Episodes debuts tonight on Showtime at 9:30 p.m. Eastern.
Around the midpoint of the first season of Showtime’s new comedy series Episodes, Matt LeBlanc (playing himself) explains to Sean Lincoln just why the series Sean is shepherding for an unnamed American network, based on the British original Lyman’s Boys, which Sean and his writing partner (and wife), Beverly, produced, has to abandon one of the central conceits of the original series. In Lyman’s Boys, the “love interest” for the main character was a lesbian, a woman he could never attain but one he pursued nonetheless. In Pucks!, the American bastardization of the original series, LeBlanc argues that the love interest should be straight, just incredibly repulsed by his character. It’s a standard set-up, something every viewer’s seen a million times before, but amazingly, the series lets LeBlanc be right. Making the woman a lesbian and leaving the man hopelessly infatuated with her is sweet and funny and humane, but it only had to play out over 24 episodes in the British series. Stretched out over hundreds of episodes, the trait would go from sweet and quirky to deeply, deeply irritating. She needs to be straight for the story to have somewhere to go.
The tension between the American method of producing TV and the British method is at the heart of Episodes, the latest series from The Class creators David Crane (formerly of Friends) and Jeffrey Klarik (formerly of Mad About You). Lasting just seven episodes, the first season clearly has tightly compressed British series as its primary inspiration. But the way Crane and Klarik tell the story feels very American in nature. This is deliberately an appetizer course, to the point where it might have been preferable to start the series with what’s likely to be season two. What’s here is all interesting and funny (particularly for TV industry junkies), but it’s also almost completely predictable. Most viewers are going to know exactly where everything is headed by the end of episode two, and very little of that has anything to do with the fact that tonight’s premiere opens with a flash-forward to events from a later episode, something that seems to have been done mostly to get LeBlanc into the premiere.
First things first: Tonight’s premiere is not a good example of a show putting its best foot forward. Virtually everything in it could have been wrapped into the six episodes that follow, and what little storytelling it offers is almost all prologue. The strongest thing about the series is LeBlanc’s performance, but he’s not in the episode at all, and the in medias res opening scene adds nothing to the proceedings and, indeed, actively annoys. We’re meant to be asking just how things got to this point, but little about the scene is so urgent as to leave us scrambling to keep up. Indeed, everything that seems like it’s going to happen does happen. Predictability isn’t always a bad thing, and the predictability of Episodes serves it well, for the most part, but the series wants to pretend it’s some sort of twist-a-minute thriller.
The basic premise of the show as outlined in episode one—British geniuses are forced to compromise their vision for idiotic American networks—is nothing terribly original, and the world doesn’t really need another show business satire on a pay-cable network, particularly when pretty much everything here, satire-wise, was handled better in the much shorter movie The TV Set. And while the series leans heavily on the idea that Sean and Beverly (played by Stephan Mangan and Tamsin Grieg) are geniuses, we see very little evidence of that genius. Even the direction of the satire here is fairly predictable. Network head Merc (John Pankow) is exactly the sort of guy you’d expect to be running a network in a Hollywood satire. He’s coarse and gladhanding, while not being terribly bright and making bold proclamations he can’t really back up. Undoubtedly, there have been executives this bad in Hollywood before, and undoubtedly, Crane and Klarik have worked with them (after all, Crane worked with Jeff Zucker), but this is a too-easy portrayal of a Hollywood suit who’s an idiot. (Though, that said, the biggest laugh of the series comes from Merc in an episode two punchline about his wife.)
But the series grows from there, until it’s actually quite compelling in the last handful of episodes. Right away, episode two is upping the laughs and amusing moments. Basically, the show biz stuff is never as interesting as it wants to be, but everything around the edges of the show biz stuff is fairly well done. Episodes is a series about a marriage that’s never had to undergo serious self-examination, which is then thrust into the process of that via an unusual series of trials. Showtime’s selling the show as a Hollywood satire; Crane and Klarik seem to believe it’s a Hollywood satire. But almost everything about it that works, almost everything that makes it start to gel in the latter half of the season—even as everything that happens is completely predictable—stems from the writing of the characters as real people with raw emotions, people who get hurt and trample all over each other’s feelings and don’t quite realize they’re doing it until it’s too late. Similarly, the best stuff in the Hollywood portions has to do with Merc’s underlings, who are gradually filled in as more complex creations than their boss.
None of this would work, however, without Matt LeBlanc, who gives a terrific performance here, one that reminds you he was pretty great on Friends, even when handed empty catchphrases and hacky punchlines. Here, LeBlanc is initially the image of everything wrong with current TV development, the big star that’s forced into the middle of a project he’s clearly wrong for, simply because he’s a recognizable name. (And he only takes the job because he wants to start a restaurant and needs the cash.) But the show makes him both more of a walking punchline and more of a deep and emotional human being at exactly the same time. Very little of this is due to the writing, which often makes LeBlanc simply too much of a lunkhead (moments like the one described in the first paragraph aside), but LeBlanc’s performance is wonderfully sympathetic, warm, and funny. He’s a guy who never quite knows how out of his depth he is, even though some part of him can sense it. He blunders on ahead, getting in ever deeper.
And that brings us back to the conflict between British and American TV. What the series wants to be is an icy black comedy that's largely self-contained, in the vein of many great British series. But on that level, it mostly fails. Where it works, where it could work brilliantly in season two, is in keeping its options open. When the show tries to do dark satire, it tends to repeat variations on the same two or three jokes. But when it’s telling messy stories about people who have lives that rarely work out like they wanted them to, it can be strangely powerful and moving, even when you can call every move the series makes five steps in advance.
Grade for premiere: C-
Grade for season one: B-
- Episodes is interesting enough and has enough stuff going on for us to add it regularly. David Sims will be checking out the final six episodes of the season, starting next week. We’ll see you there!