I only just decided to give “Episodes” a shot last week, when I noticed it on the Comcast Xfinity iPad app. For those who’ve missed this one (which seems to be a good portion of TV watchers, unfortunately), it is a show about the making of a show. But it isn’t much like any of the series that may come to your mind when you hear that (Studio 60, The Newsroom, etc). It’s a procedural, yes, but with a very British sensibility that keeps it closer to “paced” than “boring.” Matt LeBlanc (Joey of Friends, which is referred to constantly) plays himself, out-of-work actor Matt LeBlanc, brought on by the TV network to play the lead in a hapless sitcom, “Pucks!” (Exclamation point and all.) But although LeBlanc is the big name (both on “Pucks!” and “Episodes”) the central characters of the show are Sean and Beverly Lincoln (Stephen Mangan and Tamsin Greig), the husband-and-wife TV writers pulled to L.A. from England to create an American version of their very successful U.K. show. The problem is that the original program was called “Lyman’s Boys,” and focused on the headmaster of a boys’ private school. The idiot American TV network execs change the old, fat, British headmaster to a young(er), handsome, American hockey coach.
Hilarity does not ensue, at first: season 1 was kind of slow, with few laughs, and although the acting was very good all around, I didn’t quite get much out of it. You finish each episode and sort of feel like: huh. (There are only seven, by the way.)
But the show rewards your patience and loyalty: in the penultimate episode of season 1, we get some real drama when Bev, feeling jealous over flirting she has perceived between Sean and Morning, the busty blonde airhead female co-star of “Pucks,” storms out of the mansion they’re squatting in, threatening to fly home to England. Driving on the wrong side of the road, she crashes into none other than LeBlanc, who’s on his way to see Sean (the two became fast friends), and back at LeBlanc’s house (where he brings her to clean up her wounds; yes, it’s strange), she falls into bed with him. In the finale, Sean figures out what happened. You’re pulled into season 2, which I whipped through in one afternoon.
In season 2, the show has grown by leaps and bounds. Characters like Merc Lapidus (the network president whose entire gag in season 1 was just that he forgot everyone’s name and didn’t actually watch the shows he was trashing or praising), Carol (his assistant, who is sleeping with him), and Morning are far more developed. Carol has a nice friendship with Bev (she comes over, they smoke a joint, then they dish about their relationship problems) that is wisely nuanced: Carol expects real advice and warmth from Bev, and yet, in the daytime, Carol is all-business as she makes demands of Bev and Sean regarding the show or breaks bad news to them about ratings. Sean and Bev, in season 2, have separated, but still must work together, a situation that could seem contrived but is handled with grace and gravity. Bev still loves Sean, but he’s intent not to forgive her or Matt for their one dalliance. Sean finally does hook up with Morning. Matt begins having sex with Merc’s wife, who is blind. Carol begins to expect more from her not-so-secret relationship with Merc. Even fringe characters get more screen time to flesh out their story arcs, such as a gay executive that works with Carol and Merc and was rudely fired in season 1, who comes back to sue the network in season 2 unless they hire him back, and a brilliantly obnoxious young man who once worked for Sean and Bev back in England but has now made it big on his own in both TV and film, and reminds the pair of his success every time he runs into them, which is hilariously often.
We also get to see more of “Pucks,” which in actuality does look like a funny show. But “Episodes” gives us just the right amount of glimpses at the show within the show; any more would take up too much time, but less and we wouldn’t always know what they’re all talking about in the pitch-perfect, enraging meetings where Merc and Carol suggest inane tweaks to the smart show Bev and Sean once created and loved.
With “Episodes,” it’s the little things that count, like small recurring jokes that always make you laugh once you remember them, a la Arrested Development. Every time Sean and Bev’s assistant (a hilariously inept, brooding young woman that hates her job) tells them Carol is on the phone, they click the speaker on and say in unison, “Hi Carol!” only to hear a man say: “Hold for Carol.” Every time Matt meets up with Jamie, Merc Lapidus’s blind wife, with whom he’s having an affair, he can’t resist from making a joke about her inability to see. And the jokes are funny. Another example: LeBlanc wears a cologne he tried to sell after Friends, called “Joey,” but it just smells like cinnamon, everyone ridicules it, and the scent is also to blame for Sean sleuthing out that Matt and Bev had sex. There are other in-jokes that you’re expected to simply get, like Sean calling his uncomfortable-situation face the “Wallace and Gromit smile” (wide, toothy, artificial) or, in an episode in which Matt has to try and recruit a Friends cast member to guest-star on “Pucks” (they all hate him), each is referred to only by first name, because of course, it’s assumed (rightfully so, for the target audience) that you know these actors well.
The episode arcs that the Showtime writers have come up with are clever and self-contained, even though the interpersonal drama continues in serial fashion. In one episode, Matt and Jamie try to plan a weekend getaway while Merc and Carol do the same, but Merc and his wife use the same travel agent to book their separate sex getaways without warning her of their affairs, so she screws up and puts them on the same trip. Both of them must pretend to be delighted. In another, Morning gets a botched cheek implant and the show’s staff must figure out how to cover it up when filming her.
The very smartest episode of season 2 revolves around Sean, Bev, Matt and Morning preparing for the funeral of Merc’s father. Because Merc is the network head, scores of celebrities will be attending, and Sean and Bev hear, via Matt, that they must make some grand gesture, not just flowers or muffins but something bigger to express their condolences. I can’t be sure of how accurate a satire this specific episode represents, but the scrambling is both funny and plausible: they’re worried that if they don’t do something grand enough, Merc will take out his resentment on the show, which is perpetually in limbo due to poor ratings. To give you a sense of the dialogue: in one early scene, Matt asks what they’re going to give, and Bev says, “Carol suggested a muffin basket.” LeBlanc deadpans: “She’s an idiot. Muffins went out like ten years ago… We should cater a whole dinner… If our ratings were great, we could get away with sending a bowl of cat piss and a bag of Doritos.” Sean then goes: “Mmmmm.” It’s very, very funny, and very British. On a phone call, Carol, who is (inexplicably) in love with Merc (it’s not just sex), complains to Bev, “I should be with him… I should be picking out the casket… You know I would do a better job at it than she would. Which, I know is not saying a lot…” (Ahem, because Jamie is blind.) In a later scene, Morning says, “Wow, David Kelly and Michelle Pfeiffer are planting a tree at the cemetery.” Matt quickly says, “Aughh, those fuckers.”
In season 2 the show was also unafraid to parody itself, even referring to its own bad reviews. That gets very meta, and fun. After the “Pucks” pilot airs, Sean and Bev recite quotes from terribly mean reviews, and they sound awfully similar to some reviews from season 1 of “Episodes,” like one from tv.com in which the reviewer whined, “the snippet of Lyman’s Boys we see in Episodes‘ pilot is dreadful. Seriously, why was everyone laughing? What a waste of a talented actor like Richard Griffiths. And the implication that it was somehow less funny with an American accent? I thought it sucked equally either way.” I disagree—the scene that critic is referencing is when the Brit who plays Lyman in the U.K. version of the show comes in to audition for the American part; when he recites the lines from one scene, everyone in the room laughs, as did I. Then, idiot Merc decides, well, the guy shouldn’t be British. So they ask the elder statesman British actor to do the scene again in an American accent; he bombs it, then shows himself the door, babbling on as the room sits, agog at the awkwardness. It’s not laugh-out-loud funny, but it is a bit less cringeworthy than similar moments in “The Office.” It’s more in the sad-but-true camp of dark humor.
Another inspired episode arc is about LeBlanc having put on too much weight—Merc and Carol instruct Sean and Bev to approach him about it, and it sends him on a depressed bender. The entire thing is taken straight from real life; just google “Matt LeBlanc fat” and you’ll see that in 2010 a number of gossipy sites jumped on the bandwagon pointing out LeBlanc’s weight. The posts get very mean, but the show puts it all to good humor and even uses the same real-life photo of the actor in a red plaid shirt that the sites used to ridicule him.
Luckily, though it doesn’t appear to have been a ratings success thus far, the show will have a third season. I’m looking forward to it, as each episode in season 2 was like a subtle, pleasant little treat. “Episodes” is very rarely laugh-out-loud, but it’s not meant to be. Instead, it’s a serious TV industry send-up handled with witty irony, and even if you don’t spend the half hour laughing, you certainly spend it grinning.