seasons.
But three seasons in, Matt LeBlanc continues to carry his current endeavor, Episodes, in the palm of his hand. Because in Episodes, he plays a fictionalized version of, well, Matt LeBlanc: A rich, famous sitcom actor who will forever be “Joey from Friends” to the public, though he’s still in his 40s and theoretically still has plenty of career ahead of him. LeBlanc is a shallow, selfish, priapic nightmare. He’s a man who jumps into an affair with the beautiful, blind wife (Genevieve O’Reilly) of the head of the network his current show is on, and then, when it turns out to be the best relationship of his life, is capable of blowing it up by engaging in some afternoon delight with his co-star’s 19-year-old daughter. When he was younger, Matt’s good looks and quick smile made people want to give him whatever he wanted—and since he became famous, he hasn’t had to come down to Earth. LeBlanc is a comic monster, but there’s not a trace of self-loathing in the performance. He clearly enjoys playing this son of a bitch, and his enjoyment is contagious. Watching him, the viewer is never really appalled by his entitled behavior. They just look forward to seeing what he’s going to get away with next.
On Episodes, the fictional LeBlanc is the highly inappropriate star of Pucks, an Americanized version of an intelligent British comedy about an inspiring, but decidedly non-athletic schoolteacher. (In the American version, LeBlanc’s character coaches hockey.) Stephen Mangan and Tamsin Greig play Sean and Beverly Lincoln, the husband-and-wife writing team of Pucks who have been whisked from London to Los Angeles to write and oversee the process of “adapting” their work for an American audience. Essentially, they watch on the sidelines as their baby is crushed under the boot of vulgar, unimaginative commercial thinking. One of the jokes in the early episodes is that, although the Lincolns are much more intelligent than LeBlanc, he understands how the business works and they don’t. So, even though his casting is the first step in the destruction of the show, he becomes the closest thing they have to an ally, even though all he can really do to help is commiserate with them. Nobody seems to think there’s any point in even pretending that something can be done to make Pucks any better.
If everything about Episodes were as peppy and primed to rock as LeBlanc, the show would be a marvel. Mostly, though, it’s turned out to be a fairly tired satire of Hollywood, one that’s stayed yoked to its dubious premise. Mangan’s character seems awfully innocent about show business for someone who’s ever leafed through a copy of Entertainment Weekly, let alone someone who’s actually had dealings with network executives—even British ones. As the more skeptical and hardheaded Beverly, Grieg gives an emotionally committed performance that seems to belong in a different show, one that isn’t so dependent on broadly drawn, cartoonish characters—after all, Matt has a teenage stalker named Labia, who he is not too proud to sleep with after she breaks into his home.
Perhaps the weariest stereotype in the first couple of seasons was the rampantly tasteless, patently insincere, tantrum-throwing network boss, Merc Lapidus, played with a well-meaning misapplication of energy by John Pankow. He was bounced out of his job at the end of the second season, and this season, instead of trying to come up with a new kind of satirical show-business team leader, the writers have replaced him with a boss—Castor Sotto, played by Chris Diamantopoulos, who was Marky Bark in the Netflix season of Arrested Development. Sotto appears to be self-contained and brilliant, but is in fact totally crazy—he hears voices, and is seen at one point talking to a package of eggs, in much the same way that Travis Bickle used to address his own reflection in the mirror.
Carol (Kathleen Rose Perkins), the ambitious but emotionally uncertain network executive who was both Merc’s assistant and longtime lover, naturally takes Sotto for a genius, and, just as naturally, decides that he must be the man for her. They soon begin an affair, though he’s really just using her to relieve the erections he gets as a side effect of the medication prescribed by his psychiatrist. “I haven’t been to his house yet,” Carol, glowing with fresh infatuation, tells Beverly. “We only have sex in the office. We’re taking it slow.” Trying to warn her off the inevitable, Beverly tells Carol: “He’s the cliff, and you’re Thelma and Louise.”
These days, any original programming on Showtime that isn’t despicably rancid deserves at least a pat on the head, and even when Sotto has Carol bent over the office sofa upside-down, it isn’t unpleasant, like its inside-Hollywood stablemate, Californication. But that’s also a reflection of how tired and toothless Episodes is. A show about artists trying to do something good, against all odds, on network TV might have some drive and tension to it, or a reason for being. The central joke of Episodes in its third season is that everyone involved with Pucks, including LeBlanc and the Lincolns, wish the show would go away so they could do something else, but the network won’t pull the trigger. Showtime won’t pull it, either—the network has already renewed Episodes for a fourth season, despite the fact that it’s played out and is running on fumes. As the characters on this series spend more and more of their time complaining about being trapped working on something that doesn’t inspire them and that nobody wants to watch, it all begins to seem like a worst-case example of the cliché about writing what you know.
Created by: David Crane and Jeffrey Klarik
Debuts: Sunday at 10:30 p.m. Eastern on Showtime
Format: Half-hour sitcom
Full season (nine episodes) watched for review