In a world where everyone is harping on about Game of Thrones or Embarrassing Bodies, the TV gems are often overlooked. Episodes, the Anglo-American comedy drama starring Stephen Mangan, Tamsin Grieg and Matt LeBlanc, is one of those gems.
Now halfway through its second series, Episodes is the second most undervalued sitcom of the 21st century. The first is Green Wing. From that remarkable show Mangan and Grieg have been plucked for this low-key tragicomic triumph. Joining them, and long since the commercial flop that was Joey (which I have to admit I sort of quite liked), is Matt LeBlanc.
The premise is not dissimilar to Ricky Gervais’s Extras. A husband and wife writing team with a hit show in England are invited to rewrite it for an American audience. It then gets systematically ruined by the studio system. What was a warm-hearted public school romp called Lyman’s Boys becomes a hideous high-school ice hockey farce called Pucks! To add insult to injury the studio boss, Merc Lapidus (played by John Pankow who looks and acts uncannily like a cartoon character studio boss), fires Richard Griffiths as the star and replaces him with LeBlanc (playing a hyper-arrogant version of himself).
Grieg and Mangan’s Beverly and Sean Lincoln are currently separated due to some terrible misunderstandings involving Matt LeBlanc in the first series. Now in full production, Pucks! faces tough competition from a ‘talking dog show’ on a rival network. And surrounded by off-set romances and stereotypically, hilariously vacuous Americans, Sean and Beverly attempt to stay calm in an ever more baffling Hollywood storm.
There are three things I can pinpoint that make this show special:
Most important is the script, co-written by Jeffrey Klarik and Friends creator David Crane. Unlike more mainstream dramas and sitcoms, Beverly and Sean react to the ridiculous situations around them like you or I would. They speak how real people speak which makes the writing seem effortless – the highest praise possible.
Next is the cast. There is phenomenal talent here. Everyone from the leads to the walk-ons are pitch perfect. The script is ripe for milking but to their credit the actors play it completely dry. Think Leslie Nielsen in Airplane! or Police Squad. That is the way to do comedy.
Finally, the photography. It is filmed almost cinematically; every shot tells a story. The first time I realised was in a miniscule focus pull between Sean standing behind Beverly in her office chair when he spoke, to her when she replied. It is this attention to detail that highlights the passion the makers clearly have for the show.
There are only four episodes left of this series. Even if you haven’t been following it, I urge you to take a look tonight. I showed one random episode to a Canadian friend recently. She loved it. It opened with Merc defecating in a toilet, angry about ratings, while his PA and lover tried to comfort him. If that’s not funny, I don’t know what is.
Episodes is on BBC2 and BBC HD tonight at 10pm