"Matt LeBlanc to play Lyman? For the erudite, verbally dexterous headmaster of an elite boys' academy, you're suggesting...Joey?"
You've all heard of "The Seinfeld Curse", the plague that struck all cast members of the iconic series and prohibited them from finding success after the show ended in 1998. With the likes of Veep and Old Christine, the gang has Julia Louis-Dreyfus to thank for breaking the curse (hey, I actually liked Watching Ellie!), but it's Prognosis: Negative for the fellas. Jerry isn't even trying (and really, why should he?), while Jason Alexander has languished in forgettable blink-or-you-missed 'em sitcoms like Bob Patterson and Listen Up! As for Michael Richards...um, yeeeeeah...
You might see a similar pattern with the Friends gang, where the women have found far more success than their male counterparts. Courtney Cox has Cougar Town and the Scream franchise (Part 5, please?), Lisa Kudrow has smaller yet critically acclaimed shows (The Comeback was genius) while Jennifer Aniston has middling yet financially successful Hollywood comedies (and hey, she looks like Jennifer Aniston, so she always has that going for her). But what about the guys? David Schwimmer has been happy to stay behind the camera, whether voicing a giraffe or trying to start his directing career (Trust points things in the right direction), but Matthew Perry hasn't been the Mr. Sunshine he had hoped (I'm not so sure that Go On will change things).
As for Matt LeBlanc? I'm happy to say that we can finally forgive Joey for Joey. That's thanks to the BBC-to-Showtime series Episodes, which gives the actor the next-best role of his lifetime...himself. The show blends Brit Wit with Yank Yuks, reuniting LeBlanc with Friends writer David Crane (who co-created with Jeffrey Klarik). The series also reunites two British thesps whose characters are polar opposites from their previous stint together: Stephen Mangan and Tamsin Greig, who co-starred in the madcap and frenetic Green Wing, a hilarious hospital comedy from across the pond (that is sadly only available on Region 2 DVD at the moment).
That duo plays couple Sean and Beverly Lincoln, a pair of hit writers who are racking up awards in their native land. Their latest success is a British TV series that takes place in a boarding school with a seasoned curmudgeon teaching young men the ways of life. I'll let Matt inquire for you...
"So, it's History Boys meets...you saying it's not History Boys?"
"It's not History Boys!"
"Alright! I take it back...it's not History Boys. What's it called?"
"We had the name first."
No, really, insists Sean: "Our show is nothing like History Boys. There's was set in a grammar school! Ours takes place in a boarding school. There's was about a history teacher, ours is about a headmaster and several other teachers."
At an awards show, the writers are approached by enthusiastic American network president Merc Lapidus (John Pankow, perhaps best known as Ira on the hit NBC series Mad About You, which Klarik wrote), who is super stoked to adapt the show for American television: "I love your show! I wanna have sex with your show!" Despite their initial reluctance, Merc insists he'll do it right, "no farming it out to shitty American writers!"
The duo flies to Los Angeles wide-eyed and excited, but it doesn't take long before their hopes are dashed...and dashed hard. Turns out Merc isn't as familiar with the show as he initially let on ("He's not a big TV watcher..."), so he leaves the culture-shocked Brits in the hands of career climbing assistant Carol (Kathleen Rose Perkins), a bullshitting ball of enthusiasm who epitomizes the California Girl stereotype. She's joined by the gruesome twosome, a pair of ass kissers with nothing of substance to add to any conversation: head of casting Andy Button (Joseph May) and head of comedy Myra Licht (Daisy Haggard), whose face is frozen into a permanent grit (a wonderful recurring visual gag and an impressive feat that has to be a chore for the actress).
Things go from bad to worse when respected British thespian and Lyman's Boys lead Julian Bullard (played by esteemed British thespian Richard Griffiths, who has appeared in the Harry Potter films, Hugo and..get this...The History Boys!) fails to impress the executives, leaving Merc and company to come up with an alternative...one that fails to impress Sean and Beverly (in stark contrast to brown-nosing Andy: "I even liked him in that monkey movie!"). With Matt LeBlanc on board, things go from worse to hellish when the pilot gets an overhaul: not only is the lead character morphed from a headmaster to a hockey coach, the show is now called Pucks!--much to the increasingly ire of the angry Brits.
We're aware from the opening scene that the two have reached the breaking point in their relationship, a heated argument followed by a stormy exit and an accident before we're quickly taken back seven weeks to the start of the insanity. These seven episodes (each around 28 minutes) chronicle the angst Sean and Beverly experience as they put together the Pucks! pilot, a process that tests their professional and personal patience.
Initially irritated with Matt's casting, Sean quickly develops a man-crush on his new best bud, much to the consternation of Beverly (who is already the pessimistic sourpuss of the two). Also throwing a wrench between the couple is busty actress Morning Randolph (Mircea Monroe, a great sport in a recurring old-age gag), constantly showing off her cleavage as Matt's on-screen love interest (she was originally written as a lesbian, but that wasn't helping Matt's onscreen game).
If the premise sounds familiar, it probably is: The hit Brit comedy Extras mined similar territory, chronically the bastardization of writer Andy Millman's (Ricky Gervais) work in its own show-within the show, When the Whistle Blows (whose "Are you 'avin' a laugh?" would drive Sean crazy: ""). While Episodes isn't quite as fantastic as Extras, it's pretty close--especially if you can make it past the first episode, by far the weakest of the bunch (the punchlines are more predictable). Not only is it mostly Matt-free, it's also a lot less funny, with exchanges like this...
"If I had a nickel for everything Merc would have sex with sight unseen..."
"She'd have a lot of nickels!"
"I'd be nuts!"
...making me wonder if the script was being intentionally stupid (is that really the best they could do?!). There's also a security guard gag that gets real tiring real fast (despite one fun outburst). But the pilot sets up the remaining six pack, and still has enough jokes that work--even if they're more isolated.
The real fun starts when LeBlanc enters, stage right, and gets Beverly's panties all in a bunch. That's because he's kind of an arrogant ass, although a lovable one. LeBlanc won a Golden Globe for this role, which probably says more about the actor than the performance. That's because, in reality, it can't be too challenging, right? The role gives LeBlanc an opportunity to skewer the stereotypical Hollywood persona that everyone in the biz has to deal with (I would never call this series a spoof; the material is probably more realistic than us outsiders probably realize), and he's clearly having a lot of fun ("Joey" cologne?! Genius!). This partly fictionalized version of Matt is a lot like Joey--a struggling, mediocre actor easily distracted by ladies. Only this Joey is a lot more vulgar, his former fame giving him just enough clout to be a dick.
And speaking of dicks, this Matt--like Joey--enjoys showing his off, and it happens to be very, very big: "He showed me his cock...it's enormous, like a sea creature...like something out of Jules Verne!" That's right, dear readers...a dick joke that references Jules Verne. That blend of brows both low and high perfectly encapsulates Episodes' humor, a mash-up of Brit and American sensibilities (where else will you find the line "It's like being in bed with Noel Coward!" co-existing with "Alright! My girl likes the dick!"?).
It all blends beautifully, and I grew to appreciate LeBlanc's performance with each scene. I gleefully enjoyed hearing him shout my favorite line of the season ("A whole fuckin' car full of stupid!") as much as he enjoyed delivering it, especially with the understanding that it wasn't as easy as it sounded. The role sounds like a simple task, but the actor is asked to navigate some complicated areas that ask him to tap into material more personal and difficult than we can appreciate. Not afraid to be the butt of the joke, he tackles his fear of forever being defined by one role head on.
Episodes also finds nice ways to surprise you, inserting just enough sincerity in spots to keep these characters and the show more grounded--Matt and Beverly have a great scene at the end of Episode 2, while Matt also struggles with being a better dad (this fictionalized Matt is divorced and has somewhat of a drinking problem: "I got that custody hearing today...I'll be fine. I'll just give the judge a couple a 'How you doins?'"). Also watch for a great exchange between Beverly and Carol in Episode 5; Perkins is outstanding throughout, showing us so many different sides to her surprisingly not-so-superficial executive--manic, plastic and image obsessed, yet also vulnerable, honest and lovable.
Carol is also (against her better judgment) having an affair with supreme asshole Merc, the show's most one-note character (and thankfully not used as much as I initially feared...you can only take him in small doses, and the writers seem fully aware of that). Their dalliance becomes a little bit more despicable when you consider that his wife Jamie (Genevieve O'Reilly) is blind, a fact that the show gleefully exploits in scenes so wrong that you will feel awful for laughing.
Through it all, Mangan and Greig roll with the punches (and there are lots of 'em) and play off each other perfectly, their Green Wing comfort shining through. They also have fantastic faces, mastering that scowl that the Brits know better than anybody. Like the show, they are fun, snappy and quick in material that mocks so much so fast, even the weaker jokes will still garner a smile. Episodes grows on you more and more with each passing minute. I'm curious to see if Season 2 can keep it up after an intriguing plot development at the end of the season, but I'm confident this cast and crew can pull it off with flying colors of red, white and blue...a sarcastic swirl of the Union Jack with the good ol' Stars and Stripes.
"I think each side of the pond in this is looking at the other with equal disdain and confusion...and measures of delight." -- Tamsin Greig
The series arrives in an anamorphic 1.78:1 transfer that's decent enough, but considering how recent this show is, the image is often surprisingly average--especially in long shots. Sure, there aren't too many of those, but the ones we get lack the sharpness and clarity you would expect. Maybe I'm spoiled by the Region 2 Blu-ray set, which looks a lot better (I know, I shouldn't be comparing Blu-rays to DVDs, but still...). Nonetheless, Episodes isn't a series that relies on special effects or mind-blowing visuals anyway, and in that regard this set is suitable enough.
Options include English 5.1 and 2.0 tracks, and a Spanish 2.0 track. The 5.1 is solid; this is all about the dialogue, and in that regard it passes with flying colors.
Virtually none...unless text biographies excite you. You can apparently see the first two episodes of The Borgias, House of Lies and Dexter Season 6 via "E-Bridge technology" (that's gonna require you to do some work online, and really, who has time?). Sadly, the Region 2 release's 18-minute "Making of Episodes" is not here, a real shame considering it has some fun input from the cast and crew and expands upon the real-life parallels for the creative people on both sides of the camera.
Poor Matt LeBlanc...forever trapped in his Joey persona, unable to find a role that allows his to shine again. That is until now, as Episodes allows him the perfect character: himself. A humorous hybrid of Brit and American wit, this 7-episode first season is a splendid skewering of celebrity and Hollywood--with good sport LeBlanc unafraid to be the butt of many a joke. Quick and snappy, this is an addictive collection that gets better and better after its average pilot--with great replay factor helping to make this collection Highly Recommended.