The problem with premium cable shows is that, like soap operas, they’re far more serialized than anything on basic cable or network television. From week to week, not much may happen, but when viewed in bulk, the series receive a boost in quick-paced storytelling. So when you sit down to watch Matt LeBlanc playing a fun-house version of himself on Showtime’s Episodes, keep in mind that the various plotlines will eventually snowball.
And you should watch Episodes, because, like HBO’s lamented The Comeback, this show about making a show is a gimlet-eyed indictment of television. Brought over by the enthusiastic but vague American network president (played with guileless viciousness by John Pankow), British couple Sean (Stephen Mangan) and Beverly (Tamsin Greig) are supposed to Americanize their hit British television show Lyman’s Boys, about an erudite headmaster at an elite boarding school, hopelessly in love with a lesbian librarian. Except the network wants Matt LeBlanc to star. Oh, and he should be a hockey coach. And Beverly and Sean should change the title to Pucks!. Oh, and the network president hasn’t actually seen the show.
Of course things go from bad to worse, as Beverly and Sean find themselves repulsed and charmed, respectively, by the insanities of La-La-Land, especially their new leading man. Beverly is disgusted by LeBlanc, but Sean quickly develops a friendship with him, one that drives a wedge into his marriage. And LeBlanc, more game than most TV actors to poke fun at his image, gives a delicious performance as a horny, manipulative and arrogant version of himself, one who regales Beverly with stories about the hilarious documentary he recently saw, all about children with Tourette’s. Of course, it helps that his character has been given a porn-star like endowment that figures prominently in multiple episodes.
As everyone gears up to produce and film the pilot, the plotlines seem oddly disconnected. At only seven episodes, it’s a shame that Episodes doesn’t truly take off until the fifth one. But once the show’s stories click into place, the final three half hours have the painful inevitability (and black humor) that mark most Showtime shows. Nothing is off-limits for writers and creators David Crane (Friends) and Jeffrey Klarik (Mad About You), from blindness to cancer to sex tapes, and their cast is eager and willing—particularly Kathleen Rose Perkins, as the simultaneously sycophantic and strong-willed assistant to Pankow’s president.
With such a slow start, Episodes may find it difficult to find an audience, but take my word for it: Tuning in for every episode is worth it.
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