The Showtime/BBC Two co-production Episodes is the latest in a long line of self-reflexive television shows -- that is, TV shows about making TV shows. The series (Seasons 1 & 2 out on DVD today) stars Stephen Mangan and Tamsin Greig as Sean and Beverly Lincoln, the writers behind a well-respected British comedy series who come to America to adapt the series for an unnamed but flagging network. Naturally, the adaptation becomes a highly bastardized version of the original, with understated thespian who starred in the original (Richard Griffiths) being replaced by the congenial-yet-despicable Matt LeBlanc, who unwittingly brings chaos to everything he touches -- particularly to Sean and Beverly's marriage.
Most shows would focus on the creative frustrations of the main characters, who are forced to watch their beloved creation turned into something unrecognizable. And, it's true, the early episodes of the series do focus on the dumbing down their series is forced to undergo to win the ratings game (the fact that this series was co-created by Friends creator David Crane is verrrry interesting indeed). But the bigger focus of the series, thankfully, isn't on the resulting outrage -- it's on the characters. What's even more refreshing is the lack of cynicism with which they are treated.
The characters all possess significant flaws, but aside from the particularly slimy studio exec, they're treated compassionately. The show manages to present a love triangle where you actually like everyone involved, even if you're angry at how stupidly they're acting. LeBlanc provides the obligatory skewed, out-of-touch version of himself that you're expecting, but you might be surprised to find out that he manages to be likable even in the middle of his most despicable antics (as do the equally memorable Mangan and Greig).
There's also another surprising element to Episodes: it gets continually better. Though the first season is essentially a seven-part build to a fantastically satisfying disaster, the second season loses that direction -- and somehow manages to get better. Roles are reversed to a satisfying degree, and while the season has a similar ending to the first, it feels much more satisfying -- and much more earned.
In an ongoing trend for Showtime DVD releases, the two discs don't include any extras of note. If reading text biographies and browsing photo galleries sounds fun to you, then go nuts. The rest of us will continue to be annoyed by Showtime's seeming disinterest in providing any added bang for the buyer's buck.
Episodes isn't groundbreaking television; it's stepping on well-tread ground. But it's certainly one of the best shows of its kind, if only for the fantastic characterization (and a solid amount of hilarity). If you haven't yet seen it, it's well worth the buy.