tue 17/09/2019

Episodes, BBC Two | reviews, news & interviews

Episodes, BBC Two

Episodes, BBC Two

Matt LeBlanc embodies the perils of the US comedy remake

Stephen Mangan, Tamsin Greig and Matt LeBlanc cut to the chase in 'Episodes'

Episodes may prove to be the zenith of television’s obsession with making television about making television. It was certainly a handy primer for anyone who fell asleep around 2000 (perhaps during My Hero; you are forgiven) and missed all the dominant strands of TV comedy emerging over the next decade. We hadn't simply been here before; Episodes was incubated in the post-ironic, multilayered comedic landscape in which we all now live. The success of the US version of The Office was referenced within the first five minutes. I’m surprised it took so long.

Episodes seems to want to have it all: the off-set bitch-fests (Larry Sanders, 30 Rock); the marquee names knowingly flaunting their insecurities with lashings of self-deprecation (Entourage, Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Trip), the unerring ability of ruthless industry execs to knock the stuffing out of the talent (Extras). A co-production between the BBC and Showtime, Episodes is the creation of Jeffrey Klarik, writer-producer of Nineties US sitcom Mad About You, and David Crane, whose name you will have seen flashing down the screen if you have ever watched Friends. It's a transatlantic affair which feels British, perhaps because it was made by Hat Trick Productions, whose triumphs include Outnumbered (which is being remade for the US as we speak; there might be a sitcom in that, too).

It follows the fortunes of Beverly and Sean Lincoln, who as well as being a happily married British couple are also the producers of the serial Bafta-winning sitcom Lyman’s Boys. Played by Tamsin Greig and Stephen Mangan, who sparked off each other to such fine effect in Green Wing, in last night’s opening episode the Lincolns were seduced with unseemly haste by powerful US TV executive Merc Lapidus, one of those pugnacious, carpe diem, cancer-surviving, recovering-alcoholic archetypes.

Having caught the scent of Lyman’s Boys' success without bothering to see it, he craves a piece of the pie. “I wanna have sex with your show. Come play with us!” Sean fell for the idea of an LA remake almost instantly (“Who would you miss? We need better friends”); Beverly was wary but soon caved in. So off they go, into the arms of their most outlandish dreams and worst fears.

Episodes1CompLast night’s episode started with a car crash, which was blunt but apt. The first kidney punch wasn’t the revelation that Merc hadn’t actually ever seen the show (“He’s not a big TV watcher”), but the channel's bowel-shredding decision to replace Lyman’s Boys lead actor Julian, an RSC veteran played with greasepaint-dripping hauteur by Richard Griffiths, with Matt LeBlanc (pictured above). “Julian’s too English,” they were told. “He’s got to be likeable.” (One of several residual ironies is that the inclusion of LeBlanc, while being an in-joke on American TV’s perceived lack of class, was presumably also extremely helpful in getting the series made and aired in the first place.)

LeBlanc, now greying gently and looking like a flat-packed George Clooney, is destined to be the apex of this human triangle. We only glimpsed him last night, which was a problem. Mangan and Greig are as terrific playing these babes in Hollywood as you would expect – their frozen faces on learning that LeBlanc was up for the role of an English teacher at an elite private school were a joy to behold - but the opening episode lacked the dramatic stand-offs and comedic riches that their – heavily trailed – future confrontations with the former Friends star promise.

I wished it had been funnier, yet there was still much to enjoy in the details, such as Myra (Daisy Haggard), the head of comedy with zero sense of humour and a facial expression that suggested someone was pulling her teeth out from the inside. There were decent physical gags, too, revolving around a polystyrene Grecian column and a bath that took so long to fill it killed any trace of the couple's impressive libido.

Hopefully there will be more to Episodes than mining for cheaper and cheaper laughs the idea of Joey Tribbiani as a schoolmaster

It nodded amusingly but rather obviously to the emptiness that lay behind all that "we lurve your show!" grandstanding. Hopefully there will be more to Episodes than the reductive notion that America by its very nature cannot help but destroy what it covets, while mining for cheaper and cheaper laughs the idea of Joey Tribbiani as a schoolmaster. But maybe there won't. In a forthcoming episode the lesbian librarian in the UK version is rapidly replaced with an unambiguously hetero "hottie" at the insistence of the star. So far, so predictable.

There is scope here, with talented writers and actors with the range of Greig and Mangan, to take a swipe at less obvious targets: the precious, smug sensibilities of Brits in LA, for instance, who constantly blather about "quality" but have little idea of what it takes to make a sitcom survive the accelerated Darwinism of the world of US television. There were encouraging signs that Episodes might ultimately be more interested in how the relationship between Sean and Beverly plays out than what gaudy excesses occur on the studio floor. Let’s hope so. On balance, I'd say it's worth watching to find out.

Comments

I really wanted this to be good, maybe a cross between Extras and Studio 60. But it's not, it's not even likable.(Richard Griffiths aside). It's not that the writing is flat out unfunny or lacking a few ideas but it just doesn't come across. I spent most of the scenes thinking "well I suppose that's funny".

well I loved it, cast perfect, this is a winner

Having read one or two less than flattering previews of this, I approached it with fairly low expectations, but was very pleasantly surprised. I thought it extremely well written, and brilliantly acted. There were a number of great scenes- the huge bath that took for ever to fill, the US head of comedy who wouldn't know a joke if it hit her around the head, the security guy at the gated development, and the cringe-making scenes with the American producer and his sycophantic staff. I'm looking for ward to the rest of this series immensely. The BBC do seem to be coming up with some great comedy at the moment- Rev, Whites, Come Fly With Me, and now Episodes.

To the list of excellent new comedy in my post below, I must also add The Trip- both funny and poignant.

Add comment

Subscribe to theartsdesk.com

Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 10,000 pieces, we're asking for £3.95 per month or £30 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take an annual subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?

newsletter

Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters

Advertising feature

★★★★★

A compulsive, involving, emotionally stirring evening – theatre’s answer to a page-turner.
The Observer, Kate Kellaway

 

Direct from a sold-out season at Kiln Theatre the five star, hit play, The Son, is now playing at the Duke of York’s Theatre for a strictly limited season.

 

★★★★★

This final part of Florian Zeller’s trilogy is the most powerful of all.
The Times, Ann Treneman

 

Written by the internationally acclaimed Florian Zeller (The Father, The Mother), lauded by The Guardian as ‘the most exciting playwright of our time’, The Son is directed by the award-winning Michael Longhurst.

 

Book by 30 September and get tickets from £15*
with no booking fee.