When Matt LeBlanc won his first and only Golden Globe Award in 2012, for the Showtime comedy Episodes, the general reaction was a head-scratching, what the fuck is Episodes? The show, which premiered in 2011 and ended its five-season run in fine form last night, had just finished its first season, and initially it seemed as if we might have another Joey situation on our hands. This was no Friends spin-off, of course, but still — an inside-baseball comedy about the television industry, starring Matt LeBlanc as Matt LeBlanc? Who asked for that? And who wins an acting award for playing himself?
TV has always been a self-reflexive medium. As far back as 1961, The Dick Van Dyke Show took viewers behind the scenes of the fictional Alan Brady Show, where Van Dyke’s Rob Petrie worked as the head writer; in the 1990s, Gary Shandling would alter the course of comedy history with the fourth-wall-busting The Larry Sanders Show, in which the comedian played a talk-show host who interviewed real-life celebrities. Of course, networks have been green-lighting shows based on a comic’s stand-up persona for decades (Seinfeld, anyone?). But since the premiere of Louie in 2010, a sleek new brand of half-hour series — starring a slightly fictionalized version of a real-life comedy star mining her most painfully hilarious experiences for laughs — has become a staple of contemporary television, with cable and streaming iterations from comic voices like Marc Maron (Maron), Andrew Dice Clay (Dice), Andrea Savage (I’m Sorry), Tig Notaro (One Mississippi), Pete Holmes (Crashing), and Pamela Adlon (Better Things).
But it would be misleading to describe Episodes as a show about Matt LeBlanc’s post-Friends career. Matt-the-character isn’t meant to be an approximation of the real Matt LeBlanc, but a wild caricature of the way viewers might perceive him: a wealthy, entitled oaf who will take any job that pays and bed any attractive woman who’s willing. Here, the entertainment industry isn’t a backdrop to Matt’s existential angst, but the real meat and potatoes of the series, which kicked off with married writers Sean and Beverly Lincoln (Stephen Mangan and Tamsin Greig) moving from London to Los Angeles to adapt their popular British sitcom for an American audience.
Created by sitcom veterans David Crane and Jeffrey Klarik (the former co-created Friends, the latter wrote for Mad About You), Episodes has a frothier, goofier tone than other Hollywood-set TV comedies, and yet it also feels more like a series for, and about, adults. This show isn’t about a comedian baring his dark soul, or indulging in the masochistic exercise of lampooning a younger, dumber version of herself. Episodes is about the transactional nature of relationships in Hollywood, and the possibility of finding true affection for your colleagues in a business where everyone is by necessity using everyone else. The show takes the omnipresence of boorish male producers who abuse their power — embodied here by Merc Lapidus (John Pankow), the network president — as a given, a hazard of the trade. Yet somehow, genuine connections manage to bloom in the arid landscape of the television industry; even the sardonic Beverly, who can barely force the fake smiles that glide so effortlessly across the faces of the Hollywood elite, strikes up a friendship with Carol Rance (Kathleen Rose Perkins), a pot-smoking executive who tumbles into an affair with one boss after another.
From that description, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Episodes is a stinging indictment of the television industry, from hack writers to phony agents to callous executives. Sean and Beverly’s British sitcom, Lyman’s Boys, about a headmaster and his students, quickly morphs into Pucks! at the network’s behest. The headmaster becomes a hockey coach, and, to the Lincolns’ horror, the part goes to Matt LeBlanc. In the fifth and final season, with Pucks! having been canceled, Matt takes a job hosting a reality show called The Box, in which contestants compete to see who can endure the longest in individual glass-walled boxes, which are intermittently plagued with agonies such as being trapped for 48 hours with Gilbert Gottfried while he recites the Bible.
When Matt manages to leverage a sex scandal to his advantage, convincing the network to give him another show, he enlists Sean and Beverly, who jump at the chance to leave their current job on a sitcom helmed by a former writing partner of Sean’s that they both despise. It’s a reluctant threesome — particularly in light of the first season finale, in which Beverly, against all instincts, sleeps with Matt — but they need each other. After they convince Matt to let go of his dream series (an hour-long prestige drama about prostitutes called Whores!! that sounds not a little like HBO’s The Deuce), they settle on a show based on Matt’s tortured relationship with his father, who’s just died.
But when Sean and Beverly turn in the pilot script, days go by before they hear from Matt, who informs them through their agent that he’s passing. Matt may be a send-up of an entitled, vacuous actor, but he’s been kicking around Hollywood for long enough to have learned a few things, and when they read the script again, the couple is forced to concede that his critique is spot-on.
Scrapping the father-son idea, they start from scratch and finally land on an idea that sticks. The series ends on an appropriately meta note, as Sean and Beverly create a show based on their love-hate relationship with Matt: Episodes. In another twist you may have seen coming, Matt himself gets hold of the script and insists he’s the man to play himself.
The ending is remarkably similar to the resolution of The Comeback, on HBO, which starred Lisa Kudrow as Valerie Cherish, the former lead of a popular 1990s sitcom who struggles to regain her glory when she’s cast as the kooky Aunt Sassy in a network number called Room and Bored. In the second season — which aired nearly a decade after the first — HBO develops a gritty comedy based on the making of Room and Bored, and, like Matt, Valerie ends up playing herself.
It’s a striking parallel for the two former Friends stars — breaking down the fourth wall, but leaving a protective sheet of glass in its place — and taken together, Episodes and The Comeback are a subtle argument against actors playing explicit versions of themselves. Kudrow and LeBlanc belong to the last cohort of sitcom stars whose series aired before the fragmentation of the TV landscape led to the decline of network ratings. Their fame (and, thanks to syndication, their paychecks) have enjoyed a kind of longevity that few TV stars could relate to today. They don’t need to plant their flags in this ever-more-crowded field; if anything, I’d imagine the idea of basing a series on their actual lives would be more oppressive, after decades of endless and invasive publicity, than liberating. Take it from a pair who’ve been around the TV industry long enough to know a thing or two: You can have a satisfying career without sacrificing yourself. You can sell a series without selling your soul.