When Showtime was touting the new comedy "Episodes" for its winter line-up, a lot of the pre-press and advertising had to do with Matt LeBlanc. While I like LeBlanc, his presence in a new show was neither a particular draw for me nor a deterrent. However, I did tune in to give the program a shot and was pleasantly surprised that instead of purely a LeBlanc vehicle, "Episodes" featured a smart and savvy ensemble of actors in a delightful (and frighteningly believable) skewering of the entertainment industry. Most specifically, the show targets the creative and borderline insane process behind bringing a new television program to air. This surprisingly intelligent foray into scathing satire may not be the best program on the subject I've ever seen (try the uncomfortable awkwardness of "The Comeback," the blistering ruthlessness of "Action," or the of-the-moment imperative of "Grosse Pointe" as other possible candidates), but it is pretty on-the-mark!
What is intriguing, and quite appealing, about "Episodes" is that it combines the outrageous rudeness you might expect from Showtime with a droll British sensibility more in line with BBC. In fact, it is precisely this dichotomy that fuels the entire premise of the program. The season revolves around what happens when a successful and critically acclaimed British sitcom is adapted and Americanized for a stateside audience. The actual leads of the show are Stephen Mangan and Tamsin Grieg as the married co-creators of said sitcom who are enticed to Hollywood to helm the new interpretation. Playing as fish out of water comedy in earlier segments, the couple soon realize that compromise and capitulation are key in this new environment. For the stuffy headmaster role, the part gets handed to LeBlanc and reinterpreted as a hockey coach in the newly christened "Pucks." But this is just the beginning of the nightmare ride that just may destroy the couple!
Stephen Mangan is terrific--it's hard not to be caught up in his boyish enthusiasm! Grieg tackles the more difficult role with precision--she can be mildly unlikable but is generally the most sensible character in any particular scene. And finally, there's LeBlanc. LeBlanc perfectly uses his world weary charm to great affect. Trading on his persona, he oozes intelligence and industry savvy and, quite frankly, playing an alter ego fictionalization of himself displays more range than you might expect. It's a fabulous performance played with ease. John Pankow personifies showbiz phoniness as a studio executive, Mircea Monroe avoids easy stereotyping as a sexy co-star, and the delightful Kathleen Rose Perkins is the show's secret weapon as Pankow's peppy assistant! This great cast brings this biting satire to life, but it's the well observed screenplays that really sell the concept. The first episode is primarily set-up--but after that, the episodes are bright (there are seven half hour episodes in total), lively and quite smart about the industry. I really enjoyed "Episodes." For me, it's a 4 1/2 star experience--but I particularly recommend it to anyone with an inherent interest in television or Hollywood shenanigans! KGHarris, 2/11.