Television

In Defense of Celebrities Making Fun of Themselves à la 'Episodes'

With the latest season of Episodes about to air on Showtime, we're reminded of how affecting the always-entertaining act of self-deprecation can be.


Episodes

Cast: Matt LeBlanc, Tamsin Greig, Stephen Mangan
Network: Showtime
Amazon

Last week, the second season of Episodes began to air on Showtime. The show, starring Matt LeBlanc, Stephen Mangan and Tamsin Greig, has been somewhat of a success almost entirely because of how off-type LeBlanc plays the role of ... Matt LeBlanc. The performance won him a Golden Globe and while some critics have expressed admiration for the series as a whole, there remains a faction of detractors who insist the show isn't worth anyone's time, almost in spite of how good "Joey" continuously proves to be. 

"It surprised me too, but I actually missed Matt LeBlanc", Katey Rich of Cinemablend wrote in January of 2011 after the show initially premiered. "... The new Showtime series Episodes could have been a lazy comeback vehicle for him, a chance to riff on his reputation and earn some accolades without breaking a sweat, but LeBlanc is actually the most surprising, endearing thing about the show, which is generally stiff and slow without his presence. ... Episodes could make for unchallenging, mildly funny entertainment, and at least a welcome reason to respect LeBlanc's skills again. But we've learned to expect so much more from TV comedy since Friends went off the air, a fact Episodes seems to recognize with all its dirty language and cynical humor, but not quite understand. I never would have expected to say this, but Matt LeBlanc deserves better". ("'Episodes' Premiere Review: Matt LeBlanc Deserves Better", by Katey Rich, Cinemablend, 7 January 2011)

Oh, but, you see, Ms. Rich, you are missing the point. 

The appeal of Episodes goes far beyond an actor simply playing an oversized -- yet somewhat predictably vile -- version of himself. The show's goal doesn't appear to be one, big reintroduction of Matt LeBlanc anymore than it is a biting take on the ins and outs of Hollywood itself. Its premise doesn't mock a character actor -- it mocks an entire industry. 

Sure, the dialogue can be a bit grating and unnecessary. And yes, the stories sometimes tend to come across as a little too shallow and convenient. But what makes Episodes a success is its constant takedown of behind-the-scenes Hollywood. John Pankow's Merc Lapidus is brilliant in his over-the-top antics and while the character can be utterly unbelievable, that doesn't mean he can't make you laugh. Kathleen Rose Perkins's Carol Rance is equally as airheaded, yet because she's so fueled by the always-dangerous combination of love and success, one could argue she's become the heart of the show. Forget Matt LeBlanc. Episodes runs on culture. 

Naturally, there are still writers who believe the show isn't any good, even after considering as much. Take storied television writer Alan Sepinwall, for instance. Despite the ability to decipher the series' truest backdrop, he still panned the show last January. 

"When you're attacking a big, fat target like the superficial, duplicitous nature of Hollywood", Sepinwall wrote, "and being so relentless and bitter about it, you need to be much, much, much funnier than Episodes is. You need to be The Larry Sanders Show funny, or Extras season two funny. Episodes isn't even as funny as Crane and Klarik's last collaboration, the exceedingly mediocre short-lived CBS comedy The Class". ("Review: Showtime's 'Episodes' has Matt LeBlanc and a lot of angry, unfunny satire", by Alan Sepinwall, Hitfix, 7 January 2011)

Oh, but, you see, Mr. Sepinwall, you, too, are missing the point (and to think you were so close!). 

The show is doing something that few other programs take the time to do anymore -- it mocks the notion of celebrity. The only other thing on television as subversive as Episodes is 30 Rock, but that may be moot because A) that's 13 half-hours away from being extinct and b) Tina Fey's brilliant brainchild is aimed more at the zany, everyday happenings of a television show, not the entire idiom of celebrity. 

Yes. There is a difference. 

If there is one thing middle-to-low-class, perfectly normal people -- who, by the way, are the exact type of people most likely to carve out hours of their evenings in order to view their favorite television programs -- love, it's the illusion and presentation of celebrities proving they are exactly like middle-to-low-class, perfectly normal people whenever the cameras are shut off. Even more so, when those celebrities do their best to prove as much while combining an element of self-deprication and humor with the aforementioned equation, it becomes nearly impossible for the middle-to-low-class, perfectly normal person to not fall in love with said visual. 

Or, in other words, people love watching other people make fun of themselves.

And while that's a pretty unoriginal practice, it is one that is slowly -- yet consistently -- becoming extinct on television. Consider The AV Club's list of people who excelled at playing themselves in productions all the way back in 2009. Of the more-than-21 actors listed, there are only five that came from television -- Wayne Brady's fantastic turn on the Chappelle Show as he threatens to "choke a bitch"; Carl Weathers, Judge Reinhold and Andy Richter on the funniest American television show ever, Arrested Development; Jon Favreau on The Sopranos; Bob Saget, Jeffrey Tambor, Matt Damon and Gary Busey on Entourage; and then, of course, the slew of stars that were featured on the aforementioned Ricky Gervais project, Extras. ("Is Wayne Brady gonna have to choke a bitch?: 21+ guest stars who stretched the meaning of "as himself"", by Steve Heisler, Josh Modell, Sean O'Neal, Leonard Pierce, Nathan Rabin, Tasha Robinson, Scott Tobias, And David Wolinsky, The AV Club, 19 October 2009)

Notice anything about those picks? None of them currently exist (unless if you count the forthcoming reboot of Arrested Development, of course, but that's splitting hairs, considering how long it's been away from the small screen). With the notable exceptions of Curb Your Enthusiasm and the aforementioned 30 Rock, one would be hard-pressed to find a celebrity who is playing him or herself as a recurring role on a modern-day television show, let alone one who is doing it as a main character of said television show. 

It's a shame, really. The art of actors making fun of themselves is one of the great tools of show business. It humanizes people who make a living off visualizing the art of being inhuman. These types of things allow the casual fan to relate to people who are typically shown in an idealistic light. Television is a medium aimed at reminding ourselves of how important it is to be entertained. It's not as grand as theater -- it's more immediate. The act of viewing such allows us to disconnect from our personal stresses and connect with something, anything, other than reality. 

That's why Episodes works. It's not just an indictment on who we thought Matt LeBlanc was as a person, but it's also an indictment what we thought Hollywood was as an industry and what the term "celebrity" is as a practice. Yeah, the show might not be the best-written comedy on television today, but it should be Exhibit A when considering how effective the act of making fun of oneself can be. It earned Joey from Friends a much-deserved Golden Globe, and it also brought to light the (admittedly exaggerated) absurdities of modern-day back-stage television. 

Most importantly, though, Episodes continues to bring a fresh take on self-deprication to television, an outlet that can always use a couple more doses of good, old-fashioned let's-make-fun-of-ourselves kind of humor, anyway. And hate the show or love the show, you can't deny how enlightening, essential and ... profitable it can be to laugh at ourselves every now and then. 

Just ask Matt LeBlanc. 


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.

Music

Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.

Television

Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.

Film

Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.

Music

The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.

Music

Gloom Balloon Deliver an Uplifting Video for "All My Feelings For You" (premiere)

Gloom Balloon's Patrick Tape Fleming considers what making a music video during a pandemic might involve because, well, he made one. Could Fellini come up with this plot twist?

Music

Brian Cullman Gets Bluesy with "Someday Miss You" (premiere)

Brian Cullman's "Someday Miss You" taps into American roots music, carries it across the Atlantic and back for a sound that is both of the past and present.

Music

IDLES Have Some Words for Fans and Critics on 'Ultra Mono'

On their new album, Ultra Mono, IDLES tackle both the troubling world around them and the dissenters that want to bring them down.

Music

Napalm Death Return With Their Most Vital Album in Decades

Grindcore institution Napalm Death finally reconcile their experimental side with their ultra-harsh roots on Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism.

Film

NYFF: 'Notturno' Looks Passively at the Chaos in the Middle East

Gianfranco Rosi's expansive documentary, Notturno, is far too remote for its burningly immediate subject matter.

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

The Avett Brothers Go Back-to-Basics with 'The Third Gleam'

For their latest EP, The Third Gleam, the Avett Brothers leave everything behind but their songs and a couple of acoustic guitars, a bass, and a banjo.

Music

PM Picks Playlist 1: Rett Madison, Folk Devils + More

The first PopMatters Picks Playlist column features searing Americana from Rett Madison, synthpop from Everything and Everybody, the stunning electropop of Jodie Nicholson, the return of post-punk's Folk Devils, and the glammy pop of Baby FuzZ.

Books

David Lazar's 'Celeste Holm  Syndrome' Appreciates Hollywood's Unsung Character Actors

David Lazar's Celeste Holm Syndrome documents how character actor work is about scene-defining, not scene-stealing.

Music

David Lord Salutes Collaborators With "Cloud Ear" (premiere)

David Lord teams with Jeff Parker (Tortoise) and Chad Taylor (Chicago Underground) for a new collection of sweeping, frequently meditative compositions. The results are jazz for a still-distant future that's still rooted in tradition.

Music

Laraaji Takes a "Quiet Journey" (premiere +interview)

Afro Transcendentalist Laraaji prepares his second album of 2020, the meditative Moon Piano, recorded inside a Brooklyn church. The record is an example of what the artist refers to as "pulling music from the sky".

Music

Blues' Johnny Ray Daniels Sings About "Somewhere to Lay My Head" (premiere)

Johnny Ray Daniels' "Somewhere to Lay My Head" is from new compilation that's a companion to a book detailing the work of artist/musician/folklorist Freeman Vines. Vines chronicles racism and injustice via his work.

Music

The Band of Heathens Find That Life Keeps Getting 'Stranger'

The tracks on the Band of Heathens' Stranger are mostly fun, even when on serious topics, because what other choice is there? We all may have different ideas on how to deal with problems, but we are all in this together.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.