Episodes review: “as much a wry look at US/Brit foibles as an in-joke TV industry satire”

Matt LeBlanc, Tamsin Grieg and Stephen Mangan are back in La La Land for a fourth series of the transatlantic sitcom - and Ben Dowell is still laughing

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“I thought that was dead?” says a security guy to one of the tanned, beautifully be-toothed folk who populate Episodes on yet another sunny morning in Los Angeles.

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The security man is not talking about Episodes, which was back on BBC2 for a fourth series tonight. He’s talking about Pucks! – the show within this show, starring Matt LeBlanc’s ghastly alter ego and penned by Stephen Mangan and Tamsin Grieg’s exasperated Britsh writers Sean and Beverly Lincoln. Pucks! has “risen” like Jesus, we are told, “if Jesus was a s***y sitcom that no-one watched”.

Some think that – like the fictional Pucks! – Episodes should have been put out of its misery a while back. But Friends stalwart David Crane has (together with co-writer and real-life partner Jeffrey Klarik) managed to squeeze more fun from a comedy which is as much a wry look at US/Brit foibles as an in-joke TV industry satire.

The writing’s not perfect. There are lazy, duff notes when the punchline is signalled with all the subtlety and nuance of The Hollywood Sign. But the performances are great – the timing of the main trio is sublime – and when it’s funny it’s really funny.

Even the names are funny. This opening episode saw Matt take a call while driving an open-top; it’s from his lawyer Samford Shamiro (Nigel Planer – yes, the Nigel Planer from The Young Ones) about the death of his money man Larry Penzel (there’s also a TV exec called Elliot Salad who is played by Michael Brandon but we only met him in tonight’s recap).

Anyway, Matt takes the call from Samford Shamiro, feigning as much sadness as this narcissistic douche-bag is capable of, while at the same time he pleading with an attractive young female driver in the neighbouring lane to lift her top up. She is about to oblige but then the lights change and she drives off. Only the viewers know what Matt is referring to when he signs off the call to Shamiro with the words “very upsetting”.

Anyhoo, Penzel has been stealing from his clients so when Matt calls him a “motherf***g son of a bitch” over his coffin, it’s not just another joke against Matt. We can laugh a laugh that has some understanding. Somehow, LeBlanc draws us back to sympathy, whatever ghastly things his character gets up to.

Episodes – and LeBlanc himself – is not afraid of being really tasteless, taking us into a world that seems both ghastly and attractive at the same time. Which Brits wouldn’t want to write a comedy in LA, even if everyone is so phoney and self-seeking and people think a multiracial show involving a white and an Asian person called “White and Wong” is a good idea?

There is definitely a continuing whiff of Klarik and Crane enacting their revenge on an industry that has been their life for decades. Still, the chemistry between the two exasperated Brits and LeBlanc’s desperately shallow but oddly likeable alter ego keep this singing and make it more than just a series of industry in-jokes.

It was a good decision by writers Klarik and Crane to call time on the bed hopping-fuelled rows between the three main protagonists and create more moments for the sublimely talented LeBlanc, Mangan and Grieg to riff off each other in the same scene.

Sean and Beverly have somehow found their way back into a world that drives them mad and the ride continues to be an addictively ghastly one for them – and us.

Episodes continues on BBC2 on Mondays at 10pm

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