Amid a sea of self-referential Hollywood shows with stars playing jaundiced versions of themselves, “Episodes” had one chance to stand apart. Had the series ended on the final note of its first season, it would have left behind a rather witty, “The Candidate”-like “What do we do now?” echo, in much the way HBO’s “The Comeback” did. Instead, Showtime returns for seconds, and they’re pretty sloppy — a breezy but uninspired half-hour defined by Matt LeBlanc’s willingness to portray Matt LeBlanc as a swaggering jerk. It’s TV for those who miss the intellectual heft of “Entourage.”
“Friends” co-creator David Crane and partner Jeffrey Klarik (working with director Jim Field Smith) have the benefit of approaching their old haunts by way of England, and within the permissive confines of pay cable, which allows all sorts of sexual shenanigans. Yet somehow, the series and its protagonists remain wide-eyed waifs, as if they’ve just discovered people in showbiz like to screw each other, literally as well as figuratively.
The series still looks into this peculiar world over the shoulders of a British husband-and-wife writing/producing team, Beverly (Tamsin Greig) and Sean (Stephen Mangan), who saw their marriage tested as they developed a U.S. version of their sitcom about a British headmaster, which was contorted and compromised to put LeBlanc in the lead.
Spoiler alert if you still plan on watching season one, but it ended with relationships fraying just as the fictional show was picked up, leaving the principals to wonder how they’ll ever be able to work together.
Answer: Awkwardly, which is about as credible as that sounds, given the clout a star like LeBlanc would wield over an unproven showrunner who won’t even speak to him off the set.
Despite some knowing moments and clever lines (the chirpy network exec played by Kathleen Rose Perkins cheerfully says, “We’d never cancel you in person”), the relationship between the show’s least interesting characters becomes its rather tedious focus, against the very familiar backdrop of the strain Hollywood success can place ona marriage.
Everyone else, meanwhile, is a Hollywood caricature, including the chronically lying network chief (John Pankow), his groveling subordinates, and — in the second season’s worst bit — giving LeBlanc’s needy star a “funny” stalker. Even the name-dropping (“This is gonna kill Schwimmer,” LeBlanc says) has a been-down-this-road-before quality.
Since the series is about compromises regarding how the sausage gets made, the producers wind up fighting for a show — titled “Pucks!,” with LeBlanc as a high-school hockey coach — that’s intended to look completely mediocre. Beyond questioning their commitment to this dreck, the conceit makes the idea of producing a slightly-better-than-mediocre series satirizing the process that makes so much TV mediocre all the more wearisome.
“Maybe we are ‘an uninspired placeholder until something actually funny comes along,’?” Sean grumbles, reading unflattering “Pucks!” reviews.
While a real-life critic might have said it better, it’s the sentiment that counts.