“Episodes” is not exactly a great show. You’ll see more than a few of the jokes and story beats coming from a long way away, and the implausibilities in this untrue Hollywood story are a little much to take at times.
But it’s also a pretty fun show to watch. Three good lead performances (including one from “Friends” star Matt LeBlanc) and enough sharp writing about both show business and relationships give the show a comedic bite that makes up for the stuff you’ve seen before.
“Episodes” centers on a husband-and-wife writing team, Sean and Beverly Lincoln (Stephen Mangan and Tamsin Greig), who are wooed to bring their BAFTA-winning comedy series to the United States. Beverly’s pretty happy with their life in London, but Sean falls for the pitch of an enthusiastic network executive (John Pankow of “Mad About You”) who claims to love the show.
Then Sean and Beverly arrive in Los Angeles, where of course nothing is as it seems, down the columns in the entryway of the house the network rents for the couple. Pankow’s Merc has never actually seen the show, and once he knows what it is — a comedy called “Lyman’s Boys,” about the avuncular headmaster (played by Richard Griffiths of the “Harry Potter” films) of a boarding school — he starts whittling away at it.
For starters, the network wants Griffiths replaced with LeBlanc. Once that happens, more dominoes start to fall, and pretty soon “Lyman’s Boys” is a show about a hockey coach called “Pucks!”
Creators David Crane and Jeffrey Klarik work out a lot of writerly bile on the creativity-stifling suits (although they’ve done all right for themselves; Crane co-created “Friends” and Klarik worked on “Mad About You” and created “Half & Half”), but that’s often the least appealing aspect of the show. If you’ve watched “The Comeback” … or “The Player” … or “The Larry Sanders Show” … or any number of backstage stories, you know the territory.
(It also perpetuates the fiction that British TV is all wonderful and American TV is all junk. The crimes against U.K. shows in this country are numerous indeed, but the Brits make plenty of lame shows too; they just don’t tend to make it to these shores.)
What makes “Episodes” worthwhile is the relationship between Sean and Beverly, and their respective dealings with LeBlanc. Mangan and Greig have worked together before, and they’re very believable as both creative partners and a loving, if sometimes testy, married couple. She’s pretty tightly wound (and delivers an amazingly funny stream of profanity at the end of the second episode), while he tries his best to roll with whatever confronts him (and is actually a little charmed by his new surroundings).
Both Greig and Mangan also play fantastically well off LeBlanc, who’s playing a version of himself that’s both exactly what you’d expect (arrogant, entitled, not especially bright) and completely against Joey type. While Beverly and to some extent Sean lay the blame for the compromises they make on the show, his instincts are often right. He’s smarter and savvier than you expect, and he’s also very, very funny.
LeBlanc’s presence is undoubtedly the hook for “Episodes,” but it’s his performance, along with those of Mangan and Greig, that make it worthwhile.
“Episodes” premieres at 9:30 p.m. ET Sunday on Showtime. Here’s a taste: