When NBC premiered “Outsourced,” a lot of people called the sitcom racist. I shied away from that. Saying “racist” implies ignorance or hostile intent and I don’t really think the writers and producers on “Outsourced” are racist. Instead, “Outsourced” is lazy. Yes, sitcom laziness can fuel racism or be a product of racism (or several other -isms), but sometimes it’s just what comes from writers and directors aiming for the easiest available punchlines, settling for broad and predictable over insightful and nuanced.
It may sound harsh, but I can’t get past my conviction that David Crane and Jeffrey Klarik’s approach to Hollywood in the new Showtime comedy “Episodes” is every bit as lazy and complacent as the approach of the “Outsourced” team towards India. There are two clear distinctions I’d make that would make that possibly make “Episodes” even worse than “Outsourced”: The first is that if you’re lazy and superficial about a foreign culture, you’ll get accused of racism and xenophobia, which makes it a dangerous pursuit, while nobody will ever do anything other than pat you on the back for making banal, surface judgements about Hollywood. The second is that the people behind “Outsourced” are not, for the most part, Indian, so their reliance on stereotyping is somewhat a product of not knowing any better, while Crane and Klarik are both industry veterans with decades of experience, meaning that it’s fair to expect more from them. [On the flip side, there’s no danger to viewers being ignorant about Hollywood, while India is the world’s second most populous nation, so it really would be nice if people thought the country had more to offer than social awkward workers and diarrhea-producing food.]
“Outsourced” had a place on my Worst of 2010 list and I have little doubt that “Episodes” will hold a position on my 2011 list, although I’m similarly confident that it will have passionate defenders. After all, it’s easy to cheer on the audacity of Hollywood heavyweights biting the hands that feed them, even if they’re just regurgitating the same bloated satire that literally dozens of films and TV shows before them have already produced. If you love popular entertainment, but hate the system that produces it and don’t want to waste time thinking about why you hate that system, “Episodes” is a show for you.
More after the break…
“Episodes” stars Tamsin Greig and Stephen Mangan as Beverly and Sean, a British couple behind the most popular and acclaimed comedy series Across the Pond. Their show is smart, funny and largely hypothetical, since series co-creators Crane & Klarik aren’t confident enough to over-share their version of what a “good” BBC comedy would sound like.
Like many before them, Bev and Sean get offered a deal from the Devil, in this case a buffoonish TV network head played by John Pankow. He wants them to bring their show to his network and he’s such a fan that he promises them he doesn’t want to change a thing. With very little hesitation, Bev and Sean are off to Hollywood, full of wide-eyed enthusiasm that suggests that even though they work in entertainment at the highest level, they have never seen “The Player,” “Entourage,” “Adaptation,” “Wag the Dog,” “The TV Set,” “Bofinger,” a dozen Woody Allen films, several Albert Brooks films, “The Big Picture,” “The Comeback,” “Sunset Boulevard,” “Living in Oblivion,” “Grosse Pointe,” “Californication,” “Network,” “30 Rock,” “Action,” “8 1/2,” “Get Shorty,” “The Starter Wife,” “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” “Joey” or any one of literally hundreds of TV and movie projects that show how Hollywood is a place where naive creative dreams are smashed by a machinery driven by blustery producers and twisty process that favors financial considerations over artistic goals.
Now some (many) of those TV shows and movies were commercial disappointments, or even disasters. And some of those TV shows and movies were pretty awful. But all of them exist. My imagination may be limited, but I can’t accept a semi-fictional universe in which Matt LeBlanc is still a recently unemployed actor best known for “Friends,” but nobody in history has ever made Hollywood satire.
But Bev and Sean arrive in Los Angeles and they’re amazed by all the sunshine, shocked by the affluence of their network-provided digs and then they’re even more shocked to discover a string of previously unfathomable things about Hollywood: Sometimes network executives are assholes who lie to your face! Sometimes networks ask you to change things for reasons that might not actually improve things! Sometimes actresses lie about their age and undergo plastic surgery to appear younger! Also? Matt LeBlanc has a gigantic penis. Would they be as shocked to learn that Matt LeBlanc had larger-than-normal endowment? Doubtful. But the revelation that Matt LeBlanc is packing a 10-foot Burmese python in his pants leaves Bev and Sean with almost nothing else to discuss for a full episode.
Oh, did I forget to mention that when Bev and Sean are shocked to learn that networks sometimes tinker with good ideas, the biggest piece of tinkering is bringing in Matt LeBlanc to play the character played by an overweight British man (Richard Griffiths, who isn’t famous enough to be playing Richard Griffiths) in the original series. There are many more compromises that have to be made and they’re exactly the same compromises you’d expect might be made.
A fun game: Once you realize the level of satire at work, see how early you can guess the ending of the first season. My notes say I was there at the fourth episode, but I suspect I was a bit slow to the punch.
A problem: Crane & Klarik keep having our main characters insisting that their version of the series was better, but nothing they’re capable of putting on-screen *shows* that their version of the show was better. The scenes we see from the rejiggered pilot aren’t very good, but it’s almost impossible to tell them apart from the one or two scenes we get from the unadulterated original. Because we’re only being told that things are getting worse, without any real evidence, there’s no point at which we feel either sympathy or empathy for Bev and Sean. Viewers need to have a rooting interest and the natural instinct is to have us root for the crusading artists trying to protect their visions. But Bev and Sean aren’t written smarter than anybody else, nor is their vision written as a notable vision. Is that a joke that Crane & Klarik are intentionally playing? Are they tweaking audience expectations that things with British accents are inherently more literate and urbane and the joke is that it turns out that Bev and Sean aren’t all that good at what they do? I don’t believe it is. That would be perceptive and cheeky. It’s not what they do.
A second problem: Crane & Klarik spent many years watching the sausage get made in Hollywood, but they have no desire at all to give a truthful depiction. “Episodes” isn’t all that “Inside Hollywood” at all. It’s not a system or an industry that’s trying to ruin Sean and Bev’s script. It’s one stupid TV executive, written without any humanity. Crane & Klarik show almost nothing about the pilot process other than that people in Hollywood lie and people in Hollywood have bad taste. That’s a bore. Jake Kasdan’s script for “The TV Set” is also far too self-satisfied, but in 90 minutes, it does a better job of showing the way an artist compromises a vision than seven episodes of “Episodes.” Crane & Klarik don’t try to depict the tiers of the industry otherwise of generalities, as if they’re trying to say, “No really, Hollywood. We love you, it’s just that one guy we hate.” That’s toothless satire.
A third problem that’s really a subset of the second: Part of why “The Player” is such a terrific movie is that even though Michael Tolkin’s novel and script are overflowing with bile, he’s aware that despite the bumbling and tunnel-vision, Hollywood is still a place where great movies and great TV shows are capable of being made. You need that contrast or else you’re not making a point, even if your point is “Here is how good things get made despite the system.” In “Episodes,” Hollywood is a joke and it’s inconceivable that anything good could ever get made in this environment. Hollywood is just a villain twirling his mustache and crushing British people.
Those are thematic, universe-creating problems. They’re far from the biggest issues plaguing the show.
Crane & Klarik have been working in multi-camera comedy for many years. That’s what their rhythms are. For at least four episodes, the actors are practically screaming every punchline and then waiting for laughter, despite “Episodes” being a single-camera comedy (and none of the punchlines being funny). The complete ineptitude with the single-camera tone makes me wonder what involvement producer Jimmy Mulville and director James Griffiths — both veterans of British, single-camera comedies — actually had in the process. I’ve been told repeatedly that if I knew Greig and Mangan from their British comedies, I’d love them. Instead, I now know them from their “Episodes” work, where they’ve been asked to mug relentlessly in every scene. There isn’t a natural, relaxed moment between them. Whatever their comedic strengths are, Crane & Klarik have written around them.
It’s like there’s an unspoken conviction that we’ll root for Bev and Sean, because Pankow’s network head has been written with even less shading. He’s loud, he’s shrill and nobody bothers trying give any suggestion how a man like this could hold his current occupation, much less how he could have reached such heights. In a show of one-note characters, I found myself appreciating the two notes played by both Mircea Monroe and Kathleen Rose Perkins.
The show’s only nearly-developed character is Matt LeBlanc and even that’s an illusion. As written on “Episodes,” the character of “Matt LeBlanc” isn’t especially complicated or rich, but he’s designed to play off of our perceptions of “Real Matt LeBlanc TV Star.” That means Crane & Klarik don’t have to write a multi-dimensional character, just one who’s counter-intuitive. Every punchline or dramatic moment from Matt LeBlanc’s character comes from a “Wouldn’t it be funny if ‘Friends’ star Matt LeBlanc was like *this*?” If you didn’t know “Friends” star Matt LeBlanc as a celebrity construct, there wouldn’t be anything memorable about the “Episodes” character of Matt LeBlanc. And yes, it’s ridiculous to imagine anybody watching “Episodes” who didn’t know Matt LeBlanc, but no more ridiculous than Bev & Sean’s Hollywood naivete.
And yet? LeBlanc is effective on “Episodes.” Almost nothing else is. Especially in the last two or three episodes, where Crane & Klarik finally seem to realize a studio audience won’t help them get laughs, LeBlanc forces you to care about him, if only to feel sorry that an actor with his gifts reached such a fallow career period that he’d be eligible for this kind of lampooning.
“Episodes” is supposed to be a portrait of what happens when the creative vision of two apparently brilliant people gets diluted by the soulless, idiotic machinery of Hollywood. But every episode of “Episodes” is credited to Crane & Klarik, leading me to exactly the opposite conclusion: Maybe sometimes two apparently brilliant people need a few more checks and balances, because if this is what happens when they’re given total control, I’m woefully unamused.
For years, Showtime has been challenging viewers with half-hour dramedies that don’t give clear indications on when viewers are supposed to laugh and when they’re supposed to feel emotions. Those shows, while successful with critics, may have hit a certain ratings ceiling. Maybe with its lazy familiarity and comforting emotional vacuousness, “Episodes” will help shatter that ceiling.
“Episodes” premieres on Sunday (Jan. 9) night on Showtime.