Among other priceless bits of show-business guidance in the brilliant new season of Episodes, you’ll learn this: when the father of a television network president dies, don’t even think about sending a paltry muffin basket, because Michelle Pfeiffer and David Kelley will be donating a tree in the dead man’s honor. In Hollywood even mourning is a competitive sport. Taking its satiric tone from Matt LeBlanc’s exaggerated portrayal of himself -- or rather his vain, just-like-Joey persona from Friends – the Showtime series returns for its new season funnier and more pointedly satirical than ever.
Last season focused on a culture clash, as two British television writers, smart and decidedly unglamorous Sean and Beverly (Stephen Mangan and Tamsin Greig, both ideal at playing endearingly bumbling Brits) arrived in Los Angeles to remake their high-brow boys’ school comedy Lyman’s Boys, only to have it butchered and turned into Pucks, with Matt LeBlanc as a hockey coach. The fictional Matt is every bit as dense as Joey, but a lot richer. (Not that Golden Globes mean a thing, but the real Leblanc got one for this role.)
Sean, slightly awed by LA, became Matt’s friend. Beverly hated Matt, but slept with him in a moment of drunken jealousy about an imagined affair of Sean’s. So of course the Pucks pilot was picked up and now in season two they all have to work together.
And since Sean and Beverly have settled into LA – they’ve even separated, as Hollywood couples do -- Episodes can focus on the inside details of high-powered lives, including some of the series’ other sharply drawn characters. John Pankow is the energetic, almost always apoplectic network president. Kathleen Rose Perkins is terrific as Carol, the head of programming, endlessly confiding in her new friend Beverly about her tortured affair with Merc. Carol’s whining about the troubles of being the Other Woman are both funny and realistic. And Merc’s wife, Jamie (Genevieve O’Reilly), may be blind - yes, they’ve made the wronged wife blind; how’s that for politically incorrect Hollywood overload? – but turns out to be less docile and more resourceful than we thought.
It’s easy to make fun of Hollywood, but hard to make the satire work as well as it does here. The trick of Episodes is to stay close to reality most of the time. Matt buys cars for Sean and Beverly, hoping to win back their forgiveness; not a stretch at all. But then the series veers away into the impossible just enough to make the comedy bigger and slightly broader. A running joke is that Matt’s co-star, Morning Randolph (Mircea Monroe), looks like she’s in her 20’s but has been around long enough so she has to be well into her 50’s or more. When one of her cosmetic surgeries goes wrong, the sight gag is a totally impossible but hilariously over-the-top twist on cliched Botox jokes.
The series begins its new 9-episode run on Sunday, and Showtime has put an edited version (that is, cleaned-up for general audiences) of the entire first episode online. Here it is:
And here is a trailer, not edited but bleeped: