A few years ago, after Friends finished its massively successful run, NBC had high hopes that its American remake of Coupling — an acclaimed BBC comedy that was, if anything, a British knock-off of Friends — would become its next Thursday night hit.
The fact that hardly anybody remembers the American Coupling — and the few who do remember it with disdain — should provide a pretty good idea of how that plan went after NBC managed to screw up every conceivable element of what was an excellent Brit hit.
If you’ve ever wondered about how a television network can take a great idea and wind up with a craptastic show, you won’t find a better — or funnier — explanation than Episodes, the critically-lauded Showtime/BBC comedy that’s about to kick off its second season on Monday, July 2.
Season one only had six episodes, so those who didn’t see it won’t have much problem getting up to speed. Here’s the Coles Notes recap: British TV producers Sean (Stephen Mangan) and Beverly (Tamsin Greig) are a married couple basking in the critical success of their hit Britcom Lyman’s Boys, starring a Shakespearean-trained actor (Harry Potter’s Richard Griffiths) as the stuffy teacher at a British boys school. The couple is lured to cross the pond by American network president Merc Lapidus (Mad About You’s John Pankow), who throws buckets of money their way and begs them to remake their show for his network. After much interference and endless compromises, Lyman’s Boys somehow winds up as Pucks, a dopey little sitcom starring former Friend Matt LeBlanc (played as a doofus TV star by the actual Matt LeBlanc). Their dreams for U.S. success circling the drain, the weirdness of Hollywood strains the couple’s relationship, which is pushed to the breaking point when Beverly succumbs to the sexual advances of Matt.
The second season doesn’t gloss over the repercussions of this ill-advised hookup. As Pucks‘ co-producers, Sean and Beverly have split. They’ve settled into a cordial — if somewhat chilly — on-set relationship, but are clearly miserable that their marriage is broken, miserable that their show sucks and miserable that they still have to deal with each other — and Matt — each day. Meanwhile, Matt feels bad for his role in their disintegrated relationship; not because he has, like, a conscience or anything, but because he misses hanging out with Sean, who’d inexplicably become his new best friend but now hates his guts. Matt tries to make things better by giving Sean an expensive sports car, which does actually smooth things out a bit.
In the season-two premiere, creator David Crane (Friends) takes the series to the next level when the godawful Pucks appears to be performing well with test audiences. As you’d expect, this sends Sean and Beverly for a loop; not only will the award-winning producers now be best known for a shoddy sitcom, their plans of returning to London and going their separate ways will have to wait, once the ratings come in and Pucks is inexplicably a hit. Matt — both the faux and, I’d presume, real versions — is just happy to be involved in something successful that will wash the stink of Joey off him.
Through it all, Crane gleefully vivisects the sausage-grinding machinery behind network television, along the way mocking such sitcom conventions as boyish-looking 30-year-olds playing teenage high-schoolers.
A wickedly funny show about showbiz, Episodes comes off as light and breezy while masking a smart and slightly savage Hollywood satire.
EPISODES premieres Monday, July 2 on The Movie Network/Movie Central