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.

Kathleen Rose Perkins and John Pankow in Episodes
For one, Episodes certainly knows its sitcoms: it was created by the writing team of David Crane (co-creator of Friends) and Jeffrey Klarik (writer and co-producer of Mad About You). Together, Crane and Klarik also created the short-lived CBS sitcom The Class in 2006, and in many ways, this new cable series is their revenge on the network meddling that led to that show’s cancellation after one brief season.  And no doubt it is possible to read the entire series as a one-note screed against executive tampering with artistic output, but intentionally or not, the show offers some nuance in that regard. On the one hand, Merc, the president of the American television network that buys “Lyman's Boys” and played to the hilt by John Pankow (Mad About You), is an irredeemable louse: he is crude and immature to the point of pathology, and utterly lacking in taste or any appreciation for the medium of television. But on the other hand, the changes to the Lincolns’ show come from primarily from the LeBlanc’s mostly well-intended meddling. And (whatever we are supposed to believe of the quality of the fictional pilot by season’s end), the suggestions LeBlanc makes are more often right than wrong. For example, his argument for why the object of his character’s affection shouldn’t be written as a lesbian is actually quite compelling, pointing to the fact that – ironically – the US network norm of a 22-episode season actually may impose narrative limitations on a series, when compared to the traditionally shorter runs of a UK series.

One of the dangers of celebrities playing themselves in fictional series (as stars or guest stars) is that there often seems to be only one way to go with it: playing tweaked versions of themselves that are, basically, cartoonish douchebags. And while this can be hilarious in small doses (e.g. Wil Wheaton’s recent turn as Sheldon’s nemesis on The Big Bang Theory), this is tricky to sustain over time, especially for a main character. But in Episodes, LeBlanc does precisely what the show needs him to do: in the show-within-the-show, his timing is sitcom perfect; off set, he is decidedly less likeable, even while somehow remaining imminently watchable. And while LeBlanc’s LeBlanc is the source of almost every change to the Lincolns’ pilot, it is difficult to not sympathize with the position his character has been put in: patently miscast in the show’s lead, he remains desperate for a successful new sitcom, and so is genuinely trying to make the situation work.

Matt LeBlanc as Matt LeBlanc
Admittedly, the show’s main conceit (that this US version is a pale and disturbing shadow of its UK original) would have been more cleanly executed if viewers were provided some intermittent selections from the British production of “Lyman’s Boys.” One of the best reasons why Gervais’ brilliant second season of Extras works so well is that we get to actually get to see relatively lengthy scenes from the broad “catch-phrase comedy” his character is suffering through – a show which, one has to admit, isn’t nearly as objectively bad as Gervais’ Andy Millman believes it to be, a fact which provides a lot of insight into the inner life of our protagonist. As Episodes progresses and “Pucks!” begins to take shape, a cautious viewer might begin to doubt just how ‘brilliant’ the original production actually was, and without any direct evidence one way or another, this scepticism only serves to distance, rather than deepen, our relationship to the characters

But whatever Episodes’ possible failings, there’s a scene at the end of the first episode that works so well that it might well redeem the entire first season of the series. (For a couple of weeks in January, I was recommending the series to everyone I knew, merely so that I would have more people to talk with about those stunning 6 and a half minutes.)


The set-up is this: Sean and Beverly have landed in L.A. only to discover that Merc’s initial sycophancy was not entirely genuine. He’d professed a deep love for the original “Lyman’s Boys,” but it turns out that he’d never actually seen a single episode. And while the Lincolns had been assuming that the optioning of the series would allow them to keep the main lead in the American production, Merc had different ideas about who could star and demanded that the actor re-audition for the role. So Julian Bullard, the aging star of their UK series, is flown in to read for the lead character. Julian (played with delicious charm by Shakespearean actor Richard Griffiths, most famous for playing Vernon Dursley in the Harry Potter films) does a straight read of the scene to the delight of all in attendance. It is a straightforward scene reminiscent of many British comedies: the gruff schoolmaster speaks the truth to a well-bred, but none-too-able, student – an exchange replete with class humour, dry wit, and word play. But, as the appreciative laughter subsides, Merc makes a casual suggestion that perhaps Bullard is a bit “too English” for the part, and wonders if he could do the part in an American accent. Julian, ever the professional (“Dear ones, I was doing Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams before you were born”), graciously agrees and re-reads the scene, this time in the tenor of a Southern gentleman. It is an unmitigated disaster: the very same lines which had come off as charming and playful in the British accent were revealed as mean-spirited and even cruel, and headmaster’s playful wit suddenly looks uncannily like bullying. The Lincolns are literally struck dumb as the ludicrousness of their task of translation dawns wordlessly on their faces, and even Julian himself knows how badly the scene is going and he exits gracefully without a word of protest.

Richard Griffiths as Julian Bullard
In the end, it is a rather simple scene, but it was perfectly executed and demonstrated what I immediately saw as the amazing potential of the series. For as long as I’ve been watching television, British comedies have always been required viewing. And in less than 7 minutes, this one scene obliquely expresses a dissertation-length thesis on the rarely spoken but profoundly real differences between the two cultures, their respective histories, and the vast set of assumptions all viewers bring to bear when they hear a British voice as opposed to an American one. (It also, needless to say, explains what went so very wrong with NBC’s line-for-line restaging of Coupling.In retrospect, there are only a few moments in the rest of the season that begin to approach the heights of that scene, but for me, it cast a generous glow on all that followed.  It is also perhaps an ideal example of what my fellow Critic at Large David Churchill has called a “mini-masterpiece”: a brief moment of genius which elevates everything in its proximity.

Episodes airs on Showtime in the US and BBC Two in the UK. It has already been renewed a second season.