At the end of the first episode of Episodes, the producers of a TV show tell its writers they've found the perfect lead actor for their series: "A huge star. Hysterically funny. The audience loves him, and he's ready to come back to TV."
It's Matt LeBlanc.
The screen fades to black after several seconds of awkward silence, in which the producers feign anticipatory enthusiasm and the writers sit slack-jawed and flabbergasted. It echoes the reaction most of us had when we heard the real Matt LeBlanc would be returning to TV in a regular capacity, to play a heightened version of himself on the Showtime series.
The actor—who spent 10 years portraying one of the world's most adored characters on Friends before turning himself into an industry laughing stock in the disastrous spin-off Joey—hadn't had a major acting role in five years (unlike his Friends co-stars, who had been working fairly steadily). Surely the new show couldn't be a wise career move for the actor.
But the first two episodes suggest otherwise. Episodes follows a British couple who, fresh off receiving accolades for their English TV show, are wooed to Hollywood to adapt it for American audiences.
It's a delightfully winky look at the ridiculous LA television industry. As the writers, Stephen Mangan and Tamsin Grieg have that British adroit at lampooning American culture, and LeBlanc, as an arrogant-in-that-charming-kind-of-way version of himself, is self-aware, self-serving, and, in turn, pretty satisfying.
Showtime is brilliant at creating character-driven TV shows, yet, despite the presence of LeBlanc, Episodes is a wise departure from that formula. The series' strength so far is its dedication to its situation—the rude awakening of British writers in LA—with LeBlanc as a central axle for their more interesting exploits to revolve around. When a TV series centers on an actor playing him or herself, the whole idea can become a meta elephant in the room, where the novelty overwhelms itself, creating stale, predictable comedy. When it works, the actor becomes just another character in the comedy, folding into the situations that comprise successful sitcoms.
There are predecessors to Episodes that serve as choice examples of how to strike this balance. On Curb Your Enthusiasm, Larry David's neuroses and annoyances underlie the show's real comedy: anything that could goes wrong vignettes and awkward social situations of mammoth proportions. Bernie Mac plays a fictionalized version of himself on The Bernie Mac Show, a comedian whose life turns upside down when he is charged with raising his nieces and nephew—a sitcom premise in the classic sense.
"Even though you assume Larry [David] is an exaggerated character, there's a part of you that thinks, 'I bet you that's who he is,' " Episodes cocreator Jeffrey Klarik told Details magazine. It's why actors like Daniel Racliffe on Extras, Josh Groban on Glee, and Bob Saget on Entourage agree to play themselves—a tongue-in-cheek acknowledgement of Hollywood rumors. But an entire series can't be centered on that joke alone, something the likes of Emeril Lagasse and Kirstie Alley found out when Emeril! and Fat Actress failed. Watching Episodes we learn that there is much more to LeBlanc than "Joey from Friends." Thankfully, the series is about more than that notion as well.
Does Episodes have what it takes to go the distance? Or is Matt LeBlanc the next Emeril? As LeBlanc (the character) says in the show's second episode, "I kind of need this to be a hit. Not something you can make fun of on a talk show." So far, so good.