The folks at Showtime are no fools. Having witnessed the disproportionate attention HBO enjoyed with its inside-baseball series “Entourage,” they went out and got one of their own. Alas, “Episodes” offers both the same cheeky references and exaggerated-for-effect view of Hollywood – in other words, dealing in fluff without much substance. And even if the first season was far from perfect, it closed on one of those “The Candidate”-like “What do we do now?” moments that would have been a clever place to end things. As is, the series has lived into season three, yielding more bang, promotionally speaking, than yuks.
“Episodes” remains distinguished, mostly, by Matt LeBlanc’s gameness in playing a jaundiced, utterly self-absorbed version of himself, the classic stereotype of a sitcom star with an oversized ego (and at least in the show, other appendages as well). There is truth, as well as some fun, in moments like the former “Friends” star chafing at being downgraded to the second guest spot on “The Tonight Show” (Jay Leno, naturally, appears in a cameo as himself) – or his pained expression when someone says “back when you were hot,” reflecting showbiz’s cruel little indignities.
Beyond that, though, the storytelling gets diluted by one caricature after another, trafficking in the illusion of sophistication about the eccentricities of Hollywood. The too-thin characters range from the waif-like British couple Sean and Beverly (Stephen Mangan, Tamsin Greig) who created LeBlanc’s show within the show – and found both their creative vision and marriage polluted – to the double-talking studio suits who surround them.
After the melee that ended season two, Sean and Beverly have reconciled, while D-girl Carol (Kathleen Rose Perkins) finds herself dealing with the firing of her former boss and sometimes lover, Merc (John Pankow). Of course, Merc’s wife (Genevieve O’Reilly) has taken refuge from his serial infidelity by sleeping with LeBlanc, which insures there’s no let-up in blind jokes.
Although it’s understandable why write-every-episode creators David Crane and Jeffrey Klarik and equally prolific director Iain B. MacDonald would want to present the industry’s seductive nature through fresh eyes, the central couple’s naivete has always seemed more convenient than convincing. Ditto for Beverly’s friendship with Carol, who as conceived is so weaselly and needy it’s tough to see the foundation for their bond, other than an excuse to shoot lots of walk-and-talk scenes hiking either at the beach or in Runyon Canyon.
Showtime made the entire nine-episode season available, and there is a clear arc to it, both in the Sean-Beverly plot and the rats-on-a-sinking-ship view of a low-rated sitcom. Along the way, the writers do generate some genuinely funny lines, like LeBlanc’s attorney saying he’d “happily trade you for two Mel Gibsons and a Tiger Woods.”
Overall, though, it’s hard not to see “Episodes” as a pretty good metaphor for what show-within-the-show “Pucks” is: A TV series that starts with high hopes and the promise of doing something a little different and – despite the latitude, in this case, afforded by its premium venue – winds up just settling for more of the same.