Writers are often advised to “write what you know.” But problems can arise when that knowledge overlaps heavily with what everyone else knows — and more importantly, has already seen. Birthed by “Friends” co-creator David Crane and Jeffrey Klarik (who, British-style, wrote every installment), “Episodes” is a retread of every imaginable Hollywood cliche, including Matt LeBlanc’s self-deprecating turn portraying himself as a charming sociopath. By that measure, this Showtime-BBC co-venture isn’t so much bad, necessarily, as simply redundant.
Indeed, “Episodes” pales next to HBO’s “The Comeback,” another fictionalized inside-Hollywood show featuring a “Friends” alum, Lisa Kudrow, which was initially considered a failure. Ditto in comparison with “Entourage” and another British-flavored import, “Extras,” which cover the same insider-ish ground.
Frankly, everyone with any familiarity with the genre will have their own I-saw-that-where moment, including the indie movie “The TV Set,” which happened to feature David Duchovny, who stars in “Episodes'” lead-in. Small world, eh?
The premise is as concisely packaged as the title: A married couple being honored for their smart little U.K. comedy, writer-producers Sean and Beverly Lincoln (Stephen Mangan and Tamsin Greig), are cornered by the head of a U.S. network, Merc Lapidus (John Pankow). He loves the program — “I want to have sex with your show,” he tells them — and is dying for them to produce an American version.
Before you can say “The Office,” Sean and Beverly are knee-deep in the land of swimming pools and movie stars, occupying a Beverly Hills mansion (actually a reasonable facsimile in England) the network had previously rented, it turns out, for a reality TV show. All’s swell, until Merc starts suggesting changes, and pretty soon, their fusty English headmaster has been transformed into a hockey coach being played by LeBlanc.
The situations and characters will certainly be recognizable to those who actually work in TV — the perky D-girl (Kathleen Rose Perkins) who puts a positive spin on the worst of news, the network “yes” men, the self-inflated star, the charity dinner — but again, therein lies the problem. Halfway through episode two, anybody with a feel for such material will see where every beat is heading, even if the trip there isn’t always unpleasant.
All this is witnessed through the wide eyes of the British babes in La-la-land, who are, unfortunately, the show’s Achilles heels. Their baffled wonder at every blatant lie and creative setback grows tedious, with Sean eager to get along (and falling for LeBlanc, in a platonic way) and Beverly wondering how their series got so horribly mangled in translation, one agonizing inch at a time. Yes, TV loves “fish out of water” tales, but they require more flavor than this.
Clearly, Crane and Klarik (working with director John Griffiths, who also helmed every episode) paid close attention during their network meetings, getting all the little details and notes down pat. Still, their anthropological curiosity about Hollywood’s strange customs has yielded the ultimate in irony: A program about the silly compromises that ruin TV shows, created by writers who, ostensibly afforded greater freedom, ultimately can’t do any better.