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TV Preview: Episodes

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Wikipedia lists 102 British television series which were fashioned and primped, recast and altered to make them more palatable for a U.S. audience. A quick look at this list will prove that few of these offerings ever made it big on these shores. Sure, now and again, shows like The Office or Three’s Company, will beat the odds and do bang up business here. But for every success story there are five dreams shot to hell.

This fact is made extremely clear in SHOWTIME’s new half hour comedy series Episodes, in which we meet happily married writers, Sean and Beverly Lincoln (played by Steven Mangan and Tamsin Greig). The Lincolns are the “Golden Couple of British Comedy”. Their U.K. sitcom Lyman’s Boys has brought them innumerable accolades and loads of awards in their native land. Now they have been offered the opportunity of a lifetime: a chance to have their massively successful sitcom remade for an American audience. Not only that, they’ll be writing it. If this sounds too good to be true, that’s because it is.

The Lincoln’s first moments in La La Land foreshadow the problems they will soon face, socially, professionally and otherwise. Merc Lapidus (played to the sleezy, slimy hilt by John Pankow) is the powerful head of the network: a smarmy, unctuous manchild who has never seen Lyman’s Boys (“He’s not a big TV watcher,” one of Lapidus’s underlings tells them), the security guard of their gated community fails to recognize the Lincolns no matter how often they come and go. The biggest cut of all is Lapidus’s edict that Lyman’s Boys be totally reworked. Instead of starring a “brilliant, elderly, erudite, Royal Shakespeare veteran” (Harry Potter’s Richard Griffiths) as the headmaster of a boarding school, the lead actor will be…Matt LeBlanc! Joey from Friends?? Yes, indeedy. LeBlanc will not be a headmaster, though, his character will play a hockey coach in a boys school. To add a little salt to the wound, the show will be renamed Pucks!

Understandably, the Lincolns are mortified. LeBlanc comes off initially as an unreasonable, egotistical jerk. He eventually charms Sean but has a difficult time wheedling into Beverly’s good graces. A complicated triangle is formed, which threatens not only the TV show but the Lincoln’s marriage as well.

Although the first season of Episodes is comprised of only seven installments, there is plenty to like in this short initial run. The characters are well crafted and even when they’re sad excuses for human beings, they are strangely likable. The main plot and subplot (Lapidus’s mistreatment of his blind wife and his affair with his assistant) are equally watchable. And Matt LeBlanc’s loopy take on himself (much like Larry David’s Larry David on Curb Your Enthusiasm) is brilliant. The Lincoln’s love-hate relationship with him mirrors our own.

Episodes was created by two of America’s most acclaimed comedy writers: David Crane (Friends, The Class) and Jeffrey Klarik (Mad About You, The Class). In a case of life imitating art, it is a co-production between SHOWTIME in the U.S. and the BBC in the U.K. The show brings out the best of British and American wit. I enjoyed observing the glitzy Hollywood scene through the eyes of Sean and Beverly, how the fast-paced lifestyle and their dealings with their star and network people changed them in ways they could never have anticipated.

In Episode 7, the situation and relationships got a bit out of hand. Although the show is basically a satire, much of it rings true, which is why a few over-the-top elements of the last half hour left me a little disappointed. That said, Episodes shows promise and also proves that Matt LeBlanc deserves a whole bunch of credit for agreeing to play this twisted, slippery version of himself. He is obviously a darn good sport.

Episodes will air Sundays at 9:30 ET on SHOWTIME starting January 9th.

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