It seems that as of late we have had a whole bunch of actors playing an alternate version of themselves on the screen (either big or little). Neil Patrick Harris’ appearances in the Harold & Kumar films help make that franchise what it is, while to my mind, James Van Der Beek is far and away the funniest part of Don’t Trust the B—- in Apt. 23. Then there is Showtime series, Episodes, which is perhaps most notable for Friends‘ star Matt LeBlanc playing an alternate version of himself.
Just as with NPH and James Van Der Beek, LeBlanc playing himself works, and works quite well. What maybe surprising though is that on the whole Episodes works even when LeBlanc isn’t on the screen – creators David Crane and Jeffrey Klarik have given us other characters to care about here (something which, I think, Apt. 23 has failed to do). As with the other examples, LeBlanc’s LeBlanc is a supporting character here, coming in as the second male lead to Stephen Mangan’s (the British version of Free Agents) Sean Lincoln. Starring opposite Mangan is Tamsin Greig (Shaun of the Dead) as Stephen’s wife and creative partner, Beverly. Stephen and Beverly are hugely successful British television writers who are hired to create an American version of their own British series.
The first season, in its seven episode entirety, deals with the Lincolns trying to adjust to life and work in Hollywood as they adapt both professionally and personally… or not. In point of fact, many of the storylines are about Stephen’s attempts to adapt and Beverly resisting.
Without question, the show’s view of Hollywood is quite stereotypical and ought to have been drawn with more complexity than exists on screen. The best example of this is the funny John Pankow (Mad About You), who portrays Merc Lapidus, the head of the unnamed network which has ordered the pilot. Watching the show it is difficult to imagine how Lapidus got where he is or maintains his place at the network – he is a buffoon. Pankow turns him into a funny buffoon, and he isn’t a constant presence so the buffoonery doesn’t wear too thin, but he is a buffoon nonetheless.
The one excuse for Lapidus’ holding onto his power is the presence of Carol Rance (Kathleen Rose Perkins), who plays a network executive under Lapidus. The most rounded presentation of the Hollywood-based characters (save LeBlanc), Rance has a lot of television acumen but is not immune to typical presumed Hollywood preoccupations like an obsession with weight and weight loss.
The show, however, isn’t Pankow’s or Perkins’, it belongs to Mangan, Greig, and LeBlanc. The two Brits play off each other and the insane world around them very well. The characters take two different approaches to their fish-out-of-water existence, but make both believable and enjoyable, particularly when the other does the opposite. Watching Episodes, one gets exceptionally involved in the Lincolns’ life on all levels and roots both for and against their actions.
As for LeBlanc, he’s just plain good on the show. Joey Tribbiani worked brilliantly as a character on Friends and less well as the center of his own series, but it’s clearly a role that’s typecast LeBlanc whatever his talents may be. It is our familiarity with that goofball character that makes this role possible. But, rather than going all out and becoming a caricature of his potential self, LeBlanc’s character and performance is more restrained than that – he is just a human being who has a tendency towards Hollywood foolishness, which following his incredible television success is wholly understandable. LeBlanc has some of the saddest and some of the funniest moments on Episodes and while one could imagine many a former sitcom star playing themselves on the series, LeBlanc makes the role his and makes every scene he’s in an involving one.
Episodes doesn’t succeed across the board – its representation of Hollywood and some Hollywood personalities is far too one-note and grating. However, LeBlanc’s portrayal makes up for many of those shortcomings and Greig and Mangan as the show’s true center are wonderful. They make both the comedic and the dramatic portions of the show engaging.
The DVD release of Episodes is, however, sadly lacking in special features. In fact, the only real bonus items related to the series are some lackluster biographies of the stars. Also included (via internet connection on a PC, not on the discs themselves and not accessible from a DVD player) are episodes of a couple of other Showtimes series – Dexter, The Borgias, and House of Lies. As a show about television, Hollywood, and celebrity, at minimum the show really could have utilized the producers, stars, and behind the scenes team for a piece on the reality behind the fiction.
Despite this oversite in the release, the show itself is good enough to merit one’s consideration. Episodes may not be the sharpest satire, but it’s enough to hold one’s interest and make one curious about what happens next.