“Episodes,” the new Showtime series, is about high hopes and crushed dreams. Moral and artistic compromises. Relationships pushed to the breaking point.
In short, it’s about the television industry.
And it’s a comedy.
It’s also a return to the TV screen, after several years’ absence, by Matt LeBlanc, who, for 11 smash seasons, played would-be actor Joey Tribbiani on “Friends,” then put in two more seasons on its misfired spinoff, “Joey,” which ended in 2006.
Now, on “Episodes” (which premieres Sunday on Showtime at 9:30 p.m. EST), LeBlanc is doing a brave, even rash thing: making himself the show’s biggest punch line and possibly digging himself deeper into the real-life career dilemma his show portrays.
LeBlanc plays a fictitious TV star (and “Friends” alumnus) named Matt LeBlanc who, saddled by the stereotype of Joey, is somewhat of a joke in an industry that can’t see casting him in anything but Joey-like parts. Meanwhile, he’s held hostage by an audience that doesn’t care to draw the distinction between Matt and Joey.
No wonder he’s ripe for the lead in a brainy British comedy being remade for American TV — and being hopelessly dumbed-down in the process.
A co-production between Showtime and the BBC in the United Kingdom, “Episodes” charts the bewildering, dismaying journey of the husband-and-wife team who created an acclaimed comedy called “Lyman’s Boys,” then, on arriving in Hollywood to oversee its adaptation, are appalled by the changes forced upon them by the U.S. network. (For example, the veteran Shakespearean actor they originally signed to play the headmaster of a boys’ boarding school is swapped out for LeBlanc as a Joey-like hockey coach, and their precious show is renamed “Pucks!”)
Consisting of seven half-hours, “Episodes” paints a scathing picture of the TV biz at its most superficial, cynical and duplicitous. But the sense of disarray is compounded by viewing it through the wide, disbelieving eyes of Sean and Beverly Lincoln (played by Tamsin Greig and Stephen Mangan). The alienation by these Brits in Tinseltown is such that they have trouble even talking their way past the security guard in the gated community where they live.
“The story is about Sean and Beverly,” says LeBlanc. “I’m the wedge that comes between the two of them, and between them and their show.”
But first the groundwork must be laid: who Sean and Beverly are, and how they come to find themselves seduced into moving to Los Angeles. (LeBlanc’s character is barely seen in the series’ premiere.)
“Joey” left the air in 2006, and LeBlanc had been taking life easy and spending time with his daughter, Marina, now 6, when he got a call from co-creators Jeffrey Klarik (“Mad About You”) and former “Friends” colleague David Crane.
“They said, ‘What are you doing?’ I said, ‘Spending some of that (“Friends”) money, and thanks again, by the way.’”
With that, they roped him in with their “Episodes” pitch: “a show about a show about all the promises made by a network to people making the show, and how those promises don’t come true.
“But it’s not just about Hollywood,” LeBlanc adds. “It’s issues that could come up in any industry. I think that’s what helps keep it relatable.”
It’s also relatable because viewers have a head start knowing LeBlanc (or they think they do) in this parallel universe.
“But the character is not me,” LeBlanc insists. “He’s more manipulative, a lot more carefree. In a nutshell, it’s more of the public’s perception of me versus who I really am. The character that I play on the show-within-a-show — ‘Pucks!’ — is more like Joey Tribbiani, and that’s a joke, because that is what the industry would probably want to hire me back as.”
He has five years’ distance from Joey (except, of course, in “Friends” reruns, from which there is no foreseeable escape). Now, at age 43, he is thicker, hair graying, with a husky voice he deploys in a near-whisper.
But hasn’t he chosen the very project for his comeback that could bind him even tighter to his Joey past?
“If you’re pigeonholed, then you’re pigeonholed,” LeBlanc says, “and I think that ship’s probably sailed. I think people are always going to identify the six of us” — he and “Friends” co-stars Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox, Lisa Kudrow, Matthew Perry and David Schwimmer — “with those six characters. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.
“My career has fallen into this weird sort of work-slash-hobby,” he sums up. “That’s a great place to be. I’m looking for the experience now. Whatever course my life takes next, it’s all gravy at this point.”