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'Episodes': American Sitcom Royalty Royally Roasts American Sitcoms

The trouble with Tribbiani: Matt LeBlanc as ... Matt LeBlanc, a once-beloved sitcom star looking for a route back to the top in the new Showtime comedy Episodes. Colin Hutton/Showtime hide caption

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Colin Hutton/Showtime

The trouble with Tribbiani: Matt LeBlanc as ... Matt LeBlanc, a once-beloved sitcom star looking for a route back to the top in the new Showtime comedy Episodes.

Colin Hutton/Showtime

Showtime's new comedy Episodes, which premieres Sunday night at 9:30, is at one level a very successful meta-joke.

It comes from Friends co-creator David Crane and sitcom veteran Jeffrey Klarik. Klarik once wrote for Mad About You and, with Crane, he created the not-bad but short-lived comedy The Class for CBS a few years ago.

In Episodes, married British television writers Beverly and Sean Lincoln (played by Tamsin Greig and Stephen Mangan) bring a highly successful comedy series they created to Hollywood, so it can be remade for American TV. Only when they get to Hollywood, they naturally find that American television intends to change their BBC show.

The things you might expect are all there: Hollywood wants it simpler, easier, broader, and more cliched. But the biggest change of all involves the casting of the lead, who will no longer be the dignified star who owns the part in their original show and was willing to reprise it, but will be instead ... Matt LeBlanc, from Friends.

Not an actor played by Matt LeBlanc from Friends, but the actual Matt LeBlanc from Friends. Or at least a fictional version of him. A fictional version who's played by Matt LeBlanc. From Friends.

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Confused? Well, LeBlanc is playing himself much as Neil Patrick Harris played himself in the Harold and Kumar movies — it's him, biographically, but it's a crude, dark, spoiled version of what you might envision Matt LeBlanc to be. It's a genius move, because Matt LeBlanc, as funny and underrated as he actually was on Friends, nevertheless made his name on a hit show that never, ever tried to take the kinds of chances that even broadcast networks take these days on shows like Modern Family and Community.

This trailer for the new Showtime series Episodes contains some strong language, though it's bleeped.

Showtime YouTube

Also in the cast are John Pankow as the sleazy network suit, Mircea Monroe as a mysteriously ageless eternal sexpot, and Kathleen Rose Perkins, who is terrific as a twitchy development executive who can somehow be the most oblivious person in some rooms and the most perceptive and savvy person in others.

Ultimately, what drives Episodes is the tense triangle that develops among LeBlanc and the Lincolns — Sean, who's tempted to go along to get along, and is oddly drawn to this creature of Hollywood, and Beverly, who can barely stand to watch the vandalizing of her work. The performances do a lot to elevate this project: Mangan is playing a somewhat awkward but lovable Brit of the type Hugh Grant specialized in before he started playing cads, and Greig's stubborn strength, cut with an acute sensitivity to pain, calls to mind some of what I like about Emma Thompson. (Apologies for comparing all actresses with British accents to each other.) And LeBlanc manages to make "Matt LeBlanc" the character amusingly crass but oddly winning. Be aware, though, that his part doesn't beef up until the second episode, so the show really needs to be watched through at least two or three installments.

While Episodes is lighthearted, there are real stakes for these people — the Lincolns' marriage, their creative integrity and their self-respect are potentially imperiled by what quickly begins to look like an epic misadventure.

The Hollywood satire that's going on here isn't anything especially new; self-examination is a fairly common theme in mainstream TV and movie projects. But Episodes is well executed, with solid performances and a short-enough first season (seven episodes, all of which Showtime sent out to critics) that it has a shape and a story without straining to fill out its run with tacked-on characters or wacky showbiz tales of the week. It's a fairly dense, taut story over those seven episodes — which definitely left me hopeful for another season.

Frankly, I've been looking forward to this show since the network showed critics this funny teaser last summer:

Critics saw this teaser last summer. (Like the trailer, it contains bleeped language.)

Showtime YouTube

And now that it's here, I found the first season just as satisfying and entertaining as I was hoping it would be. It's also fairly vindicating, because quite frankly, I always thought Matt LeBlanc was really funny.