Judge Erich Asperschlager isn't as good as the British original.
Our review of Episodes: The Complete First and Second Seasons, published February 28th, 2013, is also available.
"Is it me, or does anybody else feel like he comes off a bit too…English?"
There is a complicated relationship between British and American television. Hits from one side of the pond find a home on the other, either in their original form or remade to fit cultural tastes. Such remakes are plentiful and of varying quality. A few are great, while the majority miss the mark. For every The Office, there's a Coupling. In most cases, the original is so good that the remake pales in comparison. But they keep trying all the same.
Episodes is an odd mix of British and American sensibilities. Although the show is the brainchild of Friends creator David Crane and his partner Jeffrey Klarik, it was largely filmed in the UK, airing first on BBC Two before making its American debut on Showtime. The First Season arrives on DVD in the States just in time for new viewers to get caught up before the beginning of Season Two.
Facts of the Case
The series focuses on Sean and Beverly Lincoln (played by Green Wing's Stephen Mangan and Tamsin Greig), a British husband and wife writing team who are courted by the American network exec (John Pankow, Mad About You) to bring their hit TV series, Lyman's Boys, to the States. Early promises of full creative control go out the window when they get to LA. Over Sean and Beverly's objections, the show is changed from a witty comedy about a headmaster's unrequited love for a lesbian co-worker, to a sitcom called Pucks!, about a hockey coach who hits on the school's hot librarian.
The biggest change is the actor playing the show's lead. Instead of the Royal Shakespeare Company veteran who created the role, the network offers the part in the remake to Matt LeBlanc. The real Matt LeBlanc, who, like the version of himself he plays, is returning to TV after a long post-Friends hiatus. There are no specific references to Joey, but it's clear the actor needs Pucks! as badly as the network needs him. Episodes needs him, too. LeBlanc is one of the best things about this uneven series. He doesn't exactly play against type, but he shows that his range extends beyond catchphrases and meatball subs. Actors playing exaggerated versions of themselves are hardly new, and LeBlanc's transformation is tame compared to the Seinfeld cast reunion on Curb Your Enthusiasm and pretty much every celebrity cameo in Ricky Gervais' Extras. Episodes' LeBlanc is a womanizer, and a major plot point hinges on his bad behavior, but Crane isn't willing to make the star truly unlikeable. On the contrary, the show goes out of its way to flatter him. There's even a running gag about his enormous penis. Episodes plays it safe instead of pushing the envelope—and safe isn't funny.
There are plenty of funny shows on American pay cable. Showtime's rival HBO has one of the best in Larry David's Curb Your Enthusiasm. Likewise, the BBC is a treasure trove of TV comedies. Episodes combines sensibilities from both sides of the ocean without benefitting from either. Most of the show's humor comes from the premise. There are a lot of jokes about clueless showbiz yes-people and dumb American sitcoms. LA is filled with predictably phonies, and everything Pankow's mercurial network exec knows about the UK comes from Mary Poppins. The jokes are simplistic and obvious, as though something got lost in cultural translation. It feels like a British take on what Americans think of British people, with all the subtlety of a guy in a suit yelling "Chim-chim-CHIREE!" The basic plot is just as predictable, with office romance, tensions on the set, and problems that could be avoided if people just talked to each other. With only seven half-hour episodes in this first season, it makes sense Chase and Klarik would go for a tight arc, but even short stories need to have something interesting happen.
Episodes' saving grace is the cast. LeBlanc's strong performance is matched by British leads Mangan and Greig. Their chemistry and comic timing is much better than the material they are given, and if the show has any traction in the UK, they deserve much of the credit. Then again, Friends was as popular overseas as in the United States, and it's just as possible that Episodes is riding a wave of lingering goodwill towards Crane and LeBlanc. Just because Brits have great TV doesn't mean they all have great taste.
Episodes arrives on DVD with a solid 1.78:1 transfer. Although the series is set in LA, there's not a lot of flashy location work. Most of the show takes place in boardrooms and on a TV set. The transfer handles it all nicely. The 5.1 Surround mix is front-heavy with dialogue, although it fills out with incidental music from time to time.
If you watched Episodes when it aired on Showtime, there's no reason to buy it on DVD. The only real bonus features are a series of biographies for the lead actors (ugly, static text on a generic background) and a photo gallery—both so unimportant they're listed on the bonus feature menu after the minute-long promo "Win a Trip to Beverly Hills!" If you play the disc on your computer you can also get online access to the episodes each of the Showtime series House of Lies, The Borgias, and Dexter (in theory anyway; their website said my disc couldn't be validated). The back of the box calls these episodes extras. I call them commercials.
Episodes is better at making fun of trashy television than it is at creating something better. The basic premise that American networks suck the creativity out of great shows isn't news to anyone who's spent more than a week watching TV. Everything else the series has to say has been said dozens of times in better shows, many of them also aired on the BBC. Compared to shows like Extras, Spaced, and Peep Show, Episodes looks like Pucks!. The best thing about the show is the cast, especially the underrated LeBlanc. At the very least, the series meets his character's criteria as "something the talk shows couldn't make fun of." I'm not sure the best way for LeBlanc to forge a new career path is to play himself in a show where everyone associates him with Joey Tribbiani, but it's a start.
This pilot's not worth picking up. Guilty!
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