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Sunday, July 8, 2012

More Episodes to delight

Showtime's EPISODES is a terrific show not nearly enough people are watching, featuring some fantastic performances. Season two premiered last night, picking up four months after season one left one. It's time for the Pucks premiere, and Merc (John Pankow) throws a party. The show is getting terrible reviews, but the ratings for week one are fantastic. Is this good news for Bev (Tamsin Greig), who knows that returning home to England after a canceled series will mean losing separated husband Sean (Stephen Mangan) forever? Or is it bad news, as she won't be happy to learn that Sean is now with Morning (Mircea Monroe), and they will all have to continue working together?

The marriage issues in EPISODES stem from a comedy of errors. And while the dramatic pathos are moving, it's also pretty funny to see how things unfold. How perfect that Morning, the woman Bev believed Sean had an affair with, is now going to be dating him! And while Sean fought so hard to behave himself in season one, season two finds Beverly being the one to try to work on the marriage.

Will she be successful? They live apart, but still work together. If the great ratings of Pucks are maintained, they could be together for years, which would allow plenty of time for the couple to eventually work things out. However, being that EPISODES' main characters have terrible luck, it's much more likely that Beverly and Sean will soon be fighting for a series they don't even like, and there is no telling how the stress and camaraderie of being in the trenches together again might change their minds and behavior.

Oh, yes. Pucks, the show Bev and Sean make in EPISODES, sucks, as one review so "cleverly" points out in a rhyming headline. Viewers are told this over and over again, which does save the writers from having to worry about making the scenes of the show within a show that are shown any good, a lesson they perhaps learned from the short-lived Studio 60 On the Sunset Strip, whose comedy sketches were not nearly as funny as they should have been.

Morning foreshadows what might be a turning point when she mentions in the season premiere that she was part of a sitcom that had very high ratings the first week, then plummeted. Will the same thing happen with Pucks? Can Sean and Bev unite to save it, despite Merc and the network's interference, which is why the American remake of their British comedy hit is so bad in the first place?

While the stakes of romance and ratings might be a draw for many viewers, its the performances that really sell episodes and drive the series. Mangan and Greig are brilliant, capturing a rare chemistry, and making much of the humor at their expense seem unintentional. They have an ease in the parts that really makes every situation seem authentic, and keeps viewers rooting for both, no matter how many mistakes they might make, or offenses they cause against one another.

The third wheel to their marriage is Matt (Matt LeBlanc), who proves he isn't just Joey from Friends. This version of the real Matt is snarky and kind of a jerk, willing to sleep with anyone's wife, because, after all, you don't c***block yourself. His worrying over how the couple's spat affects his friendship and working relationships with them reveal a huge ego and self-centeredness. Yet, his endearing efforts to win them back, including giving Sean a cake for his birthday, keep him from being completely despicable. Even when he ignores learning any lesson, and fools around with Merc's wife, Jamie (Genevieve O'Reilly).

Will Matt's tryst with Jamie hurt the series Pucks? After all, Merc may want to fire Matt immediately for the affair, even though Merc routinely cheats on Jamie himself. Or will he make Pucks even worse, and punish Matt by keeping him on? Or maybe he won't even care, given his own indiscretion. Or maybe this will allow Merc to take advantage of some clause in his pre-nup, which will let him cut Jamie off financially. Who knows, with EPISODES, which way it might go? This unpredictableness adds another element of greatness to the series.

It should be mentioned that Jamie is blind. Merc likely thinks he's getting away with his cheating because Jamie can't see, which makes Merc the sole character fans of EPISODES can really hate. Jamie's actions could simply be justifiable revenge, rather than an attraction to Matt, because she knows full well what Merc is up to. After all, she can't be completely clueless, right? O'Reilly plays the character in such a way that it's impossible to tell, but Jamie probably is wiser than she lets on.

And then there's Carol (Kathleen Rose Perkins), Merc's employee and mistress. Interestingly, although Carol is growing to dislike Merc's games at the end of season one, she seems doubled down in the relationship as season two begins. I guess you can't help who you love. This probably comes from low self-esteem, but yet again, Carol stays a character viewers root for, mostly because of her friendship with Beverly.

Characters that are easy to hate but still enjoyable to watch, are nothing new on television. Seinfeld made it an art form years ago. Somehow, though, EPISODES seems fresh, with a completely new take on an old standard. Maybe it's the cheeky humor and the self-awareness. Maybe it's the sharp writing and the subtle nuances the actors bring to the roles. For whatever reason, EPISODES is one of the best shows on this summer, and should not be missed.

EPISODES airs Sundays at 10:30 P.M. ET on Showtime.

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