Showtime's "Episodes," the bitingly funny, Emmy-nominated showbiz comedy from "Friends" creator David Crane and his partner, Jeffrey Klarik, didn't skimp on laughs in season one with its saga of two married English writers (Stephen Mangan, Tamsin Greig) who came to Hollywood to adapt their award-winning Britcom for American television, only to see it grotesquely overhauled as a vehicle for an ego-driven star (Matt LeBlanc, playing a satirical version of himself).
But something interesting has happened as the sitcom starts its second season on Sunday, July 1. The belly laughs are still there, to be sure, but the characters, their relationships and the performances by the cast have grown much deeper and more subtle. If season one was an exceptional piece of work, this new batch of episodes takes things to a whole new level.
Returns 9:30 p.m. Sunday, July 1, on Showtime
First, though, a brief review, for those who didn't see the first season -- and apparently, there were a lot of you. Sean and Beverly Lincoln (Mangan and Greig) felt wholly at sea as they tried to adjust to life in Hollywood, where their charming little comedy series about an avuncular British schoolmaster and his young charges morphed hideously into a sexed-up series called "Pucks," built around a randy high-school hockey coach (LeBlanc, who won a Golden Globe Award for his performance). As the season unfolded, Sean became seduced by the Tinseltown lifestyle, growing infatuated with a Hollywood starlet. Beverly, meanwhile, miserable and insecure, succumbed to a one-night stand with Matt, leaving Sean devastated.
"The start of season two is a very interesting paradigm shift, a role reversal, from the beginning of season one, when Sean really wanted to be in L.A., and Beverly really didn't want to be there," Greig says. "Season two opens four months after where season one ended, and Sean really doesn't want to be there, but Beverly realizes the only way she is going to have access to Sean is to stay in Hollywood and write this show that they are contractually obliged to work on. It's a very interesting place to find them in."
The situation forces the spouses, now living apart, to see each other every day and work with the man who is a constant reminder of Beverly's infidelity, a premise rich in both comedy and pathos.
"I think Matt understands what he did, but he's not the kind of guy who dwells on that," LeBlanc says. "He dwells on what he wants, not what he's done, and what he wants, ironically, is the same thing Beverly wants: to get back into Sean's good graces. The irony in season two is that Matt and Beverly are on the same side of the argument. They're allies now."
Meanwhile, "Pucks," which was in the pilot stage in season one, finally makes its TV premiere, where it almost immediately craters in the ratings, torpedoed by a talking dog comedy on another network. While network liaison Carol Rance (the amazing Catherine Rose Perkins) tries to put a happy face on the situation, her boss (and secret lover), vulgar network head Merc Lapidus (John Pankow), doesn't hesitate to start interfering, ordering Beverly and Sean to downplay Matt in favor of his demographic-friendly teen co-stars, thus triggering Matt's deep-seated insecurities.
"I understand that David and Jeffrey write from experience, and these characters are out there, unbelievable as that may seem to me," Greig says. "I mean, when I first read the scripts for season one, I thought, 'Well, this is really funny, but I don't know how this will work, because this can't be real.' But the more I speak to David and Jeffrey and Matt and other people who have worked in the business out there, they say, 'Well, no, it's frighteningly close to the bone.'"
The stress of watching his starring role whittled away sends Matt on an eating binge that results in some unflattering paparazzi photos of "Matt LeBlob," as he is christened by the tabloids. Been there, done that, LeBlanc says.
"Oh, yeah, they've gotten on me a couple of times when I have avoided the gym," he says, laughing. "In fact, in 'Episodes,' that shot of me eating cheesecake and looking on the computer was an actual shot that was in the tabloids a couple of years ago."
Greig, for her part, says this new season only makes her realize more acutely how much pressure Beverly and Sean are under on both the personal and professional fronts.
"I'm just coming to understand what a tough world this is for the characters that Steven and I are playing," she says. "I trust that David and Jeffrey are writing a real journey for us, and this 'child' that Sean and Beverly have created is taken out of their hands and brought up by really unstable nannies who alter the behavior and the character of their child to such degree that that child becomes unrecognizable to them. That must be painful and heartbreaking."
Season two ends with all the characters facing some big changes in their network world, but there's also some sense of closure as well, just in case. LeBlanc says conversations are under way about a possible season three, however.
"I think there's plenty of places to go," he says. "It's totally believable these characters would keep running into each other. As long as David and Jeffrey are involved (in a third season), I will be, too. If they decide they've had enough, that'll be it for me, too."