Episodes: Series IV, Episode 1

US Border Control. One uninterested official. “Reasons for entering the country?” A ruffled Tamsin Greig, whose feathers are all a twist. Through gritted teeth, she churns: “Matt LeBlanc.” Meanwhile, a bemused Stephen Mangan beholds. Episodes to a tee. The Greig, Mangan, LeBlanc triangle hits the course for series IV of this transatlantic treasure.

Often par, Greig’s eagle plumage, LeBlanc’s very overactive ‘birdie’ and a bunkered Mangan, drive the comedic quality of this slow burner. To some it may seem one overlong bogie of a series. For sure, it is no laugh a minute ratings beast, but it is a mirthful tease, more likely to raise a titbit of a smile than an uproarious bellow. Now in the clubhouse and back on the road, with tits we must start.

For those in need of a recap, we left the reluctant Brit writers, Sean and Beverly (Mangan/Greig) walking a frosty Thames-side walk beneath the arching Westminster Bridge. Happy to have finally fled back home, away from the glitz, glamour and gargantuan disaster that was ‘Pucks’. However, Hollywood comes a calling and in typically farcical style they are soon back on board the sinking shit of Pucks, commissioned for a new series that will never even be broadcasted.

So, the tits. Our first real laugh comes as Matt LeBlanc, still plain old ‘Joey’ to reams of Friends fans (and anyone who has ever owned a TV), pulls up alongside a rather attractive young lady who should surely know better. LeBlanc, playing the in vogue extended version of oneself, in the age of meta anything, begins toynig with the girl in a conceited attempt to bare breasts. Meanwhile, the stereo is blaring no bass, but a phone call bearing the bad news of his financial adviser’s demise. Suicide. Hanged. In front of his kid. Only nine years old. He drives on, multitasking flirtation and commiseration. It is around this macabre, almost indecent black comedy that Episodes flourishes in the land of sun, soda and sodomy.

This BBC, Showtime collaboration finds former Friends writers and partners, David Crane and Jeffrey Clarik, shredding the easy material of their own world of boardrooms, executives, actors and sets. These surgeons of satire turn the knife firmly on LeBlanc in the first episode. The storyline hinges on LeBlanc losing half of his fortune to the tune of $32m, leaving him a modest $31 and a bit. As you can imagine, to a Hollywood hero, this is the equivalent of a banker losing his bonus. Heads will roll. Yeah, yeah, but he does still have the small matter of $31m… “You can have a very nice life on as little as $31m.” Utters Beverly in a shower of sympathy: good old english stoicism in the face of a Greek style financial crisis. To which a despondent Jack Daniels, sorry, LeBlanc strikes back: “I don’t see how!”

It is on well constructed, over worked, though often funny, resolutions that Episodes trades its comedic capital. It can be hard hitting, but the writers prefer a deft touch. Last series, the highlight was Casper, a lunatic lothario with lust and erectile dysfunction, whose hard on was hardly contained in the towering blocks of LA. His character provided often infantile if welcome laughs: the scenes with the psychiatrist are as good as anything, ever. Series IV returns to the central axis of characters, in scenes given time to mature and be under played to death by an excellent cast.

Obviously, Episodes, LeBlanc’s first television appearance for five years, belongs to the grey haired fox. Clooney, he most certainly is not. More of a pimped up BMW to the latter’s limousine of unctuous schmooze. A womanising whore of a man who has the scars of egotism deep into a soul of loathsome, self-inflicted despair. But more than anything else, he is just plain stupid. And American. Whereas, Beverly and Sean are typical, english intelligentsia. She is a grammar school graduate, he a boarding school bore. Both are in no way sufficiently bullish to truly counter the cultural dynamite of LeBlanc. Cultural in an iconoclastic, not positive fashion. For anyone who has ever been asked the age-old question, ‘what are the differences between americans and the english?” Look no further than this accurate portrait of caricature. The scene in which they trade off wealth and salary is perfection and condenses these opposite qualities of character.

It is not merely the LeBlanc show, although Episodes’ highlights are normally drawn from his sordid source. The series offers an exceptional support cast. Led by the likes of Ballot Monkey’s Kathleen Rose Perkins, who even made a brief sojourn opposite Ben Affleck in Gone Girl, and the excellent, operatic, Daisy Haggard. Both starred in Andy Hamilton’s C4 campaign comedy in the Labour election bus. If we add in Stephen Mangan’s role as Tony Blair in the recent reboot of The Comic Book Presents… then we have solved the Labour leadership contest and have a team in situ ready to get him into Number Ten. Stephen Mangan for PM… It is rare transatlantic trade like his, and Damian Lewis’, who was bizarrely originally earmarked for the Episodes role, upon which we will become dependent after exiting the EU. So get your votes in early and tune in to BBC 2 tonight at 10.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01hpdsk

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