"Episodes" (Season 2 premieres Sun., July 1, 10:30 p.m. ET on Showtime) is one more reminder that there's nothing Hollywood loves more than obsessing about itself.
"Episodes," a comedy that stars Matt LeBlanc as an exaggerated version of himself, is yet another behind-the-scenes showbiz story, in which -- news flash! -- people are venal, ambitious, selfish and occasionally aware of their own failings. But regrets usually affect those somewhat lower on the food chain: The "Episodes" version of LeBlanc serves as a reminder that wealth and fame are handy shields against things like regret and disappointment. The character has twinges of those feelings once in a while, but the ability to buy a few Lexuses and/or sexually conquer just about everyone in sight usually keeps him from any kind of realistic reckoning.
LeBlanc, who is still able to locate a kernel of humanity in the cheerfully self-absorbed star, was the best thing about the first season of "Episodes," which I otherwise found shrill and preposterously weighted toward the put-upon writers who'd created the actor's latest vehicle (a respected British show that was ruined in the course of turning into a dumb comedy called "Pucks"). In Season 1, everyone around English scribes Sean (Stephen Mangan) and Beverly Lincoln (Tamsin Greig) was cartoonishly stupid or predictably vapid, and the writers' continual air of affronted condescension got old quickly, despite the actors' gifts.
A more nuanced show began to emerge toward the end of the first season, and I'm glad to say that show appears to have the upper hand in the second season. Anything involving network president Merc Lapidus (John Pankow) and his subordinate/mistress Carol Rance (Kathleen Rose Perkins) is generally pointless and less funny than creators David Crane and Jeffrey Klarik seem to think it is, but at least those characters are more or less watchable now and not merely a catalogue of shrieky stereotypes about the blockheads who run TV.
I wouldn't exactly call the show subtle at this point, but it's far less unsubtle than it was, and LeBlanc continues to be slyly excellent in his portrayal of manipulative entitlement. By this point, you're not surprised that he asks a sexual partner to continue what she was doing even after she gets a phone call about a death in the family, but it's almost impressive that he smoothly succeeds.
The best thing about the show at this stage is that there are real stakes in the relationship between Sean and Beverly; Mangan and Grieg play the hell out of the pain and confusion the couple feels in the wake of Beverly's cheating escapade with LeBlanc. "Episodes" isn't a weighty series at all, but these actors elevate every scene they are in with spot-on comic timing and a graceful ability to play a range of conflicting emotions at once.
So Season 2 of "Episodes" is better than it was, but is it a classic? Probably not, but it's grown into a more enjoyable slice of summer escapism.
The return of the show did allow me, however, to come up with a list of 10 truly classic behind-the-scenes programs. Some of the best programs of all time have portrayed the aspirations and egos at work in radio, TV, theater, the news business and late-night comedy.
From "WKRP" to "Slings and Arrows" and "30 Rock," here's a list (in no particular order) of the best behind-the-scenes TV programs of all time. In other words, these are the shows I wish "Smash" and Aaron Sorkin's "The Newsroom" would take more cues from.
Hey now! A peerless satire of the egos that populate late-night TV, "Larry Sanders" is one of the gold standards of the behind-the-scenes genre. The show didn't just lampoon the characters' grandiosity and feuds, it took the time to show us their insecurities and the tangled histories of their fractured relationships as well. The parade of famous faces who guested as themselves helped create a realistic vibe, and cast members Garry Shandling, Jeffrey Tambor, Janeane Garofalo, Rip Torn, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Penny Johnson and Jeremy Piven did some of the best work of their careers on this consistently excellent show. It's available on DVD and Netflix Instant.
An absurd, amusing trip through the backstage of a late-night comedy program, "30 Rock" still manages to find humor in the confident arrogance of Jack Donaghy, the insecurity and tenacity of Liz Lemon and the straight-up but somehow lovable crazy of Tracy Morgan. The show's not necessarily a model of consistency and the characters don't really deepen over time, but "30 Rock" supplies a steady stream of knowing one-liners, subversive media criticism and pop-culture-infused comedy. If nothing else, we can thank the show for reminding us to never go with a hippie to a second location and to live every week like it's Shark Week.
What is there to say about this classic? Except that if you haven't seen the writers for the fictional "Alan Brady Show" at work, then you're missing out on an essential part of American television history. A snappy pace, erudite humor, surreal excursions, smart dialogue and a gifted ensemble -- this Carl Reiner creation had everything you'd want in a backstage comedy. And as comedy writer/director Ken Levine once observed, "People think of 'The Dick Van Dyke Show' as a sophisticated comedy and it certainly was. But the show also featured plenty of inspired slapstick. For all his many gifts, Dick Van Dyke is a truly brilliant physical comedian. And Mary Tyler Moore ain't bad either." And the show's not hard to find: It's on Hulu, Netflix Instant and YouTube.
There was a late-'70s coolness to this show, a laid-back yet mildly rebellious vibe that would be impossible to replicate now. This fine comedy followed the staff of a radio station in the title city, and it's a testament to the versatile cast that I remember Venus Flytrap, Andy Travis, Dr. Johnny Fever, Herb Tarleck, Jennifer Marlowe and the inimitable Les Nessman as well as I do today. "WKRP" captured the rock 'n' roll feel of the '70s and still had a little whiff of '60s-style bohemianism, and I'm betting if you're of a certain age, you can still hum the theme tune. Thanks to music licensing issues, only Season 1 is out on DVD (but the good news is, that entire season is available on Hulu as well).
Before Aaron Sorkin came along, Canadian Ken Finkleman created this dry comedy, which poked knowing fun at a network news program, its perks-obsessed executive producer and its pompous, self-absorbed anchor. As I wrote when it aired on some PBS stations several years ago, "Being in the news industry helps one appreciate 'The Newsroom's' merciless take on the narcissism and ineptitude of some journalists, but it's not necessary. An appreciation for bone-dry satire will suffice." "Newsroom" DVDs are available via Netflix, and you can also find full episodes on YouTube.
This show would have been groundbreaking simply for its subject matter -- a single woman committed to her career at a time when such characters were rare on television -- but the show's depiction of the goofball ad hoc family at at a Minneapolis news station is what puts it firmly in the "classic" category. "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" is peerless character-driven comedy, it's simple as that. Not only did Mary Richards' fellow tenants (Phyllis Lindstrom and Rhoda Morganstern, who launched her own spinoff) make the home front memorable, her co-workers -- Lou Grant, Sue Ann Nivens, Murray Slaughter and the blowhard anchor Ted Baxter, among others -- are some of the most indelible TV characters of all time. It's out on DVD, but many episodes have also been posted on YouTube.
Set among television journalists trying to create one of the U.K.'s first serious news broadcasts, "The Hour" is stylish, atmospheric and smart, if occasionally a little too ambitious for its own good (the first season's spy plot got a bit convoluted). But it's well worth watching and not just because Dominic West (who plays the plummy anchor Hector Madden) looks pretty damned swell in a retro suit. The entire ensemble is excellent, and like the great U.K. miniseries "State of Play," this drama actually gives you a good idea of how much fun it can be to work with other bright, ambitious newshounds. Season 1 is worth tracking down on DVD, and Season 2 arrives on BBC America later this year.
"Slings" follows a theater troupe attempting to stage Shakespearean classics, along with more commercial fare, and if there's a little too much about the relationship between wild-man director Geoffrey Tennant (Paul Gross) and actress Ellen Fanshaw (Martha Burns), that's easy to forgive, given how many other priceless characters and stories "Slings" offers. Cast members Gross, Don McKellar (as an uber-pretentious director) and Mark McKinney from "Kids in the Hall" are among the sensational players in the core cast, and Rachel McAdams, Colm Feore, Sarah Polley and the awe-inspiring Shakespearean actor William Hutt rotate in for terrific seasonal runs. This show is not only witty and knowing, it helps you understand why these people give their hearts and everything else to the theater, and Hutt as Lear will make you weep. It's on YouTube and Netflix Instant. Correction: This slide previously misidentified William Hutt as "Richard Hutt."
The first season of this show was more or less Ricky Gervais prevailing upon famous fans of the U.K. "Office" to do an episode of his subsequent show, which followed the cramped life of an extra who dreamed of big-time showbiz success. The second season of "Extras" was something else altogether; a much more substantial show that was filled with pathos, rage and razor-sharp humor as Andy Millman (Gervais) actually achieved his dreams, possibly at the cost of his humanity. Also, this awards-ceremony scene has me laugh until I cried more than once.
One of the most underrated comedies of its era (or any era), this NBC show had a terrific cast and a wonderfully askew vibe; the best seasons of "The Office" and "Parks and Recreation" owe this show a great deal. NBC always treated the show badly, but, if anything, the show's reputation has only grown over time. Speaking of time, there's no better use of yours than heading over to Hulu to watch complete episodes. And if you are able watch Jimmy James read from his autobiography in this clip without laughing, I don't want to know you.
Tell us: Did your favorites make the list?
Follow Maureen Ryan on Twitter: www.twitter.com/moryan