Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Showtime’s Episodes: The One Where the Brits Get Shafted by Hollywood

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on March 15, 2011. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.

Some of the biggest news in TV this winter (long before Charlie Sheen began his distracting antics) was the return of some old Friends to the sitcom world: Matthew Perry on ABC’s Mr. Sunshine and Matt LeBlanc’s on Showtime’s Episodes. Since I’ve already weighed in positively on Mr. Sunshine, today we’re taking a look at Episodes.

Episodes is far more than a Matt LeBlanc comeback vehicle. Co-produced by Showtime and the BBC (and airing simultaneously on both of sides of the pond)Episodes tells the story of Sean and Beverly Lincoln (former Green Wing co-stars Stephen Mangan and Tamsin Grieg), a British husband-and-wife writing duo whose BAFTA-award winning TV series is optioned by an American network. The 7-episode first season takes place over a period of only a couple of weeks, taking us step-by-step from the couple’s disorienting arrival in Hollywood to the end of the filming of their show’s pilot. This slow corruption of the Lincolns’ professional integrity is mirrored in the concurrent decay of their relationship. The two are compelled to make compromise after compromise in the production of their show, including being forced to (mis)cast Matt LeBlanc (credibly played by Matt LeBlanc) as the show’s lead. Within hours of landing in L.A., their show’s title shifts from “Lyman’s Boys” to “Pucks!”, transformed from a genteel, if biting, boarding school comedy about an aging headmaster with a wistful crush on a middle-aged, lesbian librarian into a middle-of-the-road romcom-sitcom about a hockey coach wooing the school’s young, sexy, and very heterosexual librarian.

Tamsin Grieg and Stephen Mangan
Taking on show business from the inside raises the bar considerably for a comedy series, and so Episodes gave itself a steep hill to climb. (The gold standard will always be HBO’s The Larry Sanders Show, but Ricky Gervais’ much more personal approach in Extras comes in a close second.)  But even if making a TV show about making a TV show is as old as television itself, Crane and Klarik do bring something new to the table: the dramatization of the difficult translation of a successful UK series into the very different culture of American TV. In that sense, it could hardly be timelier. In the very same week that Episodes first aired, 3 US versions of popular UK shows premiered: Skins (on MTV), Being Human (on SyFy), Shameless, which aired immediately following the first episode of Episodes on Showtime itself. As each of these shows struggles in its own way to translate very popular (and still on-going) British series for an American audience, Episodes offers a dark and satirical look behind the scenes at a comparable, if fictional, effort. If you’ve ever seen a favourite UK series be painfully adapted to the US network model (NBC’s limp re-creation of Steven Moffat’s Coupling comes to mind), Episodes is definitely a must-see.