Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Is It Over Already?!: Thoughts on the Third Season of "Episodes"

Now that I've watched the recently completed nine-episode third season of Episodes (which I did two weekends ago in pretty much one sitting), the time has come to reflect on it, character by character.

But first, two burning questions:

1) Speaking of Episodes' all-American regular and recurring characters (with three exceptions), why are so many of them played by British and Irish actors? From Nashville in Nashville to New York in Revenge to Hollywood in Episodes, the British are coming again (with numerous Aussie allies), and this cross-country invasion is trickier because the troops, for the most part, all talk like Americans.

2) Was it my failing eyesight or did Matt LeBlanc look significantly grayer in the first episode of the season, which began the morning after the night of the season-two finale, than he did in the finale, which aired way back in August of 2012? That must have been some stressful sleep!

Matt LeBlanc
Someone, please, give this guy an Emmy already! It's a testament to Matt LeBlanc's skill (yes skill, and Joey Tribianni remains as indelible as any of the ex-Friends -- if not more so -- because of it) that when I watch Matt LeBlanc playing a character named Matt LeBlanc and based on Matt LeBlanc, I think of Matt LeBlanc the character not as Matt LeBlanc the actor but as a completely different guy who happens to be an actor who costarred for 10 years on an insanely popular TV series named Friends.

LeBlanc plays Matt with shades of Joey, which means he's flawed but still incredibly appealing. (At one point, when he mentioned having worked with Susan Sarandon, I thought of Joey working with an actress played by Sarandon on Friends, not of LeBlanc working with Sarandon on Friends.) Matt has Joey's himbo appeal and the same phrasing (He even gets to say "How you doing?" about halfway through Episodes' third season), but he's sharper, and he has the huge actor's ego that Joey, though also an actor, never really exhibited. My favorite Matt moments this season were actually the non-Joey-quoting ones (it's harder to buy him now as irresistible to women, though Episodes keeps insisting that he still is), the ones in which he was grappling with his waning status in Hollywood, his missed opportunities and his advancing middle age.

There was one scene is which Stoke, a young upstart costar on Pucks, the show-within-the-show, asked Matt for career advice. (Stoke is played by Nashville's Sam Palladio, a Brit, who once again nails a specific American accent.) Stoke had been cast in a Michael Bay action film called Tsunami, and he was being inundated with film offers. His big question: How does he pick the right movie projects so that he doesn't end up being a sitcom star at 50? Naturally, Matt took offense because action-blockbuster directors are no longer knocking on his door (Were they ever?), and how dare that talentless kid call him 50?

It was a telling scene loaded with subtext and suggesting that aging in Hollywood isn't only difficult for women. At 46, Matt (the one on Episodes, that is, not the real-life one) is already considered a has-been. He's barely in what started out as his own show, and adding insult to shame, he had to play second guest to Zac Efron's first guest when he visited Jay Leno's late-night talk show to promote a series that wasn't even featuring him on the promotional poster. LeBlanc brought a certain self-awareness to these scenes that makes Episodes more than a parody of the Hollywood ass-kissing star-making-and-discarding machine. The show, and LeBlanc, find the sad reality as well as the dark humor in the circle of Hollywood life.

Beverly Lincoln
I first saw Tamsin Greig in 2010, onstage in London's West End, opposite Rupert Friend in a play called The Little Dog Laughed. She was funny and memorable, though not necessarily someone I would have pegged as American-TV-star material. Three seasons in, she's grown into her role as one of Pucks' creators, keeping her British accent but losing some of her broad mannerisms and distracting stage tics from the first two seasons. Of all the Episodes characters, she's the one I identify with most. She's a fish out of water trying to make the best of being a stranger in a strange land and failing miserably (not that I have, but I get the feeling).

What I don't understand, though, is how any writer can walk away from a bidding war because she just must leave warm and sunny L.A. and get back to damp and drafty London. I mean, London is my favorite city and everything, but it's not every day, or in every city, that you have all the major networks fighting over a script that had been languishing in your junk pile for years. Who does she think she is? Emma Thompson in Saving Mr. Banks?

Sean Lincoln
I love Greig's chemistry with Stephen Mangan, who plays Beverly's husband and writing partner, Sean, but it sometimes feels a bit more sibling-ish or BFF-ish than marital (sort of like Debra Messing and Christian Borle's co-writing and personal relationship on the now-defunct Smash), making Beverly and Sean's husband-wife connection seem slightly incestuous at times. But that sexual unease made for one of the funniest scenes this season, the one with the sex therapist. When Sean explained why it's hard work being a "top" (not using that word, of course), I wanted to put on a condom and cheer.

Carol Rance
I enjoyed Kathleen Rose Perkins' performances during the first two seasons and immediately recognized her Hollywood type: the good cop who spins everything so that you can never be sure how she really feels about anything. I'm glad they expanded her role in the third season, but I was disappointed that so many of her scenes were with her new boss, Castor Sotto, when I really wanted to see even more of her growing friendship with Beverly.

Perkins wears those form-fitting ensembles so well that it's a shame Carol has been wasted on her far less attractive bosses so far. Might I suggest making her the boss next season (Are you listening, Elliot Salad?) and letting her have a cougar fling with one of Puck's young stars?

Castor Sotto
The third season's only weak link. His crazy shtick might have been funny as a one-episode gag but by the time he was jumping up and down on the conference-room table pitching an anarchic network with one run-on series in which actors were actually shot by actual cops (which was his only funny bit in all of the episodes he appeared in), I was ready for him to be hauled off in a straitjacket. Hopefully, we won't have to see him again next season.

Morning Randolph
I don't know how old Mircea Monroe actually is, but she looks too young to be the mother of a 19 year old. I totally bought her as one, though. I bought her as the sister, too (which is how Morning explained their relationship until Matt slept with the sister/daughter and ruined everything). Sadly, Morning didn't get to do much this season, and she was the butt of the most memorable one-liner, from Matt, who had just done her daughter, to Beverly, who did her brother last season, and Sean, who had slept with Morning twice: "We're just plowing through that family."

Andy Button and Myra Licht
I'm impressed by how Joseph May, a Brit, can get the stereotypical gay American accent just right, but I still don't understand that thing Daisy Haggard (Myra) does with her mouth, nor do I understand what Andy and Myra do for the network. Honestly, I wouldn't miss them if they were gone.

Merc Lapidus
I read on Episodes' Wikipedia page that Thomas Haden Church was supposed to play this character, but I think his urbane charm and sexual energy would have made the dynamic and, by extension, the show, much different. (Perhaps he would have made a Castor Sotto I could have actually enjoyed.) I'm glad they went with John Pankow, Mad About You's cousin Ira, who did desperate and unhinged in season three just as well as he did powerful and smarmy in the first two seasons. Thanks to his deviousness, the Lincolns must return to L.A., and Matt LeBlanc will miss his shot at becoming the next Bryan Cranston, a resurgent middle-aged star of an acclaimed hour-long drama. I'm looking forward to more rounds of ex-NBC star (LeBlanc) vs. ex-NBC star (Pankow), as Merc and Matt continue to wage war in season 4.

Hopefully, they won't make us wait until the summer of 2015!
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