Have you ever worked on a project where all you can do is watch it spin into a terrible version of what you intended? Episodes is like that. Only funny.
Showtime's Episodes is a fairly standard single-camera situation comedy about a fairly standard single-camera situation comedy. The show follows a husband and wife production team wrapping up a four-series run of their successful British comedy. At the BAFTA awards the two are approached by an American producer who promises them fame, money and ease in Hollywood if they'll help adapt the show for American audiences. Matt LeBlanc (famous on Friends and infamous on Joey) is wretchedly miscast as the series headliner, and the couple's relationship begins to strain as their work is twisted to the whims of the Hollywood system.
The heart of Episodes lies not in LeBlanc's headlining role, but in the British husband and wife who are classic fish-out-of-water in Los Angeles. Beverly Lincoln is played by Tamsin Greig, and Stephen Mangan takes the role of her husband, Sean. Like their characters, the two are virtually unknown in the States - but that may change if Episodes gains some traction. And if it does, their performances will be the cause: the two are understated and funny in a very endearing way. Sean is the eternal optimist, pushing the two forward as they stumble through American culture and Hollywood chicanery. Beverly bites back with some of the best lines of the opening episodes, always cynical and distrustful (in a good way). The couple's reaction when they discover the network head who pushed them to move to LA has never seen the show is perfect.
"Matt LeBlanc...? For the erudite, verbally dexterous headmaster of an elite boys' academy, you're suggesting... Joey?"
Matt LeBlanc, who will almost certainly be the initial draw for most of Episodes' viewers, is a much different actor than we're used to seeing him be. The veteran TV star plays himself and is the American star of the Lincolns' show. After being the butt of more than his fair share of jokes on Friends for a decade, LeBlanc (the character, at least) is a bitter, sharp-tongued jerk who's dissatisfied with himself and everyone around him. He serves as a stand-in for the puffed-up movie star archetype, and surprisingly, he doesn't disappoint. Far from the wild, expressive role that made him famous, LeBlanc is quiet and sarcastic in a way that makes him very believable as a TV star past his prime. It's very enjoyable to watch him throw his weight around in a straightforward way while his handlers spin him for their own purposes. This could be LeBlanc's defining post-Friends role, a la Lisa Kudrow's self-referential role in The Comeback.
Much of the humor in the opening episodes comes from the culture shock that the Lincolns experience in Los Angeles. The situations are fun and mostly original, and the two get their share of solid one-liners. You'd expect nothing less from characters representing TV comedy writers - the formula has been working on NBC's 30 Rock for years now. But refreshingly, unlike 30 Rock, the show-within-a-show is actually funny in and of itself, at least what little is shown in between the behind-the-scenes drama. The promise of the UK's original keeps you hungry for more glimpses, and the struggle of the Lincolns to preserve their vision is heartfelt. A scene from the first episode, where a British actor bombs an American version of his character, is particularly good.
Episodes takes far less advantage of its cable freedoms than other comedy shows. This is a refreshing change - coarse language is a lot of fun when used correctly and sparingly in comedy. Besides the writing liberties, the producers don't take too much advantage of the looser reigns. The budget is obviously pretty weak: single-camera shots used on-location are easy giveaways. This doesn't detract from the show's fun, but a bit more behind-the-scenes production action would be nice (and easy). Look for this as the season progresses.
Overall the show is subtle and specific in its comedy and ruthless in its examination of TV culture. The jabs they take at the Hollywood system almost make it seem like the writers enjoy the insults they're inflicting upon themselves. For the viewer who wants grown-up comedy without the schtick of network sitcoms, Episodes is an easy recommendation. Here's hoping that Matt LeBlanc's waning star power is enough to carry the show to a second season.
Episodes airs Sunday nights at 9:30 PM on Showtime.