“Episodes” has officially entered its Hotel California phase — a series where the Hollywood-phobic protagonists can check out any time they like, but, in order to keep the premise alive, can never leave. Granted, it’s kind of remarkable how little the married writing tandem of Sean and Beverly Lincoln have actually learned during their strange adventures, including all those hikes in Rustic Canyon, but the tartness of David Crane and Jeffrey Klarik’s writing still makes this Showtime comedy an occasional hoot, if one whose inside-baseball savvy is frequently offset by its over-the-top tone.
Just when they thought they had safely escaped their obligation to produce “Pucks,” Sean and Beverly (Stephen Mangan and Tamsin Greig, respectively) are summoned back to L.A., with the network having petulantly renewed the show solely to keep its various talent out of the hands of competitors. As co-star Morning Randolph (Mircea Monroe) puts it, the series has “risen like Jesus, if Jesus was a s***ty sitcom no one watched.”
As a consequence, everyone is miserable about being back together, while Sean and Beverly try to resist the town’s siren song yet again, with their agent insisting interest abounds in another script they’ve written.
Meanwhile, Matt LeBlanc’s jaundiced version of himself runs into an unexpected financial setback due his accountant’s chicanery, although as the premiere makes clear, his perspective on what qualifies as indigence is skewed by all those spectacular “Friends” paydays.
“Episodes” has never taken itself too seriously, and Crane and Klarik obviously know this world extraordinarily well. That said, in pursuit of laughs, they’ve settled on an exaggerated — indeed, stereotypical and cliched — version of Hollywood that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, starting with the need to keep Sean and Beverly, in their role as the audience’s surrogates, wide-eyed waifs despite all they’ve experienced. (Sure, the series is fictional, but it’s still hard to imagine even British writers being quite so naive as they were when the show began, much less now.)
The new season thus showcases both the program’s strengths and inherent weaknesses, alternating between feeling clever (the promise of a trip to a Golden Globes gifting suite represents an effective bribe) and tired (seriously, aren’t we done with the agent-doing-business-on-the-treadmill gag yet?).
Similarly, while Beverly remains inexplicably chummy with neurotic network exec Carol (Kathleen Rose Perkins), there’s another shuffling of network chiefs (Andrea Savage signs on as the newest one), an occupation where doublespeak is the norm and every conversation that begins with praise is followed by an inevitable “But…”
Granted, programs with Hollywood cred tend to yield intangible dividends (witness “Entourage”), particularly for a premium channel like Showtime, which shares the project with the BBC. After all, how many of the network’s series possess an organic excuse to feature CBS boss Leslie Moonves in a cameo as himself, as he did last year?
Paired with “Shameless” and “House of Lies,” “Episodes” has become part of a mildly reliable winter block whose star power generally trumps the material. At this point, though, meandering along as it is, there’s less to separate this showbiz-centric series from the kind of formulaic TV fare it lampoons.