"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.
Tell us: Did your favorites make the list?