If you’ve relied on the media for your knowledge of Showtime’s comedy Episodes, you’ve only gotten part of the picture. Most reviews seem to focus only on Matt LeBlanc’s return to television comedy or the show’s satirical look at LA and the TV industry. While these two aspects are clearly important, what makes Episodes: The Complete First and Second Seasons a success are the complexities and depth of relationships between the characters (even the simple, shallow ones).
Episodes introduces us to Sean and Beverly Lincoln (Stephen Mangan and Tamsin Grieg), a married couple who are the darlings of British television comedy, thanks to Lyman’s Boys, their witty, urbane show about a headmaster at a boarding school. They fall for a promise made by network bigwig Merc Lapidus (John Pankow) that a US version of their show will bring them fame, happiness, and wealth, without their having to change a thing. Of course, we know (even if they don’t) that it won’t be quite that simple. Immediately, drastic changes are made — including replacing their Shakespearean lead with Friends‘ star Matt LeBlanc (Matt LeBlanc) — and the Lincolns find their perfect show turning into something unrecognizable and, in Beverly’s words, “profoundly mediocre”.
Season One follows the process of filming the pilot, now about a hockey coach and renamed Pucks. In addition to the stress in their professional lives, the Lincolns are also dealing with dilemmas in their personal lives: while Sean slowly embraces the changes LA brings, particularly his friendship with LeBlanc, Beverly hates what’s happening to them and their show, and she really despises Matt LeBlanc. Eventually what she sees as Sean’s betrayal leads her to betray him, and as their marriage reaches breaking point, they learn that their show has been picked up by the network.
As Season Two begins, the Lincolns are separated but still working together on the set of Pucks. Sean and Matt’s friendship has now also imploded, so both Beverly and Matt work to rebuild what they’ve destroyed. Other friendships are developed: Beverly tries to seek solace in Carol (Kathleen Rose Perkins), Merc’s assistant and mistress; Sean gets closer to the show’s female lead, Morning (Mircea Monroe), a woman who, thanks to plastic surgery, looks generations younger than she actually is; and Matt begins an affair with Merc’s blind wife, Jamie (Genevieve O’Reilly). Despite Pucks‘ first night success, its ratings soon plummet, and everyone scrambles to keep it afloat to save their reputations and their relationships.
Episodes pokes fun at the chaos and poor decisions behind the television industry — the network president who doesn’t actually watch the programs, the head of comedy who doesn’t understand humor, the way sex, power, and money take precedence over quality and integrity. Hollywood itself is also mocked: LeBlanc playing what we assume is an exaggerated version of himself is a classic way to send up the concept of celebrity.
Ultimately, however, relationships are at the heart of this show. What starts as Matt’s taking advantage of Sean’s eagerness turns into a real male friendship, which makes their “break up” and Matt’s attempts to win Sean back both touching and funny (Sean’s realisation of Matt’s betrayal at the end of Season One is painful, but the resulting fight scene is laugh-out-loud silly). While Beverly initially struggles to find a friend in LA, she eventually bonds with Carol, though acknowledges that Carol has a split personality: there’s Carol the friend who provides support and honest feedback and “Work Carol” who lies through her teeth to get people to do what she (or rather Merc) wants. Beverly and Matt’s move from enemies to allies is actually quite sweet; in fact, Matt’s relationships with women are a running theme of the show — he perceives his affairs and one-night-stands as perks of his stardom but eventually has to come face-to-face with the consequences of his behaviour.
The complexities of the characters and their relationships add drama to the comedy series, but that’s not to say this show isn’t funny. It’s very funny. From silly sight gags (the most tender moments between Merc and Carol take place while he’s sitting on the toilet) to sharp lines (Matt admits “I kind of need this to be a hit… or at least something they can’t make fun of on a talk show”) to bitter irony (whenever Sean and Beverly are at their lowest, their former PA pops up to announce another of his easily gained successes), the show’s wit is strong and consistent. If you’re expecting the mainstream comedy of Friends or a laugh-a-minute, you may find yourself disappointed; however, the intelligent development of all aspects of Episodes makes it more than just a funny sitcom.
This is also in part, of course, to the performances. Stephen Mangan and Tamsin Grieg, who are quite frankly the real stars of the show, previously worked together on the British series Green Wing, and their chemistry is brilliant — they are believable as both a happily married couple and a pair on the verge of divorce. Mangan’s awkwardness as he edges his way into the Hollywood lifestyle is hilarious, and Grieg has a natural ability to make her more uptight and rigid character likeable and relatable (while she delivers her lines with skill, Grieg is also one of those actresses who can use a look to say just as much).
Matt LeBlanc is great as Matt LeBlanc: he’s still got wonderful comedic timing and delivery, but he shows depth as an actor as he plays with our preconceived notions about “Joey”. The supporting cast is also strong. Mircea Monroe, who is actually only 30, makes us believe she’s an over-the-hill actress desperate to stay relevant (well, sexy at least). Kathleen Rose Perkins gets more of a chance to shine in Season Two, and John Pankow convincingly plays the consistently unsympathetic Merc (he interrupts his own father’s funeral to take a call from Matthew Broderick’s agent) in a way that makes us hate him and everything he stands for, which is important as he is the villain to our heroes, Sean and Beverly (and yes, Matt).
The two season DVD will be a favorite for those who have already seen the show, but it’s also an ideal introduction for those who haven’t. Being able to watch the way each character develops and the way their relationships grow, disintegrate, and recover will convince you that, unlike their fictional show Pucks, Episodes has gone from strength to strength.
Unfortunately, the Special Features (biographies and photo galleries) are a little bit of a let down. Let’s hope in the future – in September, Showtime announced a go ahead for Season 3 — they’ll include more. Even without bloopers or behind-the-scenes interviews, though, the two disc set Episodes: The Complete First and Second Season will definitely make you laugh and introduce you to a great new set of friends.