TV review: ‘Episodes’

By Allison Levy

After watching the pilot of Showtime’s critically lauded show “Episodes” — which stars former “Friend” Matt LeBlanc as an exaggerated version of himself — I had to double check that I hadn’t made up all the glowing reviews I’d read of the show’s first season. Critics who have seen the show’s entire seven-episode first season are praising it as a clever and fresh take on the ever-popular (and oft-cliched) Hollywood satire genre, but I couldn’t help but feel that Sunday’s premiere was a slow and altogether unoriginal half hour.

A joint venture between Showtime and BBC Two, the show centers on the husband-and-wife team (Brits Tasmin Greig and Stephen Mangan) behind the fictional hit sitcom “Lyman’s Boys.” A powerful American network exec, Merc Lapidus (John Pankow), convinces the duo to pen a U.S. version of the series, promising to keep the adaptation as close to the original as possible. But upon the couple’s arrival in L.A., they find that Merc has fed them empty promises. When Merc’s assistant tells the duo that LeBlanc will take over the lead role (played in the British version by an accomplished Shakespearean actor), they realize that their brainchild is in danger of undergoing the same bastardization that is now expected for imported British sitcoms.

Despite a few cute jokes, the pilot is bogged down by its attempt to set up the action to come in the rest of the season. Still, given the show’s enthusiastic reception, I’m hopeful that once the series settles into its rhythm, my first impression will prove to be wrong.

A short blurb about the show from Entertainment Weekly TV critic Ken Tucker provided me with some reassurance: “If you find the premiere poky, stick with it,” Tucker writes. “‘Episodes’ gets funnier with each succeeding episode, and the acting is superb.”

Hmm. Sounds familiar. Last year around this time, when I first decided to give ABC’s Courteney Cox vehicle “Cougar Town” a chance (despite its horrendous title), I experienced a similar feeling of instant revolt. The premise of a 40-something real estate agent/recent divorcee named Jules trying to put her life back together by having sex with younger men made me die a little inside.

Yet somewhere in the middle of the show’s first season, Jules changed. The writers all but abandoned the original pitch and started to have Jules act — and date — her age. Now, in the middle of its second season, the show is a successful ensemble comedy that some critics have even touted as a grown-up version of “Friends.”

It is no coincidence, I think, that as “Cougar Town” hits its creative stride, Cox’s character begins to resemble Monica more and more. In last week’s episode, for instance, Jules has a very Monica moment of hyper-competitiveness when she initiates a trivia contest to prove that she and Grayson make a better couple than her college-aged son and his new girlfriend.

Despite the newfound comedic greatness of “Cougar Town,” I can’t help but think that the writers have sold out, modifying Jules to fit audiences’ expectations of Cox. Don’t get me wrong, I’m totally content to have “Cougar Town” as an encore to “Friends.” But the slight lack of creative productivity that “Cougar Town” sometimes reflects keeps the show from transcending the realm of guilty pleasure. Again, the title doesn’t help.

So while I won’t complain about “Cougar Town” getting another season, I am hoping that “Episodes” will find a different path to success. I loved Joey, but there’s a reason that the character’s spinoff didn’t make it past two seasons.

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