I winced the first time I read a description of Episodes—the new comedy from David Crane (Friends) and Jeffrey Klarik. After Extras, after Curb Your Enthusiasm, after Entourage, did we really need another self-loathing Hollywood satire? Yet another celebrity—this time, Matt LeBlanc—winning humility points for playing a jerkier version of himself? But oh my God, people: I was wrong. To my shock, Episodes is great—the sharpest sitcom debut this year. Among other excellent qualities, it’s actively funny, with none of the dramedy lumpiness that spoils other half-hour offerings (bad camp, faux-energy badinage, heavy-handed sentimentality). A worthy successor to The Larry Sanders Show and Lisa Kudrow’s underestimated The Comeback, Episodes is—like 30 Rock—a comedy about comedy that is also a buried argument for what makes funny funny. And Matt LeBlanc makes an excellent Matt LeBlanc.
Even better are Stephen Mangan and Tamsin Greig, who play Sean and Beverly Lincoln, the happily married British creators of a BAFTA-winning sitcom. When an American network head wants to remake their hit, they relocate to L.A. Of course, it’s a disaster: The show’s private-school headmaster becomes a hockey coach, the lesbian is rewritten as straight, and Friends’ Joey Tribbiani is wedged into the lead. Episodes could easily turn as corny as the sitcoms it mocks, and there are plenty of familiar tropes, from the lying execs to the plastic-surgerized starlet. Yet the series is richer and subtler than that, building up in surprising twists, including its portrayal of a TV star whose manipulative charm begins to shred the bond of a couple who think of themselves as rock-solid soul mates.
Mangan and Greig’s relationship feels very real, one of the rare grown-up married couples on television. (The last pair I can remember like this were on Slings and Arrows, a wonderful Canadian series you should pick up on DVD.) Confident verbal acrobats, the Lincolns are boggled to find themselves outwitted by idiots, not to mention the allure of TV-star genitals “like something out of Jules Verne.” Greig is particularly good as a self-assured woman who finds herself being cast as—and slowly slipping into the role of, almost despite herself—a bossy bitch. But really, all the performances are excellent, from John Pankow as the crass network executive to Kathleen Rose Perkins as his No. 2/mistress. Still, bonus points must go to Daisy Haggard, in a very tiny role as Myra, the head of Network Comedy: Even with almost no lines, her expressions of mushmouthed chagrin steal every scene she’s in.