The TV Series:
The second season of Showtime's acclaimed comedy series Episodes has arrived on DVD - packaged with the first season, which came out on disc a scant seven months ago. Although one has good reason to quibble with Showtime's marketing practices (and, pray tell, where's the blu-ray?), this double-disc set serve as a good, concise helping of one of the funnier Hollywood-On-Hollywood sendups currently playing.
Episodes' m.o. comes in exposing Tinsel Town's long history of taking British television programs, tweaking them a little, and then putting them on American television. There was All in the Family, which originated in England as Till Death Us Do Part. And then Three's Company, which began life as Man About the House. Many of these transformed shows are successful (The Office) while some of them are total bombs (Coupling and The I.T. Crowd, whose American remake never made it past the test pilot stage). The savagely hilarious Episodes is a show about a show turned into another show by the suits in Hollywood.
Episodes follows the saga of married British screenwriters Beverly and Sean Lincoln (Tasmin Grieg and Stephen Mangan), who endure a series of indignities (and a few triumphs) as their hit sitcom gets exported to American television. The award-winning Lyman's Boys, about the head master at a boy's school, is purchased by an American network. So impressed by the show is the president of the network, Merc Lapidus (John Pankow), that he travels to England to personally invite the Lincolns to America. Confident they can recreate the spark of magic that made them successful in their home country, the pair wing their way to Los Angeles blissfully unaware of what lies in store. They even bring along the star of their show (Richard Griffiths) - who is old, overweight and speaks with a English accent.
So it begins as the show-within-a-show Lyman's Boys suffers a prolonged death by a thousand little changes. The network brass decide against the original star and ask the show's creators to replace him with Matt LeBlanc (playing himself). The Matt LeBlanc portrayed in this show is a fatuous, smarmy type who is self-aware enough to know that the network is counting on the name brand of an ex-Friends star to bring in viewers. Neither Beverly nor Sean like him or are particularly impressed with his resume; but they bow to network pressure. Of course, someone as young as LeBlanc can't be the head of a boy's school, so the network suggests they make him a coach instead. And, instead of calling it Lyman's Boys, why not call it Pucks! and make LeBlanc the coach of a school hockey team. Cast a hot blonde (Mircea Monroe as the mysteriously ageless Morning Randolph) as the school librarian with an unspoken attraction for LeBlanc's character, etcetera, etcetera.
Of course, Pucks! is nothing like Lyman's Boys and the show's creators are tormented by having to appeal to the lowest common denominator and continue with a show they now hate (not enough to stop taking in big paychecks and demeaning work, however, which generates lots of friction in their marriage).
While the difficulties of getting Pucks! into production forms the basis of season one, the somewhat milder (but no less funny) follow-up season deals with the network attempting to salvage their show. At first, Pucks! debuts as a solid hit, but eventually gets clobbered by a talking dog sitcom on a competing network (a show that Merc and staff passed on, much to their regret). There are affairs, mix-ups, and Matt's imbroglio with a stalker named Labia, but to go into a lot of detail would spoil the many surprises during this energetic season. Year Two delves even more into the personal lives of the characters, which results in several funny performances. Most of the cast are in excellent form here, but I have to especially laud Kathleen Rose Perkins as Carol, the network's head of programming (and Merc's long-suffering mistress). Perkins' character starts of as just another perky, superficial Hollywood player, but over the course of both seasons she matures and gains dimension while becoming Beverly's friend and confidant.
Episodes is filled with every single cliche character you can possibly name -- and that's precisely why it's so funny. From the insincere, smarm-infused network bigwig (who, it turns out, had never seen an episode of Lyman's Boys), to the humorless, diarrhea-voiced exec, to the Lincolns' surly, couldn't-care-less assistant, every Hollywood-type is represented. A few times, the show suffers from oft-repeated gags (the oversized endowment in Matt's pants; the blindness and supposed naiveté of Merc's wife), but the show's frequent dalliances with dippiness are offset by the finely-shaded characters and its fearless skewering of the industry (in that respect it strongly resembles Lisa Kudrow's The Comeback, another sitcom sendup starring an ex-Friend). It's easy to look at the hyper-reality of Episodes and scoff that it's not a real picture of Hollywood. However, one need only look at what's on American television today to realize that so much (if not all) of what's in Episodes is based on at least a kernel of truth -- if not the entire cob.
The sixteen episodes comprising Episodes' first two seasons come as a two-DVD set packaged in a standard-width amaray case with cardboard slipcover. It's a nicely designed package, only the disc menus come with a too-long introductory scene - and for the season 2 disc, one must wait through an unskippable commercial for Showtime. Annoying.
Episodes' 16x9 image is pleasantly balanced with a smooth, artifact-free image on both seasons. The series often uses digital trickery to simulate its environments, lending it a strangely sterile feel (an effect that's especially noticeable whenever they use still photos as establishing shots, such as the exterior of Matt's mansion). Still, the discs spot a good looking, albeit not visually spectacular, picture.
The English 5.1 Surround soundtrack is fine, with a good central dialogue channel and judicious use of ambient sound and music. Other listening options include English 2.0 Stereo (Season 1 only) and Spanish 2.0 Stereo. English subtitles and closed captions for the hearing impaired are also provided.
Both discs sport the same paltry extras - Biographies of the lead actors and a brief Photo Gallery. Kind of a letdown, especially considering that the Region 2 blu-ray for the first season contains a making-of featurette.
Showtime appears to be pulling a fast one on Episodes fans by exclusively bundling its second season DVD with the already available first season, but on its own terms this is a great double disc set. Screenwriters David Crane and Jeffrey Klarik have crafted an ace sendup on Hollywood's tendency of molding good British TV into bad American TV. Come for Matt LeBlanc's sexy smarm, stay for the toxic yet surprisingly re-watchable satire. Highly Recommended.