This season of television series premieres comes with a noticeable British invasion. MTV’s “Skins” and Showtime’s “Shameless” both originated across the pond. After Hollywood found success in “The Office,” “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” and “American Idol,” — yes, “American Idol” was originally Britain’s “Pop Idol” — the adaptation of shows from the U.K. has become a common practice. This complicated process is the butt of the joke in Showtime’s sitcom “Episodes.”
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Sean (Stephen Mangan, “Green Wing”) and Beverly Lincoln (Tamsin Greig, radio’s “The Archers”) are a successful British husband-and-wife comedy writing duo, with their sitcom “Lyman’s Boys” winning its fourth BAFTA. When American television mogul Merc (John Pankow, “Mad About You”) proposes a U.S. version, Sean and Beverly agree. They’re met with a slew of drastic changes, despite the fact that everyone insists they love the show. In fact, Merc may not have even seen “Lyman’s Boys,” despite claiming he loves the series so much he wants to have sex with it. The biggest culture shock for Sean and Beverly is the studio’s desire to cast Matt LeBlanc in the lead role as the headmaster of a boy’s boarding school.
Though written by Americans David Crane and Jeffrey Klarik — the team that brought us “The Class,” — “Episodes” has a hearty British feel of humor. The exaggerated stereotypes of Brits clash with the exaggerated stereotypes of Americans. It’s dry, dark and British, with jokes that are either very clever or not funny at all.
The self-conscious decision to mock LeBlanc for his Joey-from-“Friends” reputation will likely drive the self-referential humor of the show. Ironically, this might be the least Joey-esque role LeBlanc has seen: He’s playing himself, not the dim-witted soap opera star we watched on NBC for 10 years, though his character on “Lyman’s Boys” may be a Joey reincarnate. These multiple layers of reality and fiction are a testament to the innovation and intelligence behind “Episodes.”
Still, the pilot is so expository that it becomes tedious — scenes are unnecessarily long and even uncomfortable at times. Watching Richard Griffiths (“Harry Potter”) attempt an American accent and slowly give up while re-auditioning for the role he held for four years is more painful than humorous.
Its premise is an inside joke for Hollywood, so it’s unclear how popular “Episodes” will be with the casual viewer. It’s clear that the series is trying to show audiences that Hollywood is capable of laughing at itself, but the inherent pretention that comes with creating a show about the TV industry might be a turn-off for general audiences.
While the show certainly has potential and it’s worth sticking around for the next few episodes, when LeBlanc will be more prominently featured, “Episodes” shouldn’t rely on poking fun at Hollywood as its main gimmick. “30 Rock” succeeded because you didn’t have to understand the nuances of the TV industry to get its jokes. With all the potential “Episodes” has, it would be a shame to see the show fail due to its one-note act.