Within the same week that Jennifer Aniston’s critically acclaimed transformation in Cake hits theaters, fellow former Friend Matt LeBlanc returned to television for a fourth season just playing himself. I’ve been a fan of Episodes pretty much since one of those weekends when everything on Showtime was free. So, I’m always surprised how few people I talk to seem to even be aware that Joey had a TV show after Joey. It’s a shame in that the others are missing out on some decent throwback television.
The premise of Episodes is easy — even four seasons in: The married, British writing team of Sean and Beverly Lincoln (Stephen Mangan and Tamsin Greig), riding high on the success of a lauded show they created for UK television, are convinced to cross the pond and adapt said show for the US. The Lincolns subsequently endure all manner of humiliations as their original concept is dumbed down, defanged, and ultimately destroyed by tasteless, officious, duplicitous entertainment industry executives tripping over themselves to anticipate and exploit American viewing habits for maximum profit. LeBlanc plays Matt LeBlanc — an over-the-hill sitcom star with salary demands as bloated as his sense of self, brought in to give the show mass market appeal. The fact that the choice of star could not be more abhorrent to Sean and Beverly matters to the hack execs and LeBlanc not at all.
The idea of celebrities playing egomaniacal, self-destructive, or simply wretched versions of themselves has been executed many times before — superbly on Extras, for example. (Not to mention that other Friend Lisa Kudrow’s Valerie Cherish — the wholly manufactured former sitcom star from Kudrow’s The Comeback — is somehow both more fleshed out and broadly hilarious than Matt’s own Matt.) Not only is Episodes sort of unoriginal among television shows, it has little new to say within its own constraints. After two episodes, season four seems barely distinguishable from the previous two seasons — maybe even all three. The Lincolns, though disheartened and disillusioned by everyone and every deal they encounter in this strange, plastic land, are continually baited and drawn back into the venomously competitive, capitalist vaudeville act of American television. And, Matt LeBlanc finds different — not necessarily new — ways to be an inconsiderate boor with a vaguely sympathetic side. The series resets every season like a traditional sitcom does after every episode.
In the first paragraph, I said I was a fan, right? Well, yeah. There’s something retro about Episodes that I find familiar and pleasing. It doesn’t purport to be a traditional sitcom — this is Showtime, after all, not one of the networks so often skewered on the show — but it thinks and often behaves like one. And, of course, it feels like one because that’s what Matt LeBlanc is really good at. Now salt-and-pepper handsome and a little burlier, he still mugs like a champ. Even without Valerie Cherish’s nuance, it’s fun to watch LeBlanc blast through scenes like a sad, unaccomplished DeNiro. More importantly, though, Episodes harkens back to how so many of us used to think about sitcoms — and television, in general — before this most recent Golden Age of Mad Men, Transparent, Orange is the New Black, and even Modern Family: That it was all lowest common denominator trash pumped out by glorified sausage makers trying to find a flavorful enough casing for ad agency gruel.
Episodes is a callback to when, even though we were glued to the couch during primetime, we very much suspected that television was bad for us and commissioned by people who didn’t really care whether it was or not. That belief — though it was only partially true — may have troubled us once. “TV rots your brain!” or so it was said. But now that there’s stuff on the small screen that can safely be called great art, we can somehow all feel better about vegging out to the good, the bad, and the enjoyably mediocre.