Netflix UK TV review: Episodes Season 3 – a sitcom that still has its bite
James R | On 17, May 2014
“Hey, it’s Joey from FRIENDS!”
That’s a policeman to Matt LeBlanc as he’s pulled into the station for drunk driving. There follows five minutes of awkward autographs and banter, as Matt tries to get out of the charges.
It’s exactly the kind of joke that Episodes has relied upon since those terrible CGI opening credits first began. Matt – playing himself – sent his persona up with a plausibly painful cynicism (a device not unlike the BBC’s other recent series, The Trip to Italy). Now, as the programme returns for a third season, Matt is going through a custody battle for his kids and dealing with the aftermath of a stalker, not to mention the fact that he briefly had a fling with one of his writers, Beverly (Tamsin Greig).
It’s been two years since we first saw her and her husband, Sean (Stephen Mangan), move out to LA with the offer of remaking their BAFTA-winning comedy for US audiences. Gone is boarding school-set Lyman’s Boy and its old-fashioned dry humour. In its place? Pucks, a show about a hockey coach trying to get off with a librarian.
A lot of the humour first relied upon that mismatch between Brits and Yanks – a juxtaposition that provided a showcase for LeBlanc’s ability to play the douche while the unimpressed UK writers looked shocked. It was, quite literally, a sitcom. Episodes’ own creative team of David Crane and Jeffrey Klarik, though, have helped it to evolve. Where laughs once came from the premise, now they come from the characters.
Nowhere is that better shown than in the supporting cast. Over the seasons, Pucks’ token blonde bombshell, Morning (Mircea Monroe), has wrecked homes, while network exec Carol (Katheleen Rose Perkins) has steered clear of her own after having an affair with her boss, Merc Lapidus. In the hands of the wonderfully OTT John Pankow, Merc has gone from a despicable dumbass to a despicable dumbass, but somehow added a note of bizarre tragedy to his self-centred stupidity. His blind wife, Jamie, meanwhile, has emerged as a surprisingly strong love interest for LeBlanc.
Each of them play their parts with spot-on timing. At first, the result was a sea of spiky sarcasm that rang with bitter real life experience. Now, it’s softened into something more approaching, well, a standard US sitcom. That’s partly due to Mangan and Greig, whose natural chemistry (forged on the set of Green Wing years ago) makes their on-off relationship in turn believably cruel and charmingly sweet. But it’s also because these stereotypes have become actual people.
Carol and Beverly are now friends, discussing the latest events over lunch – only for Perkins to obliviously interrupt with her own anecdotes. Mangan, meanwhile, has relaxed into his LA lifestyle, adding a smile to his fantastic range of bewildered facial expressions. When one gets good news and the other bad, we actually care; a sentimental attachment that has crept up unexpectedly while we were distracted by all the unsubtle American humour.
At the heart of it sits LeBlanc. Perhaps the most under-appreciated of the FRIENDS ensemble, he’s won awards for his portrayal of himself, able to exaggerate and subvert expectations with an irresistible charisma. His performance makes sure that for all its substance, Episodes is a sitcom that still has satirical bite.
“Hey, it’s Joey from FRIENDS!” we once cried, giggling at the whole concept. Episodes is unafraid to mine the same well for gags, but now, we enjoy the encounters from his perspective. It’s a subtle shift, perhaps more befitting a British show than a US one – Crane and Klarik have smartly followed the BBC tradition of only seven parts in a season, rather than risk flogging horse for 20. But if they can keep developing Episodes the way they have (Season 4 is already in production), here’s to many more. As long they update those opening credits.
Episodes Season 1 to 3 are available on Netflix UK, as part of an £9.99 monthly subscription.
Main Photo: BBC/Hat Trick Productions/Showtime Networks