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Uneven 'Episodes' Put Matt LeBlanc to Good Use, But He Makes Few Friends

by Maureen Ryan, posted Jan 5th 2011 3:00PM
Parts of the first-season finale of 'Episodes' (9:30PM ET Sunday, Showtime) are very funny.

But it takes a long time for 'Episodes,' which chronicles the adventures of an English couple adapting their hit British show for an American network, to get to places that are consistently amusing or emotionally nuanced, despite first-rate work from the show's cast.

Creators Jeffrey Klarik and David Crane, who've written for everything from 'Friends' to 'Mad About You' to 'The Class,' have endured their share of frustrations while they labored in the network sitcom trenches, and 'Episodes,' which stars a sly and skilled Matt LeBlanc as a self-absorbed version of himself, is clearly their revenge on narcissistic actors and an entire army of network suits.

The thing is, if Crane and Klarik were trying to avoid and mock the limitations of traditional sitcoms, why make a comedy that is often obvious and broad? Why create characters that are, for much of the show's seven-episode run, one-dimensional and disposable?

Given that cable comedies are generally allowed to be subtle and character-driven, it's odd that 'Episodes' offers such a lopsided, predictable look at the creative process. Instead of a wry, thoughtful view from the trenches, 'Episodes,' especially in the frustrating first half of its season, presents a viewpoint that amounts to "writers good, everyone else bad." And the problem with axe-grinding is that it's not very interesting to those not grinding the axe.

Still, the entire cast is strong, and there's a great guest turn by the wonderful British character actor Richard Griffiths in the second episode. But the chief draw is LeBlanc, who does terrific work as a wily, manipulative, douchey version of himself.

He's egocentric, sure, but the LeBlanc of 'Episodes' is smarter and more self-aware than anyone realizes, and he has a way of getting his way while still appearing to be the good guy. If one of the points of 'Episodes' was to prove that LeBlanc has much greater range than he's been given credit for, the show absolutely works in that regard.

The heroes of 'Episodes' are Sean and Beverly Lincoln (Stephen Mangan and Tamsin Grieg), a married couple who have won a shelf full of British awards for 'Lyman's Boys,' a show about a headmaster in love with a lesbian librarian. Naturally, the jovial, empty-headed American executive who gets them to bring their show to America thinks it would be greatly improved by a name change ('Pucks!'), by giving the main character a job change (hockey coach) and by putting a former 'Friends' star in the title role.

With polite grins frozen on their faces, Sean and Beverly endure the excesses and banalities of Hollywood Neanderthals around them, but it's hard to work up much sympathy for either of them. Their condescension gets old fast, and it's unfortunate that Beverly is often written as an unforgiving shrew. Grieg certainly deserved better. Both she and Mangan not only nail the comedic moments, they wring some real emotion from the show's season finale, and Mangan and LeBlanc engage in some physical comedy in that outing that had me laughing out loud.

But many installments of 'Episodes' undercut the show's own premise by presenting cliches and shopworn truisms as the height of hilarity. Were you aware that people in Los Angeles are obsessed with being thin? News flash: Actresses have been known to have plastic surgery. Breaking: Network executives can be thoughtless, craven and rude, and they generally screw up the adaptations of British shows.

None of these observations are particularly revelatory, and the show's simplistic approach makes for some laugh-free situations. For instance, at a dinner at the network president's house, he comes off as a cruel troll -- but not in a funny way. 'Episodes' made me think of better backstage chronicles such as 'The Larry Sanders Show,' '30 Rock' and 'Slings and Arrows,' which usually make fun of everyone, not just the usual suspects.

There are some promising moments 'Episodes,' and as the characters move beyond stereotypes, some of the story lines begin to pay off in amusing and even touching ways. But the show's creators have to decide whether they want revenge on the industry idiots who've crossed their paths, or if they want to the audience buy into comedic and dramatic situations that seem more grounded and less obvious.

If 'Episodes' wants to avoid a cancellation (from me, anyway), it'll have to move further in the latter direction.

Follow @MoRyan on Twitter.

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I could not disagree more. Sure, the plot is not the most groundbreaking (although I wouldn't call it trite), but the execution is top notch. The writing for this show is so good, the interactions between the two main characters is nuanced and totally realistic.

Above all else, this is a scene-driven show, almost like a play. Each scene unfolds methodically and many almost feel like stand-alone pieces. I love 30 Rock, but it is nowhere near on this level. Recent seasons especially have pandered to Americans' short attention spans and many of the jokes are hit-you-over-the-head humor with no subtlety. They almost feel like cheap one-off jokes.

Episodes builds its humor off of continually developing characters and scenarios that the watched is truly investe in.

In other words, this review could not be more wrong. Seriously, happened to Huffington Post? This is something I'd expect to read on PeopleMagazine.com

January 26 2013 at 5:59 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Americans just don't real comedy. This writer proves it. If it's not **** and ass or toilet humour, they don't get it. This show is great.

March 16 2011 at 6:21 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Bravo to Matt LeBlanc for being somewhat transparent in revealing his authentic mess in life through this character!

February 19 2011 at 4:19 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

More runny doo-doo to further disgrace the already disgraced television industry.

January 09 2011 at 7:25 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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January 09 2011 at 7:17 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

oh Matt LeBlanc I could do so many things to him.one hot steam hunk of man there mmmmmmmmmm.

January 09 2011 at 5:36 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I just can't believe more than half of these are so called Reality shows. America just keeps dumbing down.

January 09 2011 at 3:34 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I suspect this show will play better in the UK where the English writers will be seen as the heroes of the piece, fighting against the "Hollywood Neanderthals" that threaten to ruin their work. Us English will be far more inclined to sympathise with them and root for them. The stupider and more arrogant the Americans seem, the funnier it will be to the English.

January 06 2011 at 8:17 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Mangan and Grieg were terrific in the award-winning "Green Wing," the British comedy that ran two seasons. Why BBC America chose only to air the first season remains a mystery. You can't even buy it on region one DVDs. ( Ah--ahh--ahhchooootorrents ).

January 05 2011 at 4:38 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to ColinInLA's comment

GREEN WING has been streaming on HULU for some time. And it's legal to watch over and over!

Fun absurd show. Great cast chemistry.

January 07 2011 at 4:19 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Mo Ryan

Showtime sent all seven episodes in the show's first season, so I've seen all of them, and I thought it made sense to comment on how the show got better over time. And there are a lot of new shows premiering Sunday -- I'm trying to spread out the reviews through the week, rather than posting them all on Friday.

January 05 2011 at 3:30 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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