It seems we’ve been living for some time in a self-referential – if not self-reverential – era, as exemplified by myriad, instantly Instagrammed “selfies.” So it was just a matter of time before a selfie of a TV series was created.
Imagine a joint U.S.-U.K. sitcom about two very successful British TV writer-producers – a husband and wife team – who have their hit series picked up for a U.S. remake. This necessitates their relocation to Hollywood, to witness their work being totally remolded to American audiences’ and TV producers’ demands, plus the whims of an American TV star creating a rift in their up-to-then happy marriage.
Now imagine further – well, you don’t have to; you can see the third season of “Episodes” on YES Oh, with the fourth already commissioned – that this sitcom is written and produced by a very successful duo of American TV writer-producers and life partners, David Crane (one of the creators of “Friends”) and Jeffrey Klarik (coproducer of “Mad About You”). It stars two British actors, Tamsin Greig and Stephen Mangan (as the Lincolns – Beverly, who desperately wants to get back home; and infatuated-with-the-Americans Sean), and one American star, Matt LeBlanc. The latter plays himself, riding on the shreds of his “Friends” fame and possessing the exaggerated personality of his self-absorbed yet oddly lovable Joey Tribbiani character. In 2012, LeBlanc won a Golden Globe as best actor in a comedy series for impersonating himself.
If that does not sound self-referential enough, how about one of the episodes being about a former assistant of the Lincolns who followed them to Hollywood, peddling around the studios a proposal for a series about a British husband-and-wife TV writer-producer duo, and their trials and tribulations with the oversize ego of an American TV star foisted on them by meddling, know-all TV American executives. The meta-meta-sitcom setup begins to remind one of a snake devouring its own tail.
Indeed, U.S. reviewers had already considered the dangers of such a “TV series within a TV series within a TV series” running itself into the ground and being pulled from the schedule, as happens to “Pucks!” – the fictional sitcom written by the Lincolns for LeBlanc – in the midst of the third series of “Episodes.”
The third season of “Episodes” has already ended its run in the United States on Showtime, with passable ratings (around 0.5 million viewers per episode for the first two seasons, about 0.8 million for the third) and all-round critical success. It is still showing in Britain, with much higher ratings but much milder critical success. This is understandable given the odd-couple cultural relations between America and Britain (in alphabetical order), the two countries divided – as the old saw goes – by a common language, with the Brits forever condescending yet admiring the Americans’ brash, unbridled energy, and the Americans a little infatuated with what they perceive as the British sense of “style” and pompous “decorum.”
There is unmistakable chemistry on screen between LeBlanc, Mangan and Greig, which is “peppered” by the presence on the set-within-a-set of the ousted TV executive Merc Lapidus (John Pankow, who had a supporting role in “Mad About You”) – he had an affair with his female head of programming, while LeBlanc has an affair with his blind wife. The aforementioned head of programming, Carol Rance (Kathleen Rose Perkins), jogs and shares joints with Bev, and has a crush on her former boss’ replacement, Castor Sotto (Chris Diamantopoulos), a wonder child who is a bundle of neuroses. He’s heavily medicated, with side effects that make his life – and some parts of his anatomy – amazingly hard.
You may have inferred from the last paragraph that, besides the behind-the-scenes American TV ingredients and the intercultural conflicts, a lot of the plot has to do with what happens between the sheets: Sean has a “fornicatory relationship” (his catchphrase, one of many) with the female star of “Pucks!”, which leads to a temporary split between him and Bev, who, on the rebound, has the same said relationship with LeBlanc, and another man.
Bev and Sean reunite by the end of the second season, but their extramarital affairs have left a residue, with Sean’s diminished capacity to perform in the bedroom. The Lincolns try couples therapy, on the advice of Carol, and find themselves, completely unaware, in the office of a female sex therapist.
In this particular scene, a quality peculiar – and, in my view, endearing – to the Brits is highlighted: Their preference for a witty, face-saving, exquisitely phrased rejoinder, to even the faintest inkling of expressing something resembling an emotional response. To the therapist’s very explicit questions, Sean has only one answer: “I’d rather not say.” And when Bev is asked to address Sean as if she is speaking for her own vagina, she assumes a deep, guttural voice, which later – when they split their sides laughing, reminiscing about it – Sean characterizes as belonging to Yoda. But – and please forgive the spoiler – the moment they are able to laugh it off, the iceberg in the marital seabed melts. Apparently one may maintain a stiff upper lip (or something) while the lower one is smiling.
As for the snake that devours itself from its tail upward, that still bothers me. I had a friend who decided to conduct an experiment, to find out what ultimately happens to it. Not having a snake willing to participate in the undertaking for the sake of science, he worked with a knee-length sock. The results were not conclusive.
We will have to watch the remaining episodes of the third season of “Episodes” and then the nine episodes of the fourth to find out for ourselves what happens to a “selfie” series about series, which against all odds somehow can’t get cancelled.