Much like its pilot, episode two of Episodes is really about setting the table plot-wise, which is frustrating to watch in a way, but because the episode escalates from writers Beverly and Sean meeting with studio execs to them meeting with their new star, Matt LeBlanc, it gets away with it. The advantage here is that while John Pankow as jerk exec Merc Lapidus is still around, the jokes with LeBlanc are not completely recycled from the pilot. I was worried that Beverly and Sean's interactions with him would go the same way. He's unnerving, then charming, then it turns out he's a puffed-up liar and everything they know is wrong.
Now, at first sight, that's what goes on in this episode. First, Beverly and Sean meet LeBlanc at the restaurant, and he has his head buried in his phone over some restaurant deal. Then, they meet him again once he's excited about the project and are won over (mostly because he butters them up so). And finally, at Merc's dinner party, LeBlanc has his character changed from an eloquent old headmaster to a hockey coach, to Beverly and Sean's horror. But Episodes is not taking the same tack with the LeBlanc character (I'm going to call him a character, that seems to be the idea behind this performance), making him less of a surreal asshole and more of a rounded personality, showing his flaws and merits in better proportion.
Take it this way: John Pankow is the biggest problem with this episode. The Merc character was more effective in the pilot, where after appearing magnanimous in the first scene he was off-screen for a while as all the junior execs talked in hushed voices about his terrifying whims. He actually conveyed real power in the scene where he shut down Julian (Richard Griffiths) in the audition room. But at his dinner party, he's a ridiculous cartoon, particularly with the drawn-out gag about his blind wife and how annoying he finds it. On paper, some of it sounds funny, but it really doesn't work at all, except to make him ridiculously callous, which there are far more effective ways of doing.
LeBlanc, though, does a good job swinging from charm to douche-ness without seeming like two different people. Beverly and Sean would just seem stupid if the rug was pulled from under them again that way. LeBlanc praises them then proceeds to undo their work. But LeBlanc's idea of changing the character's profession isn't even really completely his idea; it's Beverly's. He likes the show, and he wants to work for them at least partly because of it (money also seems to matter, although I really doubt Matt LeBlanc ever needs to earn money again), but he knows, as does she, that he can't take the role as it is. "I kinda need this to be a hit, or at least something they can't make fun of on a talk show," he tells Beverly, a good line that feels un-exaggerated, that jibes with how a lot the audience probably perceives LeBlanc.
LeBlanc's scenes with Beverly are the highlight of the episode, although they aren't particularly funny. But in talking about cheating on his wife and laughing at a documentary on kids with Tourette's syndrome and mocking Sean for being whipped, he's a dickhead without it feeling as cartoonish as Merc. The episode leans on Sean for the more broadly comic stuff. Stephen Mangan, like Tamsin Greig, is very good at reacting, and his conversation with Carol (Kathleen Rose Perkins) where she admits she's sleeping with Merc was pretty funny. But I'm hoping as the show goes on, it doesn't just have the two leads making pained faces at the silly Americans. Mangan and Greig are comic stars in England and are just great at everything. So far, Sean and Beverly have mostly just been saints. Sure, Sean has a bit of a wandering eye, and Beverly is a bit shrill, but most of the plot has been happening to them so far. In future episodes, I'd like to see them drive the plot, rather than react so much.
Basically, what I'm looking for from Episodes is a show that isn't Entourage. We're well acquainted with the outsized portrayal of Hollywood already and re-running it won't do anyone any favors. When I first heard this was a show where Matt LeBlanc played a caricature of himself, that was what I feared: him marching around in sunglasses barking orders for coffee, that sort of thing. What we're getting is subtler and much better, but we need to be getting it from the whole show.
- For those who haven't already, definitely check out some of Mangan and Greig's work from the UK, particularly Green Wing (which they're both in, with Mangan especially the highlight) and Black Books (of which the first season is one of the best six-episode sitcom seasons ever).
- Two of the American execs are also played by Brits, the extremely funny Daisy Haggard as Myra and Joseph May as Andy.
- Very happy the show quickly acknowledged the obvious links to The History Boys, especially considering the star of that play and its eventual movie played Julian, who plays the titular character of Lyman's Boys.
- Mean little nudge at Eliza Dushku on the list of suggested actresses.
- "So you're not a huge fan?" "Of England? Eh…" "No, of us." "Oh, of you? No."
- "No, that was supposed to say fuck. Why would I say go fun yourself?"
- "Open the motherfucking bloody bastard pain in the arse dickcheese stinking dirty shitty wanking fucking bloody fucking bastard fucking stupid cunt of a fucking gate!"