Let’s face it. America has buggered up more adaptations of British telly than it has ever gotten right.
For every Blackpool there is a Viva Laughlin! For every Fawlty Towers there is an Amanda’s. And for every Coupling, Life on Mars, Prime Suspect and Skins there is a Coupling, Life on Mars, Prime Suspect and Skins. Boy they’re not very good at this thing, are they?
Eighteen months ago, America decided to see the lighter side of things with an American comedy about ruining British comedies, in the form of Episodes.
Created by David Crane (Friends) and Jeffrey Klarik (Mad About You) for the Showtime network, this begins in the UK with writers Beverly and Sean Lincoln (Tamsin Greig, Stephen Mangan) winning a BAFTA for their fictional comedy Lyman’s Boys -best described as a kind of History Boys for the small screen.
US TV exec Merc Lapidus (John Pankow) lures them to Hollywood with the promise of money and fame, but from there they are subjected to the inanity of the American network system that tries to re-mould their round peg into their square hole. The ageing star Julian Bullard (Richard Griffiths) is asked to re-audition for his role but Lapidus decides he is “too British.”
When Matt LeBlanc (played by Matt LeBlanc) becomes available, Beverly and Sean battle to hold on to their project and their sanity.
There is much to like here. The premise is so self-referential that it’s hard to conceive Americans can grasp the lost-in-translation irony. Maybe we can thank Ricky Gervais for bringing it to them.
Matt LeBlanc plays a shallow, conceited version of himself brilliantly. His character is more interested in money than art and looking to rebound from the failure that was Joey. He tells Beverly he’s desperate for the show to be hilarious or at least deliver him enough anecdotes for his next talk show appearance.
Supporting characters offer terrific foils to the comedy, including the network execs. With next to no dialogue, Daisy Haggard as a lemon-faced Head of Comedy is absolutely priceless. There’s also a funny running gag featuring Lou Hirsch as the security guard of a gated community.
But while it’s tempting to be distracted by LeBlanc, it’s actually the duo of Greig and Mangan that are the heart of Episodes. As an audience we feel sympathetic to the struggles of the British writers, watching as they squirm and try to compromise on their vision. There are laugh out loud moments here, with clever writing and restrained performances.
As a comedy that gleefully takes us inside the television industry it becomes doubly enthralling. It’s the sharpest satire on the industry since 30 Rock and the grossly-underrated Grosse Pointe.
But there is a downside to the treatment of Episodes in Australia. The first is that Nine has waited 18 months to screen the show, despite promising in 2010 it would be fast-tracked. The second point is that Nine is editing Episodes, from its 30 minutes of US cable content to 30 minutes of commercial television with ads. Screening two episodes back to back will see too many scenes edited onto the cutting room floor. It takes an American network to realise it is strangling the art of British comedy, but it takes an Australian network to bastardise it via Programming.
Lastly, for the record, America has definitely made some very successful adaptations from the UK: The Office, Queer as Folk, Steptoe and Son, Til Death Us Do Part, Man About the House, Pop Idol, Strictly Come Dancing and several game shows.
Episodes airs 9:30pm Tuesdays on Nine
*from July 10 in Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth.