When one thinks of Matt LeBlanc one immediately recalls his indelible 3 episode arc on that classic, marquee comedy series “Married With Children”. Who can forget his vacant, innocent charm as Vinnie Verducci, flashing his now familiar smile and swaggering through scenes with the panache and style we had come to expect from such a landmark series.
Oh how we laughed and wondered when we would to see more of this genius on TV. Then, in 1994, a little show called “Friends” made its’ debut.
For those of you who don’t remember (where were you, Lost In Space? geddit?) “Friends” was a “Seinfeld” rip-off that substituted “funny” for “awww”. Plaguing the world for 10 years, it delivered to us such cultural phenomena as “The Rachel”, Brennifer Piniston, and another Arquette (like we needed more of those). For NBC however, 10 years was not nearly long enough to subject us to Leblanc’s ubiquitous “Ehh, how YOU doin” – so they created “Joey”. Where “Friends” was an ensemble, “Joey” was Matt’s very own star vehicle, allowing his full range to be displayed and focusing solely on developing his characters’ mutli-dimensionality. As with all spin-offs though, there is always temptation to compare to the source material – often unfavorably. Critics were largely not impressed with one notable review from the LA Times in 2005* stating:
Watching “Joey” this season was the TV viewing equivalent of being sent to Abu Ghraib for 30 minutes every week. Amidst the sense of not being able to get enough air and fearing imminent death you also couldn’t help but suspect that, at any moment, a group of NBC executives were going to burst through your door, put a bag on your head and make a German Shepard have sex with you. And whilst you teeter, naked in a human pyramid of similarly unlucky viewers, those heartless television terrorists would pose next you for photographs and shout mockingly “How you doin’?”. Honestly, I would rather burn to death in an oil fire that be subjected to one more minute of this horrific abortion.
Thankfully, after 46 torturous episodes, NBC came to its senses and cancelled “Joey” allowing us all to breathe a sigh of relief and fervently pray that we would never again have to see Leblanc on TV.
Just when we thought it was safe, that the danger of a comeback had finally passed, troubling reports started to emerge that Matt was on the comeback trail. Initial responses to the news were largely restrained, with few outbreaks of violence and fewer suicides than greeted the announcement of a Whedonless “Buffy” re-boot, but the overall mood was undeniably jittery. All of our fears, and recurring nightmares, proved unfounded though as “Episodes” debuted in early January and was very, VERY good.
“Episodes” is the brainchild of “Friends” creator/writer/producer David Crane and fellow TV writer and producer of “Mad about you” (remember that show? I don’t – i drank a lot of turpentine to forget that one) Jeffrey Klarik. The two had previously collaborated on the short-lived dramedy “The Class” which, despite registering reasonable ratings (averaging about 8.5 million viewers) was canceled by CBS after a single season and replaced with Chuck Lorre’s “Big Bang Theory”.
Surprisingly the latest production from these two long time TV staples was not produced by one of the big US networks after a protracted bidding war but rather is a co-production between Showtime and the BBC. Lampooning the current rash of English remakes on US TV “Episodes” is about a British writer/producer team Sean and Beverly Lincoln (Brits Stephen Mangan and Tamsin Greig respectively) who are invited by US network Exec Merc Lapidus (John Pankow) to take their TV show “Lymans Boys” and adapt it to American audiences. They are initially dazzled by the rise in their fortunes as they arrive to find a palatial mansion provided for their accommodation but of course the “reality” of the TV industry soon sets in. The star of their show, Julian Bullard (Richard Griffiths), is asked to audition and then found wanting due to his “Britishness”. This leads the studio to try to get the aforementioned Matt Leblanc, playing a fictionalised version of a Matt LeBlanc/Joey Tribiani Frankenstein monster, to play the part of the title role, the “verbally dextrous and erudite” Headmaster Lyman. Within a short space the show is suddenly renamed “Pucks” and rather than an erudite headmaster the main character becomes a hockey coach. This of course leads to tension between the Lincolns themselves, between the Lincolns and LeBlanc, between the Lincolns and the studio and so on.
“Episodes” is carrying on a fine trend of late in US TV, insider humour, and in doing so joining the likes of “Entourage”, “30 Rock” and “Party Down” at the top of the heap. Amongst all of these great shows “Episodes” stands out as unique in that it has a very British feel to much of the production. THis is due largely to Mangan and Greig actually being British, but there is also a British essence to the writing. There is wit to some of the dialogue that is absent in even the most intelligent US of comedies and the timing of the two leads is often impeccable. Subtle changes to body language and facial expressions during a bath running can ony be funny when done properly by a couple of very talented poms. Tamsin Greig, who many of you will remember as everyone’s favourite alcoholic neighbour Fran from “Black Books”, is especially good, her shrill English manners a great counterpoint to the American Vulgarities of LeBlanc and the network folk.
LeBlanc himself clearly relishes the role of “Matt LeBlanc”, having the chance to really stab Joey in the back and having a great time doing it. He is excellent as the spoilt-dumb-actor that Crane and Klarik have written for him, deftly weaving media distorted reflections of himself with strands of Joey and the fictional Matt LeBlanc. Seeing this I actually feel bad
for him that he was so routinely disregarded as being of any comic value following 12 years of the mind numbing idiocy that was Joey Tribiani. Of course, he is extremely rich – swings and roundabouts i suppose.
While there is a definite English influence it also contains some fine US style humour. Vicious cynicism and irony, as only Americans can do, abounds in the scenes set in the world of the TV studio and it’s executives. Merc Lapidus is a suitably boorish ignoramus, making faces and mock hanging himself in front of his blind wife whilst an entire table full of dinner party guests look on aghast. Katherine Rose Perkins is great as Carol Rance, the studio VP who’s sleeping with her boss and is always unflappably optimistic to the point of obstinacy (she has some of the best lines in the whole show so far). Myra, the studio head of comedy played by Daisy Haggard, while a fairly minor role is hilariously humorless with a constant visage of constipated ignorance.
While it is not a total laugh-riot (like say “Austin Powers 3” which had no right to be as funny as it was simply because a guy had a mole) “Episodes” is smart and i will take smart-funny over dumb-funny any day of the week. The English-American synthesis is something new and interesting and i will certainly be watching this series in its entirety, while it still exits, and being suitably distressed when it is canceled after only one season, as inevitably it will be. Nothing this witty, sharp and smart will survive the rigors of US television ratings, not even on cable (RIP Party down. If you haven’t seen it – DO!).
El Bludgerino (if you’re not into that whole brevity thing)
*review may not have actually been written