Episodes: What's All the Fuss About?

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I try not to judge a series too harshly based on its pilot, but it’s going to take some serious motivation to get me to watch Episodes next week. The show has received plenty of critical attention already, perhaps because it’s a satire of the television industry starring Matt LeBlanc as Matt LeBlanc. And the reviews have been almost entirely positive, which—in the show’s defense—may have upped my expectations quite a bit. Still, I didn’t enjoy Episodes’ first episode even a little. Actually, I kind of hated it.

The biggest problem: It wasn’t funny. I mean, at all. I didn’t laugh once. I smirked a couple times, but one of those may have been accidental. I like many different forms of comedy—broad, absurd, refined—but nothing about the Episodes pilot worked for me. Most of the jokes smacked of trying too hard: You know the punchline when you hear it, but you don’t have any real desire to laugh. While some of the best comedies aren’t about being LOL-worthy, there’s a difference between subtle humor and jokes that fall flat.

Episodes follows Sean and Beverly Lincoln (Stephen Mangan and Tamsin Greig), two English TV producers who have been tasked with turning their successful sitcom Lyman’s Boys into an American series. It’s a timely topic, with the U.S. incarnation of The Office still going strong and MTV’s remake of Skins premiering next week. But while the U.K. versions of The Office and Skins are legitimately good programmes (British spelling!), the snippet of Lyman’s Boys we see in Episodes’ pilot is dreadful. Seriously, why was everyone laughing? What a waste of a talented actor like Richard Griffiths. And the implication that it was somehow less funny with an American accent? I thought it sucked equally either way.

Episodes is not the first show to fall into this trap. Remember Aaron Sorkin’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip? One of the major complaints lobbied against his behind-the-scenes look at a Saturday Night Live-esque program was that the sketch show in question wasn’t remotely amusing. We have to buy that people would actually watch the show-within-a-show. And if Episodes wants to derive humor from the way the original Lyman’s Boys is diluted for an American audience, it’s going to have to show us why Lyman’s Boys was worth watching in the first place. From what I’ve seen so far, I think I’d rather watch Episodes.

The other biggest problem I had with Episodes is that we’ve seen this Hollywood satire countless times before—and with much greater success. The underrated 2006 comedy The TV Set is perhaps the best (and funniest) look at how a series gets distilled and destroyed by a network. The plot is similar, but the execution is streets ahead. Of course, this is a TV site, so I won’t digress much further. I’ll just say this: if you’re going to recycle an old idea, at least make it good. There is a smidgen of originality in Episodes’ conceit—the transition from an English series to an American one, the casting of Matt LeBlanc as himself—but overall, it’s nothing mind-blowing.

I’ll continue to watch Episodes, if only to see what all the fuss is about. It’s a short season (seven episodes), and I want to see where they take the story. If Episodes does become what it set out to be, I’ll be the first to admit I judged it unfairly. But as it stands, it’s my pick for 2011’s first major TV disappointment.

What you think of the premiere?

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