Matt Le Blanc is back and he's playing himself on the new Showtime series Episodes. Is this show, about a British show being adapted for American TV, worth getting excited over?
Episodes is The TV Set meets the Larry Sanders Show meets Curb Your Enthusiasm meets the Comeback
The Set Up:
Two married British writers, Sean and Beverly Lincoln, have their hilarious award-winning show "Lyman's Boys" adapted by an American Network. They meet the head of the network at the BAFTA Awards where he assures them that he loves their show and wants to faithfully bring it to American audiences. Because the show uses a "begins at the end" contrivance (meaning the opening scene of the show takes place at the end of the season's action), we know things don't go well, that creative compromises have been made and that the British couple are on the rocks on account of some wanking. And then the female writer Beverly crashes her car into Matt Le Blanc's car (because she's driving on the wrong side of the road, naturally) in what's supposed to be a hilarious turn of events because Le Blanc ends up being the star of their heavily-changed show.
Cringe Factor (out of 10):
I'm gonna admit some bias right up front and say that I generally don't like this kind of thing because it rarely works. You only very rarely get something like the Player or the Larry Sanders Show, works of art about the machine of making film or television; more often you end up with something like the TV Set, a movie from a couple of years ago where David Duchovny played a writer whose pilot got neutered little by little until it was a sitcom, or you get something like this. The problem with these shows is that they inherently mock the struggle of their characters: the TV Set, which was directed by Hollywood kid Jake Kasdan, was made as a pet project, "just something with friends" as he himself said in the film's audio commentary, which makes it seem like getting something made the way you want it made is something impossible for "normal" people, but it's completely possible for him. In Episodes, there's a similar problem: Sean and Beverly Lincoln are already extremely successful. They're going ahead with an American adaptation because of the money, "we'll never have to work again" Sean says to convince his wife. Why, then, would they give a flying fuck what happens to show, they're just on a cash run? If they were smart, they would just sell the rights, maintain EP credit and collect residuals like Ricky Gervais does. Even if the American version isn't successful, they've still won oodles of prestigious British awards, why do they care? Maybe, if Episodes were about a less-than-ridiculously-successful couple of writers it might make more sense. And would be less insulting: watching someone for whom this is the break they've waited and worked for get broken down by the machine can be riveting, like the first two acts of Barton Fink, but watching people who have already achieved and will never have to worry again fight over little details is rather annoying.
But, of course, Sean and Beverly are the only sane ones. The network people that they meet with are all sycophants serving a mildly psychotic leader. The best joke here is the "head of comedy" who can't crack a smile, and if the show spent more time managing the machine of the network, it might have done better. Instead, it takes the "sane people in an insane world" bit too far and adds to everything else a little dash of how stupid people in LA are, which, true or not, takes up unnecessary screen time, like when Sean and Beverly watch a hot tub not fill up fast enough, get annoyed at the computerized home monitoring system in the gigantic house they don't have to pay for, or when they have some trouble getting in to their new gated community. Because what's a show in LA doing if not pulling bits from Curb Your Enthusiasm?
On another note, shows about shows often have problems when the show within the show isn't very good. One thing that make the Larry Sanders Show work so well was that the show within the show was just like real late night shows, it wouldn't have been laughed off the set. When the show within the show isn't as good as the real life shows it's imitating, it makes you care very little for the struggle of the people making it. A great example is Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip which presented an alternative to SNL that was so incredibly inferior I found myself not giving a good goddamn what happened because why would I watch a sketch comedy show that boasts Rob Reiner as a guest host? The point is: this scene where Richard Griffiths is forced to re-read for a part he already has made me worry that "Lyman's Boys" actually wasn't that funny to begin with:
As well, the whole idea behind the show - that the American TV machine destroys British masterpieces - is totally up for debate. Not that I'm defending American TV executives, but the idea that they pillage the British TV landscape and make indiscriminate changes to excellent shows just isn't that true. Sure, locations are changed and shows fail but not often because of crazy changes that have been made to the foundation of the original show. Even ones that flamed out in spectacular fashion; NBC's version of Coupling was nearly word for word the exact same script as the original British pilot. Sometimes things just don't cross over, like Life on Mars which was a fantastic adaptation and failed for a reason having nothing to do with changing the setting from Manchester to New York. It just seems a bit of a stretch that a successful and powerful executive would be completely incapable of understanding why something works. And, the irony of following up Episodes with an American adaption of Shameless is either really hypocritical or a new depth of self-loathing for the executives of Showtime.
And then there's Le Blanc's JCVD moment, which will have to be addressed at a later time since he only appears in the opening car crash. He could be hilarious as a "fill in the blank" version of himself, or the whole thing could turn into a ridiculous bit of self-aggrandizing fake parody. Guess we'll find out next week.
Over/Under for Cancellation
Since this is pay cable and the show's been constructed with the end at the beginning, clearly the show will last one full season. But I think it's gonna be hard to pull off a second, plotwise that would mean that the American adaptation of "Lyman's Boys" is a hit and coming back for a second season, the implication of which renders all of the Lincolns' fighting and integrity and such completely useless. But then again, Showtime has kept pumping out season after season of Weeds, and you know that if Episodes shows the slightest hint of anything, they'll keep rolling it out for as long as possible.