Two years to the week after its second season premiered in the UK, Episodes, the Brits-in-Hollywood comedy based around a fictitious show-within-a-show comedy and starring former Friends star Matt LeBlanc as a caricature of himself, returned to UK screens for its third season.
Now, where were we exactly?
We pick up the morning after the night before. Merc Lapidus (John Pankow) is dealing with the double blow of being dumped from his network executive job and discovering that his blind wife Jamie has been conducting an affair with Matt LeBlanc. Meanwhile, days after sleeping with Rob, the brother of Morning Randolph (Mircea Monroe), one of the stars of their floundering sitcom Pucks, Beverly (Tamsin Greig) is back with husband Sean (Stephen Mangan), who had a brief affair with Morning.
The episode unpicks the various relationship complications while delivering the show’s customary observational humour about the absurdity of Hollywood life.
Jamie rejects Merc’s absurd claim that his five-year affair with his second-in-command Carol Rance (Kathleen Rose Perkins) was a ‘mistake’. At the network, it’s as if Merc never existed, as the name on his car park space is painted over and his office is already stripped bare.
Carol is hopelessly indiscreet about her news that she has been asked to take over from Merc. First she virtually shouts about it in the middle of a crowded restaurant with Beverly, with a Variety writer within earshot at a nearby table. Then she blabs to one of her underlings, Andy, and before she can even get to her office everyone has been let in on the secret. However, she’s humiliated when she is told that Deadline Hollywood is already running the news of Castor Sotto’s appointment – before she has even been notified by the head of the network.
Sean helps Matt write an email to his ex-wife Diane, who is playing hardball and trying to restrict access to his sons. Matt brings champagne to Sean and Beverly’s office to celebrate them getting back together, but is subsequently pulled over by the police. Unable to use his star status to talk himself out of trouble, he’s charged with driving under the influence.
Beverly and Sean discuss moving back in together. She doesn’t want to move into his place because of the thought of Morning in his bed, but when they return to her apartment, she raises Sean’s suspicions when she is desperate to change the bedsheets, resulting in her confessing her one-night stand with Rob. Oops.
It’s back – but will anyone actually watch?
Although it was short on genuine laughs (a common problem with this show, particularly in its first season) this was a decent return, quickly re-establishing the likeability and sense of reality about the three lead characters.
With two seasons of established history and convoluted relationships – Beverly’s slept with Matt and Rob, Matt’s slept with Beverly and Jamie, Sean’s slept with Morning, Merc had a long-standing affair with Carol – there’s plenty of awkwardness to draw on. But at the heart of it is a pair of writers who clearly love each other but have struggled to keep their marriage together when their dream move to LA turned sour.
Tamsin Greig and Matt LeBlanc, who finally won a Golden Globe playing himself after failing to do so in ten years playing Friends’ Joey Tribbiani, are great. Greig is the show’s emotional centre, while LeBlanc revels in the blurring of the lines involved in playing a version of himself, an actor best known for playing a much younger, more affable character known and loved by millions around the world. Stephen Mangan is a fantastic comic actor but, for me, too prone to defaulting to Wallace & Gromit-style gurning in the show’s more serious moments. Nonetheless, Matt, Beverly and Sean are characters it’s easy to warm to despite their flaws and failings.
Episodes’ first two seasons met with mixed reception on both sides of the Atlantic. UK ratings plummeted during season two – the finale drew just 1.06 million viewers – but it has done well for co-producer Showtime in the US, whose recent comedy output (Nurse Jackie – superb, House of Lies, so-so) has failed to hit the heights of its worldwide drama hits Homeland and Masters of Sex. Nonetheless, a fourth season was commissioned before season three had even started in the US.
It’s not a bad show by any means, with the second season being better and more consistent than the first. It’s better than Stephen Merchant’s recent and short-lived Hello Ladies, another show which riffed on the lonely-Brit-in-Hollywood theme but which lacked a sympathetic lead character. It’s also superior to LeBlanc’s LA-based Joey, a poorly constructed attempt to catch Central Perk lightning in a bottle twice. And although the more bittersweet elements of the show are well done, the largely ignored Doll & Em did it better, combining the fish-out-of-water and story-within-a-story dynamics better than any of the above.
So what do we have here? We have a dramedy that is very funny in patches, but is neither particularly original nor brilliant, despite good writers and a good cast. It’s not the lack of originality that constrains Episodes – Brooklyn Nine-Nine is hardly a unique concept but it knows what it is and it embraces it wholeheartedly. With Episodes, I feel it has found itself stuck between being a ‘British’ comedy and an American one and isn’t sure which it wants to be (and is consequently neither) – just like the show-within-a-show Pucks is.
I like Episodes. I don’t love it, but I like it. I probably won’t do weekly reviews, but I’ll be back with an end-of-season review after this run of nine half-hours.