Season 2 of Showtime’s Episodes arrives this weekend, returning with more installments of one of TV’s most entertaining – but underappreciated – comedies. Its secret: central characters about whom you genuinely care…
Episodes, returning Sunday at 10:30 pm. ET, is about a married British couple, Sean and Beverly Lincoln, who are a team professionally as well as romantically: they’re the creators and writers of a hit British TV comedy about an erudite teacher at a boys’ prep school.
As the series began last year, they were approached, at a TV awards ceremony, by a U.S. television executive who raved about their show and offered to buy the rights to produce an Americanized version, and to import them to Hollywood oversee and write the new adaptation. The Lincolns agreed — he eagerly, she reluctantly — and they moved temporarily to California, where the city, the industry, and their own colleagues began tempting and crushing them almost instantly.
That’s the premise. What counts in Episodes, though, is the execution. The writing is so good (and the acting even better), the series succeeds at much more than making biting, wincingly accurate observations about Hollywood machinations. It also gives us an honest, often uncomfortable look at a couple in crisis, with moments of pure drama interwoven with the laugh-out-loud comedy.
Episodes is a co-production by Showtime and the BBC, and it’s easy to see why each entity wanted to do it. For Showtime, it’s a chance to work with series co-creators David Crane and Jeffrey Klarik, whose previous sitcom hits include, respectively, NBC’s Friends and Mad about You. And for the BBC, it perpetuates and illustrates the TV adage that when Americans adapt a British TV show, they usually manage to dumb it down and ruin it.
The brief but brilliant first season of Episodes, over seven episodes, explored all that and more. Sean and Beverly, played by delightful and wholly credible comic actors Stephen Mangan and Tamsin Greig, soon discover that the TV executive, played by John Pankow from Mad about You, never even saw their original British comedy of manners. He and his assistant Carol (Kathleen Rose Perkins), with whom he’s having a secret affair, suggest some changes for the American version — some of which are reimagining the lead role as a high school hockey coach, calling the show Pucks!, and replacing the British star with former Friends star Matt LeBlanc (playing a version of himself).
Season 1 was all about the development of Pucks! through the pilot stage. There were a series of crushing creative compromises and defeats, but also some monumental behind-the-scenes complications, including an unexpected, impulsive sexual encounter between Beverly and Matt, which crushes Sean when he learns of it.
The Season 1 cliffhanger was about that discovery, with Sean confronting and fighting Matt and telling Beverly their marriage was over. Then the phone rings, and the TV executive tells the three of them that Pucks! scored so high in audience tests that it was being put on the fall schedule, and they were contractually committed to producing episodes for the coming season.
Season 2 begins four months later, just as the TV fall season is about to begin. Sean and Beverly are separated, but still working together, and obligated to attend such functions as the executive’s opening-night party at his house, where they all watch Pucks! from his movie house-like screening room. His blind wife, played by Genevieve O’Reilly, hands out popcorn — then, during the screening, uses her hands to service Matt LeBlanc, and another illicit affair begins. And the attractive, looks-obsessed female star of Pucks!, played by Mircea Monroe, reaches out and touches someone as well, with her own Machiavellian motivations.
All these affairs, though, aren’t played just for laugh lines. They all have consequences, and the characters end up paying for them dearly, one way or another. And the dumbing down of the sitcom, another source of reliable jokes, has consequences as well. When the reviews come out, they’re as succinctly cruel as one quoted headline: “Pucks! Sucks!”
Episodes, however, does not. It’s wonderful.
I’ve previewed the entire second season, and the arc of what happens to Sean and Beverly, and to their show, is tender and funny, sweet and sad. You want these two back together — a testament to how well Mangan and Grieg play their roles — but they keep making mistakes and missteps to prevent that from happening.
Don’t let anything prevent you from watching Episodes, though. It’s too good. And this summer, “too good” is way too rare.