Monday, January 10th, 2011

Episodes Recap: Pilot

Pilots are hard. Especially comedy pilots, and I do not envy those who have to write them. You have half an hour to win over an increasingly picky audience, explain the entire premise of your show, set up every character’s back story and be funny all at the same time. Rarely does this work. As an avid television viewer, I have made a conscious decision to always give a show two episodes to win me over, and I would have lost out on a lot of great series if I had judged every show by the first episode alone.

The pilot of Showtime’s new series Episodes aired last night and frankly, it wasn’t great. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t great. Like most pilots, it was all set up and not enough humor. The show follows British couple Sean and Beverly Lincoln (Stephen Mangan and Tamsin Greig), comedy writers and co-creators on a very successful British television show. After winning yet another BAFTA award, the two are approached by Merc Lapidus (played by the always funny John Pankow), the head of a major television network in the States. He begs them to adapt their show for American television. After almost no debate, they take him up on his offer and move to Los Angeles.

Most of the plot in Episodes is derived from the fish out of water concept at its heart. They’re British and LA is WEIRD. Security systems talk and people drive on the wrong side of the road! For me most of the funny moments of the show dealt not with Sean and Beverly, but the secondary characters introduced at the network. It becomes clear to our main characters that Lapidus actually hasn’t seen their show and in fact, he's "not really a TV watcher." In addition, we are introduced to three other people at the network: Carol Rance, the head of development and a hapless yes-woman who’s petrified of saying anything too committal to anyone, Andy Button, the casting director, who clearly wants everyone to love him, and my new favorite comedy executive Myra Litt, who despite being the head of comedy, is the least funny or personable person on the planet.

But my favorite scene of the episode doesn’t feature a regular cast member at all. As Beverly and Sean talk to their new network about casting, it's clear they assumed that the great Julian Bullard would be reprising his role from the BBC version. The network is not thrilled and asks that Bullard, a classically trained Shakespearean actor, audition for the role. Beverly and Sean are mortified, but muster up the courage to ask him to audition in front of the network suits. What follows is a scene reminiscent of Ricky Gervais’ uncomfortable brand of humor, where Julian Bullard tries in vain to get rid of his British accent to no avail, gets increasingly flustered, then, trying to save face, has a conversation with himself to thank him for his time and see himself out. Bullard is played by Richard Griffiths, who us nerds know as Vernon Dursley from the Harry Potter franchise. Griffiths is understated and increasingly uncomfortable to watch, which always makes me laugh. It was for this scene alone that I’m holding out hope for the future of Episodes.

This is not the first show to satirize Hollywood. In fact, it’s not even the fifth show to satirize Hollywood. And when you’re following shows like 30 Rock, Extras, Curb Your Enthusiasm and The Larry Sanders Show, you have pretty big shoes to fill. So far, this show doesn’t suggest anything new about Hollywood. Executives are incompetent, writers are underappreciated and actors are crazy. I’m hoping that this show finds something different to show about the not-so-flattering side of Hollywood. The casting of Matt LeBlanc seems somewhat promising, since he’ll be playing a version of himself. Unlike fellow Friends alumn Lisa Kurdrow, who played an attention starved actress in The Comeback, LeBlanc's LeBlanc may show a more toned down, normal actor. However, I found it a little strange that in the pilot episode of LeBlanc’s new show, he was onscreen for a total of about 45 seconds. That being said, I’ll still set my DVR to record Episodes for the rest of the season. Hopefully they'll make it worth my time.

Joey Slamon lives in Los Angeles, where she is not an actor or a screenwriter. But she does drink a lot.

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  • Sean Patrick Jackson

    Totally forgot about this show. Thanks for the write-up, and kudos on The Larry Sanders Show mention; it's never, ever brought up enough for just how influential it was/is/shallalwaysandforeverbe.

  • Cyrus the Cyrus

    I think I will check it out too, and it is strange that LeBlanc has such little screen time…

  • T. Baron O'Daighre

    I live in the UK, and I watched this when it was on BBC2 with absolutely no idea that it would be being broadcast in the States, or that it had an American production company behind it, or that it was even written by American writers.

    This blows my mind, as my impression of the show was that it was, well, one, bad, but two, a really self-indulgently British thing, of British people congratulating themselves that they are so much more creative than the boarish Americans. The whole show was so full of that simplistic British-funny, Americans-stupid stereotyping that I find it amazing that any Americans would even consent to watch this.

    But mostly, it was just bad. I agree that maybe pilots are hard to do, but I definitely think this could have established what it needed to establish a lot quicker and better, and not, say, waste what seemed like ages on a stupid 'gag' about how a large bathtub takes a while to fill, or, "Ooh, aren't we annoyed that a security guard is doing his job!"

    Mangan and Greig are both great comic actors, and I guess so is LeBlanc, (although the only thing asides Friends I can remember him in is Lost in Space…), but I don't think this show is every going to overcome the poor writing.