Even in summer, TV can be good for a laugh.
Or, in the happy case of Showtime's returning Episodes (* * * 1/2 out of four, Showtime, Sunday, 10:30 p.m. ET/PT), a lot of laughs. And most of them come at the expense of TV itself, which just adds to the pleasure.
Created by Jeffrey Klarik and Friends co-creator David Crane (who teamed with Klarik for The Class), Episodes is a sitcom satire about a smart British hit being dumbed down and destroyed by an American network and a big-name American star. Best of all, that star is Matt LeBlanc— playing a hilariously self-satisfied, sexually voracious and showbiz-savvy version of himself.
The series picks up four months after last season's finale with LeBlanc's fictional sitcom, Pucks, about to premiere — a decidedly mixed blessing for its creators, Sean and Beverly Lincoln (Stephen Mangan and Tamsin Greig). Pucks has brought them money and introduced them to the joys and horrors of Hollywood. But it's also put their marriage in danger, thanks to Beverly's much-repented sexual slip-up with LeBlanc. So now the couple is separated, and neither wants to have anything to do with their star.
What that sets up is a nine-episode comedy miniseries, as Beverly tries to save her marriage, Matt tries to recover their friendship, and they all battle to keep Pucks on the air. Which won't be easy, as the show is terrible and is losing the support of the incredibly duplicitous head of the network, Merc (John Pankow) and his loyal assistant/mistress Carol (Kathleen Rose Perkins).
As smartly written as it is played, Episodes offers the comic pleasures, not just of clashing cultures, but of contrasting comic styles. On one side you have LeBlanc, who handles the big laughs and the broader humor, and does it so well, it serves as a reminder that he was under-appreciated during his years on Friends. A bit where he describes sex with a deaf woman is a tiny masterpiece of inappropriate humor and a tribute to his ability to say and do horrible things while still coming across as essentially decent and likable.
While LeBlanc goes big, Mangan and Greig handle the wry, more understated moments, and in stellar fashion. (Greig can do more with a look than some actors can do with entire scenes.) Whenever the humor threatens to spin out of control, Greig and Mangan arrive to ground it in reality, and even to inject a note of poignancy.
Like the network shows it so skillfully mocks, Episodes does have its problems. Some of the jokes can feel a little cheap, and though Sean and Beverly's separation does raise the dramatic stakes (and provide a basis for the sweet, growing friendship between Beverly and Carol), the longer it goes on, the more it begins to drag on the proceedings.
Luckily, while those issues can sometimes get in the way of the fun, they don't significantly diminish it. So just in case any of the network heads Episodes is mocking are watching, here's the lesson to take away:
Pucks is the show you too often give us. Episodes is the show we want.