Showtime’s new inside-Hollywood satire “Episodes” (Sunday at 9:30 p.m.) – about a pair of English sitcom writers (Stephen Mangan and Tamsin Greig) who have a nightmarish experience adapting their show for American TV – comes from a place of absolute, naked contempt for the television business. And even though that business has made its creators David Crane (co-creator of “Friends”) and Jeffrey Klarik (former “Mad About You” writer and Crane’s domestic partner as well as his current writing partner) a whole lot of money, that’s fine. Some of the best satire comes from a place of intense anger.
But when you’re attacking a big, fat target like the superficial, duplicitous nature of Hollywood, and being so relentless and bitter about it, you need to be much, much, much funnier than “Episodes” is. You need to be “The Larry Sanders Show” funny, or “Extras” season two funny. “Episodes” isn’t even as funny as Crane and Klarik’s last collaboration, the exceedingly mediocre short-lived CBS comedy “The Class” – and that’s even considering that the new show features Crane’s old “Friends” star Matt LeBlanc delivering a terrific performance as an exaggerated version of himself.
The debut, um, episode opens with a scene from fairly late in the Hollywood tenure of Mangan and Greig’s Sean and Beverly Lincoln, as they fight over all the horrible compromises they’ve made and people they’ve had to kiss up to since leaving England. The idea is to make us curious about how Sean and Beverly got to this bad place in their relationship, and then take us through it step by step. But the in media res opening isn’t necessary, because you will see every single plot development coming from at least as far away as you’ll see every limp punchline.
Everyone Sean and Beverly meet in Hollywood is a liar, an idiot or, usually, both, and the two of them are continually shocked – shocked! – to discover it, long after the pattern should be abundantly clear to anyone who hasn’t been cloistered in a monastery their whole life.
The biggest offender – and the series’ most grating character – is Merc Lapidus (John Pankow from “Mad About You”), the obnoxious network president who woos the Lincolns into coming to America with promises that they’ll be able to use their old scripts, their original leading man, and every other part of their award-winning “Lyman’s Boys,” about the brilliant headmaster of an elite boys’ academy. It quickly turns out that Merc has never actually seen “Lyman’s Boys,” frequently forgets who the Lincolns are, and is such a boor that he will silently mock his beautiful, generous, blind wife while standing right next to her. (On occasion, he’ll just walk away without telling her while she’s in mid-sentence.)
There are a bunch of problems with the Merc character, and how he represents the show’s view of Hollywood in general. I have no doubt Crane and Klarik have dealt with some terrible, terrible executives in their careers (I’m pretty sure I’ve interviewed a few of them), but Merc is such a caricature of every assumption you might have about network suits that he becomes a boring, irritating strawman villain. And, worse, he’s not wrong about everything, even though the show acts like he is.
Literal, note-for-note translations of foreign shows simply don’t work. Don’t believe me? Please go watch the first episode of the American “The Office” (the only one closely adapted from a British script, and not coincidentally one of the worst episodes of the show’s run), or almost any episode of the American “Coupling” (where the only non-terrible episode was the only one with an original script), or MTV and Syfy’s upcoming, overly-faithful remakes of, respectively, “Skins” and “Being Human.” The trans-continental remakes that work tend to take a germ of an idea, or even loose character sketches, and spin them off in different directions, rather than slavishly copying previous work.
(Interestingly, Showtime is following “Episodes” with a remake of the British family dramedy “Shameless,” which has the Brit creator running things and often reusing stories and dialogue from the original – and where the strongest of the episodes I’ve seen is the one that deviates the most from the source material.)
So even though the ultimate American version of “Lyman’s Boys” – called “Pucks!” and starring LeBlanc as Lyman, who’s now a hockey coach because everyone acknowledges that LeBlanc would be unbelievable as “the erudite, verbally dexterous headmaster of an elite boys academy” – is ridiculous and far removed from the original idea, the notion of significantly changing things itself shouldn’t be that terrible. And other than a story in one episode where LeBlanc convincingly argues for Sean to not make the main female character a lesbian, the series acts like it’s a heinous crime for Sean and Beverly to have to change anything.
For that matter, LeBlanc in general gets better treatment than any of the other Hollywood characters, who are by and large selfish, irredeemable twits. Maybe it’s because he and Crane are close from the “Friends” days, or because Crane and Klarik view actors as fellow creative types – and therefore fellow victims of The Man – but while the fictionalized LeBlanc is no prince, he’s also a more well-rounded, interesting and at times likable character than anyone else on the show. (Even the Lincolns become very one-note in a hurry, which is unfortunate, given that Mangan and Greig have done a lot of well-regarded work together in England.)
There’s quite a bit of trite “Joey isn’t as dumb as you think he is” business to LeBlanc’s first few episodes (at one point, he says his strategy in a custody hearing is to hit the judge with a few “How you doin’?”s), and a weird and pointless subplot about him being well-endowed (Sean boasts that it’s “Like a sea creature! Like something out of Jules Verne!”), but little by little, LeBlanc gets to do some fine work and remind you that he was essentially carrying the last few seasons of “Friends.” (That “Joey” was terrible is less on LeBlanc than on the writers and executives who thought you could build an entire show around Joey and a bunch of thinly-drawn, unfunny second bananas.)
But LeBlanc aside, “Episodes” is a bit of an ordeal. There are a bunch of hacky running gags that would have seemed dubious even on a traditional laughtrack-driven sitcom (one involving an absent-minded security guard is particularly wince-inducing), and that seem to undercut Crane and Klarik’s attempts to paint the network executives as philistines who wouldn’t know good comedy if it bit them. (The one brief snippet we get of “Lyman’s Boys” unaltered suffers from the “Studio 60” problem, where it isn’t nearly as good as the actors’ reactions are supposed to have us believe.)
I love a good angry comedy, but I find few kinds of entertainment more unpleasant to sit through than an angry, unfunny comedy.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org