Screen Test

TV reviews: Matt LeBlanc's Episodes underrated because it doesn't romanticise Hollywood

Episodes might be one of the most underrated comedies on television, which is odd given that its subject matter, Hollywood, is one that the industry and critics tend to disproportionately favour, as Oscar winners La La Land (2016), Birdman (2014), The Artist (2011) and Argo (2012) attest to.

Yet, despite a smattering of nominations and a Golden Globe win for star Matt LeBlanc - who plays a deliciously self-absorbed version of himself - the series never seemed to catch on in a big way.

Perhaps it is because this behind- the-scenes look at Tinseltown is rather less rose-tinted than others. Episodes has gleefully taken a scalpel to the heart of Hollywood's creative and moral bankruptcy for four seasons, with the fifth and final one now under way.

The premise: Married British TV producers Sean (Stephen Mangan) and Beverly (Tamsin Greig) go to Hollywood to make a sitcom based on their acclaimed British show, only to find it horribly watered- down and Americanised.

The first pill Sean and Beverly must swallow is that, instead of the theatre-trained English actor they want as their lead, they get former Friends star LeBlanc, a selfish, sex-obsessed and borderline sociopathic charmer.

The three nevertheless become friends and the show then proceeds to chart the ups and downs of their lives.

 Matt LeBlanc plays a selfish and sex-obsessed version of himself in Episodes.
Above: Matt LeBlanc plays a selfish and sex-obsessed version of himself in Episodes. PHOTO: FOX GROUP

The recurring motif is the notion of selling out: Sean and Beverly by selling their show to the Americans, and LeBlanc by taking jobs on terrible shows and other acts of celebrity-whoring, including being paid to attend wealthy despots' parties (which is explored in a brilliant arc in Season 4).

Hollywood's obsession with fame and youth, its sense of entitlement and reliance on cliches and tropes are wonderfully explored. On top of that, Episodes is also a first-rate workplace and relationship comedy.

Its satirical edge is often paired with lots of low humour, like a running gag about an actress who lies about her age, which are good for a giggle or two.

In the first three episodes of Season 5 provided for review, far too many of these baser jokes fall flat and it is hard to discern where it is all headed because most of the time is spent picking up the threads from Season 4 and teeing up the next fiascos.

We find LeBlanc still strapped for cash since his money manager ripped him off and he has been reduced to hosting an idiotic reality show that is a ratings hit.

Meanwhile, Sean and Beverly have been forced to work with his loathsome former partner Tim (Bruce Mackinnon) on a new show.

Everyone is still selling out and hating themselves for it, in other words. Still, there are enough chuckle-out-loud moments that will recall the deepest belly laughs of previous seasons.

One is also reminded that LeBlanc really is the star here - and highly underrated. His association with the dimwitted Joey on Friends has unfairly obscured skills that are all too obvious here: spot-on comic timing and an ability to subtly mug for the camera that is unparalleled.

 Sarah Hay in the Room 104 episode, Voyeurs.
Above: Sarah Hay in the Room 104 episode, Voyeurs. PHOTO: HBO

Room 104,an anthology show written by the Duplass brothers of indie-mumblecore fame, is modelled after The Twilight Zone and Black Mirror, but not quite as haunting or thought-provoking. But there is still much to enjoy and there are flashes of clever storytelling.

  • VIEW IT / EPISODES, SEASON 5

  • FX (Singtel TV Channel 310, StarHub TV Channel 507), Mondays, 9.25pm. Also on Fox+

    3.5/5 stars

    ROOM 104

    Cinemax (StarHub TV Channel 611), Saturdays, 11.30am and 10pm; Also on HBO on StarHub Go and HBO On Demand

    3/5 stars

The 12 concise episodes are unrelated tales that take place in the same motel room, ranging from comedy to drama to horror, many with an experimental bent.

One expects a certain unevenness in such series and the seven episodes reviewed reflect this.

Ralphie, about a babysitter hired to look after an odd little boy, is predictable but straight-up spooky fun.

Pizza Boy and The Knockadoo have more of a twist. In the former, a delivery guy is put in an awkward spot by an attractive married couple and, in the second, a woman enlists a cult priest to help her "transcend" to another plane.

In Voyeurs, a housekeeper reconnects with a younger version of herself. This becomes a dialogue- free dance sequence that is novel at first, but goes on for too long.

The standout in the first six episodes is The Internet, which starts as a phone call from a young man to his mother as he coaches her through sending him an important e-mail, but turns into a far richer tale.

Both in its ideas and style, the show feels a little lightweight, but some overarching themes are intriguing, particularly those to do with the reversal of power dynamics and expectations. And, for short stories, they pack a decent punch; one could do a lot worse with 25 minutes of one's time.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 23, 2017, with the headline 'An underrated look at Hollywood's obsessions'. Print Edition | Subscribe