When Episodes premiered on Showtime last month, I wasn’t exactly a vocal supporter. “I didn’t enjoy Episodes’ first episode even a little,” I wrote. “Actually, I kind of hated it.” But as I said at the time, it’s unfair to judge a series based solely on its pilot, so I decided to stick with the seven-episode season and give it a chance. After all, plenty of critics I admire seemed to adore it.
Here’s where I say, “You were right; I was wrong.” But that’s not entirely true. I stand by my assessment of the Episodes pilot, and I’d argue that the second episode was almost as underwhelming. Something kept me tuning in, though: by Episode 3, I was a begrudging fan, and Episode 4 had me hooked. Many series take time finding their voice, so I can’t exactly fault Episodes there. Still, for a new show with only seven half-hour installments, it really should have hit the ground running.
What was it that transformed Episodes from a humorless drag to a sharp, must-see series? Matt LeBlanc deserves a lot of the credit, playing a less-than-flattering—but still charming!—version of himself. He added a much needed sense of irony to the show, turning it from half-assed comedy into legitimate satire. I’ve always been a fan of LeBlanc, though his Joey persona can wear thin—try sitting through Friends spin-off Joey if you don’t believe me. In Episodes, LeBlanc had Joey’s charisma, confidence, and one-track mind without the dopey schtick.
British actors Stephen Mangan and Tamsin Greig were also great, especially when they were given better material to work with. After a pilot of mindless banter, Episodes gave us a reason to care about these people: Once I had a sense of who Sean and Beverly were, I wanted their show to work. More to the point, I wanted their marriage to work. While Beverly’s indiscretion with Matt was telegraphed early on, I was still shocked when it happened—and devastated by Sean’s reaction.
“Devastated” sounds like a strong emotional response to a half-hour sitcom, but I’d argue that Episodes was at its best when blending comedy and drama. The fight between Sean and Matt was slapstick hilarity, but Sean’s ultimate confrontation with Beverly was heartwrenching. Episodes began as a lighthearted farce, and that didn’t work for me. It was only when the show fleshed out its characters that it truly succeeded. It now feels more distinctly Showtime, following genre-bending series like Weeds, United States of Tara, and Nurse Jackie.
I do hope Episodes returns for a second season, and that it continues to improve. There are more storylines to explore, more characters to delve into, more chances to mock the TV industry so many of us love and hate. It’s got my attention, and I’m emotionally invested. Now don’t let this Lyman’s Boys-quality series devolve into Pucks.