Episodes is about TV. It’s also about cultures clashing and careers careening. Married couple and writing partners Beverly and Sean Lincoln (Tamsin Greig and Stephen Mangan) have a hit show in England called Lyman’s Boys, about a headmaster at a proper British boarding school. Having just picked up another award for the show, they regard it with that particularly British combination of self-deprecation and snootiness.
Their attitude is one half of the culture clash that drives Episodes; the other is held by Merc Lapidus (John Pankow), head of an unnamed U.S. TV network. Merc tells the Lincolns he wants to “have sex” with their show, Hollywood-speak for “Let’s make a deal.” He swears he’s watched the show and that he won’t change a thing. That’s Hollywood-speak for “Everything will be different.”
Before they can say “Bob’s your uncle,” Beverly and Sean are in Los Angeles, ensconced in a mansion that usually serves as a set for reality dating shows, and preparing to shoot an American pilot of their show. By the end of the first episode, Merc has replaced the Lincolns’ choice for the lead actor with Matt LeBlanc, who plays a caricature of himself and is not remotely qualified to play a British headmaster. No problem — Merc turns the character into a hockey coach and renames the show, Pucks!
So far, Episodes seems to be working. The Lincolns are amusingly droll, Hollywood is amusingly crass. They excel at patently British understatement, but also look aptly startled by the wonders of L.A. — the studio head who lies so well he believes himself, the network head of comedy who seems to have no sense of humor whatsoever, and the security guard who refuses to let them into their own gated community. This promising satire is lost, however, when LeBlanc comes on the scene. Then the show shifts from a broad indictment of an industry to a painfully specific grudge match between the Lincolns and LeBlanc.
It isn’t LeBlanc’s fault, either as a character or an actor, that Episodes takes this wrong turn. LeBlanc the character is a fascinating mix of self-awareness and cockiness that should have made for more interesting viewing. Actor LeBlanc is game to skewer himself so mercilessly, and he creates some of the show’s best moments when he’s cringing at the celebrity status he maintains from his days playing Joey on Friends.
With Episodes, LeBlanc is following a path already taken by his former castmates Matthew Perry and Lisa Kudrow, who also headlined high-profile TV projects that took a dim view of their chosen profession. Perry played a former addict running a Saturday Night Live-type sketch show in Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. But it was Kudrow’s stint as a former sitcom star struggling to get back into the spotlight that seems a better model for LeBlanc’s endeavor.
In The Comeback, Kudrow played Valerie Cherish, who agreed to let her efforts to shoot a new sitcom pilot be fodder for a reality show. It was a hard show to watch: the character was slowly destroyed by her own need to stay famous, her slow burn as she realized it both hilarious and devastating.
As complicated as that was, LeBlanc is engaged in a less rewarding project here. Episodes would have been better off by making him the unchallenged star, rather than splitting its time between him and the Lincolns. While they should be giving us a new view on Hollywood, they turn out to provide little resistance, folding quickly before Hollywood’s allure and stupidity. Sean becomes an apologist enamored with the glamour and the perks; Beverly turns into a shrew who finds everything repugnant. As their show and relationship start to unravel, it feels like it’s their own damn fault.
It is tempting to blame the show’s unsuccessful bifurcation on a culture clash within its own production team. A joint effort between Showtime and the BBC, it features British humor and American humor. These don’t always play nice together, and Episodes appears unsure of how to make them merge or which to privilege.