Episodes: Season 1, episode 1 review

*** Contains mild spoilers for upcoming episodes ***

With an intriguing (if not entirely original) premise dripping in satire, Episodes is a new UK/US co-produced comedy which pokes fun at the way Hollywood works – or, equally often, doesn’t work. The opening episode gets the series off to a slow start which is heavy on set-up, but has the clear potential to develop into a vehicle worthy of its three leads – the British pair of ex-Green Wing stars Stephen Mangan and Tamsin Greig, and Joey Tribbiani himself, Matt LeBlanc.

The show follows the trials and tribulations of married British writers Sean and Beverly Lincoln (Mangan and Greig), as they move to LA to remake their award-winning comedy Lyman’s Boys for an American network, only to discover the alien and frequently unpleasant world which exists behind the Hollywood glamour. The Lincolns are wooed by network executive Merc Lapidus (Mad About You‘s John Pankow), who despite his enthusiasm for their show has never actually watched it, and sets in motion a chain of events which sees their original lead actor Julian Bullard, played by Richard Griffiths (Pie in the Sky, the Harry Potter films, The History Boys), replaced by Friends‘ Matt LeBlanc, changing his role from that of an avuncular headmaster to a hockey coach, and renaming the series Pucks.

Stephen Mangan, Tamsin Greig and Matt LeBlanc star in Episodes, made by BBC and Showtime

As a couple, Sean and Beverly are yin and yang. He has a glass which is always half-full and he openly embraces the opportunity to sample LA with boyish, almost puppy dog enthusiasm. She is more cynical and suspicious, as we see from the opening scene set seven weeks in the future, where she is packing to fly back to Britain without Sean, accusing him of having an affair with the as yet unseen Morning Randolph (Mircea Monroe), one of the stars of their new show.

Their differing outlooks on life are nicely summed up when Beverly says to Sean towards the end of the episode:

My negative is so much bigger than your positive. My negative openly mocks your positive. My negative slaps your positive around. My negative grabs your positive, bends it over the sofa and buggers it from behind.

Sean (Stephen Mangan) and Beverly (Tamsin Greig) before jetting out to LA

In an opening half-hour which is long on set-up at the expense of out-and-out laughs, we certainly get glimpses of where this show wants to go. The Lincolns are fish out of water, both in terms of adapting to the LA lifestyle, and in the cut-throat “death by enthusiasm” world of American network television as exemplified by Merc, who enthuses about everything with hollow platitudes while agreeing with nothing, rules the roost with an iron grip, and commands total servility from his fawning entourage of yes-men. They are slowly discovering the hard way that behind all the initial promises lies a minefield of Hollywood politics which they are totally unequipped to deal with. And it is this clash of cultures and expectations – and the impact it has on Sean and Beverly’s initially perfect relationship – which will hopefully drive a seam of dark observational comedy as the season progresses.

Within the supporting cast there are already some potential gems. Merc’s Head of Programming Carol Rance (Kathleen Rose Perkins) seamlessly turns diplomatic somersaults as she attempts to marry the diametrically opposed desires of Merc, Sean and Beverly. And her monosyllabic Head of Comedy Myra (Daisy Haggard, another Green Wing alumnus) exudes her complete distaste for the project with a variety of comical facial expressions and two-word responses. Hopefully both will receive some deeper characterisation and plenty of airtime as we move on.

Will Sean and Beverly be able to retain any semblance of their original concept, or will they be sucked into the Hollywood stereotype they initially despise? How will they cope with their big name star and Merc’s meddling machinations? And will their marriage survive the strain? We will begin to find out the answer to these questions over the course of the next six episodes.

It’s really too early to say whether Episodes will succeed on the basis of this initial episode. Already, it clearly promises to be far crueller and darker than a traditional sitcom. This is hardly surprising given its BBC/Showtime origins – the latter being the home for series such as Dexter (whose titular character is a serial killer) and Weeds (where the main protagonist is a suburban marijuana dealer). Episodes is more likely to be a ‘grower’ like Ricky Gervais‘s Extras or The Office than a laugh-a-minute affair like Friends or Modern Family. We shall see whether it manages to successfully tap the potential which has been established in episode one.

It’s Joey, but not as we know him

Although we only see him briefly in this opening episode, the show marks a quirky return for Matt LeBlanc, for whom this role as a parody of himself is the first TV project since completing his 12-year stint as Joey Tribbiani on Friends and the short-lived spin-off JoeyHe told The Independent last week:

I did have some reservations about playing myself. But it’s not me – it’s a character named Matt LeBlanc. This version of Matt is the public perception of me rather than the real me. Some things are close to the real me, some are not at all – I’ll leave it at that.

Above all, it’s taking the mick out of the entertainment industry.

Matt LeBlanc stars as a parody of himself

Stephen Mangan echoed LeBlanc’s sentiments, telling BBC Radio Four:

I think it’s a brave choice because you don’t necessarily see a particularly attractive side of him. He can often be quite dark and rude and unpleasant, which over here we love. They [the writers] had a lot of fun playing around with people’s perceptions of him because he played one of the world’s dumbest characters [Joey] on TV and people think he’s stupid but he’s not.

Art imitating life imitating art

Episodes draws deeply on the experiences of its writers David Crane (Friends) and Jeffrey Klarik (Mad About You) in capturing what really goes on behind the scenes, and on the fate of real-life UK sitcoms such as Coupling (penned by Doctor Who show-runner Steven Moffat) and Game On (starring EastendersSamantha Janus), both of which became lost in translation somewhere in mid-Atlantic and were ‘developed’ beyond all recognition before crashing and burning horribly.

Certainly the art imitating life imitating art concept of the comedy show within a comedy show has been tried before, with both great (30 Rock) and not-so-great (Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip) results. And we have also seen the journey of the ingenue through the harsh realities of the TV and film world through the lens of series such as Extras and Entourage.

Apparently some considerable effort was put into ensuring Pucks has a distinctively different feel to the show which is wrapped around it, to the extent that a separate crew was used to film the scenes we see from the Lincolns’ fictitious sitcom. And it is that balance between the professional environment of Pucks and the impact it has on Sean and Beverly’s personal lives which is the key to whether Episodes ultimately succeeds. It will not live and die on the originality of its concept – there is little new in the behind-the-scenes revelations for seasoned viewers – but on the strength of the relationships between its three central characters.

For now, my verdict is: wait and see. Episodes promises better. We will have to see whether it delivers on that.

Episodes extended trailer:

Meet the cast of Episodes:

Episodes continues on BBC2, Tuesday at 10pm.

Rating: 1.01 – 6/10

Links: BBC Episodes websiteIMDbTV.comWikipedia

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