Now that Showtime heavyweights Homeland and Masters of Sex have finished up their drama-heavy runs, the return of Episodes feels like a frothy chai latte after a season-long dinner of steak and potatoes.
Fans of the first two seasons will acknowledge the story of two married English TV writers who bring their acclaimed hit series to America—only to see it Frankensteined into a mediocre, by-the-book sitcom—isn’t breaking any new ground. Did you know people in Los Angeles can be very shallow? Or that the television industry involves a lot of backstabbing? We’ve all seen so many TV shows about TV that it’s hard to bring any fresh satire to that world, especially as social media makes it increasingly more transparent to viewers.
Episodes succeeds by adding a layer of genuine sweetness and love among the core characters. Matt LeBlanc gets the most attention from critics (and has won a Golden Globe) for his fictionalized, self-deprecating portrayal of himself, perfectly balancing sincerity and snark. But for me, the real heart of the show lies with Sean and Beverly, the fish-out-of-water couple from across the pond. Stephen Mangan and Tasmin Greig bring a warm chemistry that provides the audience with a relatable point of view, the same way the two characters ground each other amidst all the Hollywood headiness around them.
Season 2 ended with a knock-down, drag-out finale in which network president Merc is fired in favor of his mistress and protégé, Carol, who turns down the job out of loyalty. Adding insult to injury: Merc’s blind wife, Jamie, has been sleeping with Matt. Adding injury to injury: Merc attacks Matt and dislocates his shoulder. Now out of a job, Merc tells Carol he can’t divorce his wife and lose half his money, so Carol breaks up with him, bitter over her lost promotion. Somewhere along the way, Sean and Beverly share a kiss after having spent most of the season dealing with their own marital woes.
Now it’s the morning after, and everyone’s trying to pick up the pieces, with little success. Carol shows up for work ready to kick ass and take names—specifically “network president”—and puts in a take-back call to the senior exec. She stops by Merc’s already cleaned-out office and reminisces about the moments they shared there, a sliding scale from happy, smiling hugs to Carol comforting Merc while he poops. Back in present day, she breaks down in a combination of real grief over what she lost and repulsion over what she allowed herself to keep for so long.
Sean and Beverly are in their we’re-back-together honeymoon glow, and Matt brings a bottle of champagne to the office for a heartfelt toast to their reconciliation. But they’re both still haunted by the past. For Beverly, it’s the affair Sean had last year with Morning, the star of their sitcom. For Sean, it’s the night Beverly spent with Morning’s brother—last Wednesday. This might be tougher than they thought.
Merc shows up at Matt’s house begging Jamie to give him another chance, but she leaves him out in the rain, literally and figuratively. Matt’s also in groveling mode with his ex, Diane, who’s threatening to limit his visitation with their sons after his one-night stand with his stalker. After sending a heartfelt email ghost-written by Sean, Matt seems on track to earn Diane’s trust again when he’s pulled over on his way to Disneyland with the boys. That afternoon’s celebratory champagne has landed him at the police station on a DUI charge, where he has no VIP sway over the two Friends-fan cops who request his photograph—for a mug shot.
Oh, and Carol finds out someone else got the network president job. Which we sort of saw coming, right? But based on next week’s previews, it went to the always solid Chris Diamantopoulos, who should be a welcome addition to a show I’m already all-too-happy to welcome back.