By Caryn James | James on Screens January 5, 2011 at 4:12AM
Infotainment and the internet have created a country of show-biz insiders, shrewd about every Hollywood ploy. What dark corners are left after you’ve heard Mel Gibson rant? That makes satire harder to pull off than ever, and it doesn’t take much to see where Showtime’s new Matt LeBlanc series will go.
In the fiction within Episodes, a BAFTA-winning television series is bought as fodder for an American remake and LeBlanc is foisted on its creators as the star. Overnight, their glittering British comedy about a headmaster at a boys’ school becomes a series called Pucks! with LeBlanc as a hockey coach. Smartly, though, that premise is the least of it. The characters are beautifully played and sharply satiric, just this side of caricature. Soon the sly, witty Episodes soars beyond the obvious.
Although the series was created by David Crane, a co-creator of Friends, and Jeffrey Klarik, a writer for Mad About You, Episodes has none of that pat network tone. Playing a version of himself, LeBlanc finds humor in the distance between his dumb-Joey-from-Friends persona and the fictional “Matt LeBlanc,” giving the show a self-referential twist that evokes Extras, with Ricky Gervais as an extra and guest stars sending up their images, although it’s never quite as droll.
Sean and Beverly (Stephen Mangan and Tamsin Greig) are the husband-and-wife creators of the British show, which an American network president with the perfectly mercantile name Merc (John Pankow) gushes over and insists on buying – even though he has never seen it. By the end of the first episode, Sean and Beverly have been transplanted to a gauche L.A. mansion (the network had a leftover lease from a reality show) and Matt LeBlanc turns up as their worst casting nightmare.
The fictional Matt is smart -- that is, a smart enough Hollywood player to outwit the Brits. At a lunch meeting with Sean and Beverly he dismisses their little headmaster show by saying, “It’s History Boys,” and they look amazed that dumb-Joey has heard of the play.
Sean insists their show is completely different, and Episodes lets the joke sneak up on you.
“What’s it called?” Matt asks.
“Lyman’s Boys,” says Sean.
That meeting happens in the second episode. LeBlanc is hardly in the first (premiering this Sunday), but Richard Griffiths, who actually was the headmaster in History Boys, is. He plays Julian, the actor who was the headmaster in Lyman’s Boys, auditioning for his old role. Episodes never clobbers you with these meta-references, it just deftly drops them in.
And every L.A. character is shaped as a satiric comment. Matt agrees to do the show because – big Hollywood cliche -- he needs the money to buy a restaurant. The network’s head of comedy is a woman whose permanent expression is a grimace. And Carol, Merc’s right hand, does more than lie. If she accidentally blurts out the truth she backtracks as if she hadn’t noticed.
After Matt is cast, Carol gushes to Beverly, “Merc’s excited about the show again!’
“When did he stop being excited?” Beverly asks.
“Never!” Carol says, in a cheerful, sing-songy voice. Kathleen Rose Perkins’ sparkling performance creates Carol as someone who believes every mis-truth she utters.
LeBlanc and “Matt” may be the stars, but Sean and Beverly are the characters on the head-turning adventure. She is the skeptic, with a serviceable cropped haircut and flowery dresses, which means she looks fine by regular-person standards and of course seems a hopeless frump in L.A.
Sean, who looks like a curly-haired doofus, is smart enough to know he’s being suckered into the Hollywood dream, but star-struck enough to fall for it anyway. It’s Sean who carries the show’s basic assumption about Hollywood, that metaphorical Hollywood of the crass success that everybody secretly wants, even artists: its seductions may be shallow but they are thoroughly irresistible. Sean is, uncomfortably and hilariously, all of us.