Why I'm sticking with Episodes

Chris Hallam has the last word on the Matt LeBlanc sitcom

Judging any comedy by its first episode is a risky business. Sitcoms are notoriously difficult to get right from the start. Most of the best rely on the audience’s familiarity with the characters for most of their humour.

We know instantly now, for example, that Baldrick, Father Ted and Joey Tribbiani are all stupid, that Captain Mainwaring is pompous and that Will is gay and Grace isn’t, but we didn’t always know these things. The challenge for the writer of a new sitcom is to establish the scenario and the characters as quickly as possible. Little wonder then that the first episodes of many sitcoms fall flat, even ones which later become classics such as Father Ted, Blackadder or Black Books.

While I wouldn’t put the new BBC Two comedy Episodes in that league, the criticism on this site from both James Cook and Gary Napier based on the first show alone is already starting to look somewhat premature.

For one thing, unusually for a sitcom, one of the main characters in Episodes doesn’t appear (properly) until the second show. The arrival of Matt LeBlanc playing a distorted version of himself, a version which can appear charming one minute, but then like a less loveable version of his Friends persona can find autism funny the next, has already given the show a necessary shot in the arm.

Indeed, it is the excellent supporting cast rather than the reteaming of Green Wing stars Stephen Mangan and Tamsin Greig which, to some extent makes the show. John Pankow is proving increasingly hilarious as the TV executive Merc Lapidus, a man so superficial that he treats his wife’s blindness as if it’s some sort of hilarious running joke. Kathleen Rose Perkins and British actress Daisy Haggard also make an impact in smaller roles.

Gary Napier here misses the point. Episodes isn’t attempting to recruit big name US talent (such as LeBlanc) to shore up a perceived inferiority in British comedy. Episodes works best when mining the differences between the US and UK. Toby Young’s excellent memoir How To Lose Friends and Alienate People, unhappily adapted into a mediocre film, brilliantly captured what happened when a very funny British writer found his humour conspicuously failing to translate when he attempted to transfer it to the US. Episodes attempts to do the same thing exploiting the transatlantic divide for all its worth.

Not all of it succeeds admittedly. As James Cook notes last week’s ‘audition’ sequence with Richard Griffiths failed to amuse, partly because we at that stage knew nothing about the series the rehearsed scene was supposedly taken from, partly because it’s hard to imagine Richard Griffiths thriving as a British TV comedy star these days let alone as a US one and partly because it simply wasn’t funny. Other sequences in the first show did jar too and the security guard’s persistent refusal to let the couple enter their home is starting to wear extremely thin.

James Cook is particularly critical of the opening scenes which reveal the Greig and Mangan’s couple arguing furiously seven weeks after the series starts. But does it matter that we know in advance that the couple’s American endeavour is going to end badly? No. We could probably have guessed this anyway and actually a bit of predictability is not always a bad thing. Thanks to the newsreel sequence at the start of Citizen Kane, we basically know the basics of how Kane’s life will unfold from the outset. The interesting thing is watching exactly how this happens in detail. James Cook’s criticism of the tragically cancelled US show Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip is similarly unjustified

The first pisode of Episodes certainly had room for improvement and on the evidence of the second, is already well on its way to achieving this. So why not give our comedies a bit of breathing space before we shoot them down in flames?

Published: 19 Jan 2011

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