Meta comedy, in which celebrities play fictionalised or “exaggerated” versions of themselves, is a mixed bag. The two-season Hollywood Darlings (featuring, among others, Full House’s Jodie Sweetin) never really took off, and despite the hype and nostalgia surrounding the Beverly Hills 90210 reboot, it too failed to pack a punch – even with nods to Shannon Doherty’s “drama queen” reputation.
The same cannot be said for the show Episodes, in which Matt LeBlanc portrays himself as an actor subsisting off the fumes of his phenomenal Friends success. A satirical skewering of the Hollywood machine, Friends writers (and real-life couple) David Crane and Jeffrey Klarik brilliantly and gleefully pull back the curtains on television, with LeBlanc playing a heightened version of himself – but one that clearly riffs off public expectation. And while LeBlanc is the star, the show’s focus extends to the supporting players in a Hollywood’s star’s universe.
Indeed, the pilot of Episodes quickly tells you what kind of show this is going to be: having just won a Bafta for their prestigious comedy Lyman’s Boys, the story of a boys’ school headmaster in love with a lesbian librarian, an English couple and writing duo, Sean and Beverly Lincoln (Stephen Mangan and Tamsin Greig), are approached by a puffed-up US network head, Merc Lapidus (John Pankow). He breathlessly heaps praise on them – “I love your show. I love it. Seriously ... I want to have sex with your show” – then convinces them to pack their bags and move to LA to show-run a US version of the award-winning series.
But upon arrival, housed in an extravagant mansion once used as a set for a reality TV show, the Lincolns soon get the lay of the land: the network executive lackeys propping up Lapidus, similarly ebullient and flattering, admit that, well, Lapidus hasn’t actually watched Lyman’s Boys. This paves the way for the Americans to decimate what was a pathos-packed dramedy, replacing an esteemed old English actor with LeBlanc as a downtrodden high school hockey coach who has the hots for the librarian (no longer a lesbian). Oh, and now the show is called Pucks!.
For meta comedy like this to work, you have to play with the truth but you can’t dispense with it completely. And in Episodes, LeBlanc is only too happy to appear imperfect, a little burnt from his time in the sun, wizened from years stumbling along the Hollywood hamster wheel. But rather than dissolve into pure parody, LeBlanc, who is most famous for his Joey Tribbiani pick-up line “How you doin’?”, neatly subverts the perception that he is Joey. His waters can run deep but, more importantly, he knows how to sell himself, and he’s not done being successful and famous.
It’s understandable that celebrities playing themselves guard the privacy of their non-famous friends and family. But the genius of Episodes is its reliance on essential truths. LeBlanc’s personal life is a story thread but really what shines through is the show’s exploration of fame, and the ways in which Hollywood massacres pure intention, chewing and spitting out its talents, and creating entertainment by committee. It’s an astute cautionary tale: you can reach peak success but one day find yourself at the bottom again, wealthy but dissatisfied because you’ve tasted relevance.
Meanwhile, part of the show’s strength is its supporting cast. There are the besieged Lincolns, whose dreams of a breakthrough are rapidly becoming a nightmare. As long-suffering second to Lapidus, Carol (Kathleen Rose Perkins) is the guide for both the Lincolns and the viewer. She eases us in, delicately, before slamming us with the truth: nothing in Hollywood is real – even the tall columns in the reality TV mansion.
LeBlanc’s Pucks! co-star, Morning Randolph (Mircea Monroe), keeps her breasts fake and perky, and her age is Hollywood’s worst-kept secret. And honourable mention goes to Myra (Daisy Haggard), the network’s head of comedy, despite having no sense of humour or even the ability to crack a genuine smile. In place of thoughtful assessment, she contorts her face in wild confusion, perhaps wondering, like us, why anyone would willingly work in television. A scene in which she tries to give the Lincolns “some notes” after a table read is genius, showing us you can be good at your job but it means nothing if no one else is.
Episodes draws generously from the creators’ insider knowledge. They know Hollywood’s fickleness and folly. With its very human, faulty characters, it joyfully holds these foibles up to the light. But it’s smart enough to know that any good story requires more, and with five seasons, there is plenty of opportunity to grow these characters into more than hopeless Hollywood off-cuts.
• Episodes is available to stream in Australia on Stan