Showtime’s “Episodes” needs some tweaks heading into season 3

There’s was a scene in Sunday’s season 2 finale of Episodes in which a writer reveals that his pilot about an English couple coming to America to do a sitcom is picked up. The show would revolve around the couple having to produce their struggling series despite going through an uncomfortable divorce. Sounds pretty lame, huh?

Regretfully, that fictitious premise is exactly what we got from Showtime’s sophomore campaign of Episodes. Although still funny and worth watching at times, the ludicrous plots made one of my favorite TV programs unwatchable more often than not. And the real shame is it is getting dangerously close to wasting some brilliant performances from Matt LeBlanc, Tamsin Greig and Stephen Mangan.

For those out of the loop, Greig and Mangan play a British couple — Beverly and Sean Lincoln — who are brought to the U.S. to recreate a new version of their hit sitcom. Much to their chagrin, the show is completely revamped and dumbed down with the sole purpose of making it a star-vehicle for LeBlanc. The beauty of the first season was how it capitalized on making LeBlanc a caricature of himself, which is what the former Friends star said drew him to the part.

Unfortunately, many of the flawed traits that made the character likable last season made him almost unbearable the second time around. I suspended belief enough to rationalize that LeBlanc was selfish enough to sleep with Beverly, which obviously created a huge ripple in her marriage to Sean; but the writers simply went for shock value when they had him sleep with the blind wife of his boss (played nicely by John Pankow) as well as a female stalker for which he had previously taken out a restraining order.

Simply put, neither plot worked, and all it did was derail what was one of the funniest shows on television. And it’s not like the writers don’t know how ridiculous the show had become, because they actually parodied it with the example I cited above. Also, in response to LeBlanc’s reckless sexcapades, one character says, “A stalker and his boss’s blind wife … that guy will stick it anywhere.”

All that said, Episodes still has some funny moments, and it is far from unsalvageable. It just needs to know how to expose the warts of its characters without making them unlikable. It’s one thing to create some tension between Sean and Beverly, but it’s something entirely different when we find ourselves not pulling for either one. How can we feel sorry for Beverly when she chose to have an affair with LeBlanc? And how can we empathize with Sean when he retaliated by sleeping with an actress on the show he is writing with his wife?

Showtime needs to go back to the drawing board with this one and embrace what drew in fans like me in the first place. Dysfunction can be very funny in a sitcom, but dysfunctional characters tend to get old very quickly. We were offered a ray of sunlight in the season 2 finale when Beverly and Sean appeared to reconcile and LeBlanc was embarrassed publicly when it was exposed that he was sleeping with yet another married woman. Perhaps this is a sign that some changes are on the horizon.

It’s rare that a show has three great performers like Greig, Mangan and LeBlanc, so the writers would be wise to make them more likable. LeBlanc has already won a Golden Globe and Emmy nomination for his role, which will regretful go for naught if the ship isn’t righted quickly. Otherwise, as Pankow’s character said in Sunday’s episode about LeBlanc, he’ll just be remembered as “that fat guy who used to be Joey.”

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Photo: Jack Barnes/Showtime

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