TV Review: EPISODES, 1.1 - "Episode One"

Episodes offers another Anglo-American comedy partnership, and we all know how well The Increasingly Poor Decisions Of Todd Margaret turned out. I suppose we should be flattered Americans want to cross-pollinate with UK talent, if only to scratch their Anglophilia, but the results rarely justify the effort. This seven-part Showtime/BBC comedy essentially retells the joke behind Extras, when Ricky Gervais's character found himself writing and starring in a low-rent, catchphrase-orientated sitcom he'd intended to be more highbrow and insightful, called "When The Whistle Blows". The big twist in Episodes is that husband-and-wife writers Sean and Beverly Lincoln (Stephan Mangan and Tamsin Greig), fresh from winning a BAFTA for their sitcom Lyman's Boys, starring revered actor Julian Bullard (Richard Griffiths), get the opportunity to remake their show for America, after US exec Merc Lapidus (John Pankow) invites them over to Los Angeles. It's not long before the wide-eyed Lincoln's are driving down the strips of La-La Land in a convertible, agog at the luxury of their home in a gated celebrity community where Renee Zellweger's a neighbour. But reality slowly dawns, as it becomes clear Merc intends to "Americanize" their very British series about a boarding school, by recasting the lead middle-aged English actor with hunky Matt Le Blanc (Friends.) A change indicative of minds that don't understand or appreciate the charm and appeal of their original hit, which Merc's assistant admits he's never actually seen. It takes the whole of "Episode One" to cover the setup you're already aware of going in, which is frustrating. And, fact is, TV shows and movies about themselves are notoriously tricky to pull off. While it may seem very clever and satirical to the writers/actors who get the chance to lampoon and satirize their own industry, it's often hard for the audience to relate to anything. I'm a TV blogger (and if you're reading this you likely have a fairly keen interest in TV), so we're perhaps more accepting and clued-in to what Episodes is trying to do, but general audiences need something extra as a hook. In Extras, it was how Ricky Gervais was a regular bloke chasing fame and wanting respect, which everyone can sympathize with, but in Episodes the main characters are married BAFTA winners. The only thing being compromised is artistic integrity -- and is that something most people care about, or have experience of? The only semblance of a hook for Episodes is the presence of Matt Le Blanc (complete with undyed hair), who gets to play an exaggerated version of himself -- but it remains to be seen if Le Blanc's going to keep Joe Public giggling. He only has 5 seconds of screentime in "Episode One", during an opening scene set several weeks into the future. But there's also the underlying problem that the idea American TV execs are two-faced manipulators, involved in a showbiz industry that likes to change foreign successes for home audiences, is nothing new. In fact, it's almost a cliche. Does Episodes have anything fresh and interesting to say about Hollywood, or the clash of UK/US culture? Not on the evidence of this opener. Even on the basic level of being funny, it failed to deliver much beyond halfhearted smiles, even with the comedic talents of Mangan and Greig ready to be utilized. Both did a good job with the roles, selling the idea they're married and protective of their work, but neither character really jumped off the screen as being particularly funny. Considering Episodes is co-written by one of the people behind Friends, who must have churned out hundreds of joke-a-minute scripts, it was a little puzzling to see Episodes play things so relaxed. Less a comedy, more a lighthearted drama with a few amusing moments.
WRITERS: David Crane & Jeffrey Klarik DIRECTOR: James Griffiths CAST: Stephen Mangan, Tamsin Greig, Matt Le Blanc, Richard Griffiths, John Pankow, Kathleen Rose Perkins, Daisy Haggard, Joseph May, Bruce Lester Johnson, Lou Hirsch & Ben Miller TRANSMISSION: 10 January 2011, BBC2/HD, 10PM/10.30PM

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