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Crossing the Pond: Showtime's Episodes Session at TCA

On the comedy front, if there's one series that I'm anxiously awaiting, it's Showtime's Episodes, co-produced with Auntie Beeb. The Hollywood skewering series--which stars Matt LeBlanc, Tamsin Greig, Stephen Mangan, John Pankow, Mircea Monroe, and Kathleen Perkins--was created by former Friends writer/producers David Crane and Jeffrey Klarik and executive produced by British television god Jimmy Mulville.

Episodes explores just what happens to a pair of British television creators when an American broadcast network brings them over to Los Angeles to create a US version of their hit show... and saddles them with Matt LeBlanc.

For LeBlanc, he maintains that he's not playing himself. At all.

"It's not really myself," said LeBlanc. "It's a character that David and Jeffrey wrote that happens to have the same name as me. There are some similarities. For the most part, it's a fictitious character."

"Things go from bad to worse," said Mulville about the journey that the fictitious producers go on when they arrive in Los Angeles. "I mean, the journey of taking an English hit show to America, believe or not, things can go

"I think what happens to the couple is not about television," he continued. "This whole thing is about a triangle. Beverly and Sean come to Hollywood. He wants to go there. She’s reluctant, but she loves him. So she goes, and they try and make this work. Enter Matt LeBlanc. There the triangle is formed, and it’s about that, really. It’s about a comedy about these three people and the characters at the network, the brilliant characters very beautifully drawn at the network, and they all conspires to make a mess of these people’s lives. So a marriage goes through a real crisis, and the backdrop is this crazy world of network TV, which apparently Jeffrey and David know quite well."

But don't ask them about whether Hollywood-centric television shows have a tendency to crash and burn.

"How many seasons did Entourage go?" said Tamsin Greig (Black Books). "I mean that was a show about the business, and I think it was pretty successful."

"Generally, people think that the TV and film industry is right up its own ass, and, you know, rather like looking into a badly run crash, and who would be interested in that?" continued Greig. "But what part of life isn’t and doesn’t look like a badly run crash? Maybe that’s why it’s interesting and funny and dramatic."

After all, the show business aspect isn't the whole series, said the creators.

"It’s sort of about show business like I Love Lucy was about show business," said Jeffrey Klarik. "It’s really on the periphery of all of our stories. The story’s really about the three of them and their dynamic."

"Hopefully that’s what the audience will invest in because if it were just satire television, you’re right," David Crane chimed in. "Then after awhile, fine. But it’s really about what happens between the people."

Why did it take LeBlanc so long to get back on television post-Joey?

"There was a few network shows that came and went that crossed my desk, and I said no to," said LeBlanc. "I just took the time [off]. 12 years, every day, was a lot. It was a great time, but I wanted to take some time off and spend time with my daughter and just sort of take some time away from the business. It’s nice to be back now in something... with writing that I have real faith in, with a cast that’s really talented, and it was a lot of fun. It was a little different. This is single camera versus multi-camera in front of an audience. So when the punch lines come up and you say the punch line and there’s no crowd laughing, it’s a little unnerving. But aside from that, I think we had a really good time, and I think it shows."

LeBlanc isn't the only one a little out of his comfort zone. For Klarik and Crane, who co-created the short-lived CBS comedy The Class, it was disconcerting to contemplate going back to the television business.

"David was bored and wanted to go back to work, and I said, 'No,'" recalled Klarik. "I said the only way I’ll go back to work is if we can do it someplace where we’re under the radar and we don’t get pummeled like we did last time. The last time
I felt like a puppy in a dryer, in a clothes dryer. I mean, it was just torture. So I said, 'Okay. Let’s do this, but let’s go to England where they leave you alone and let you do what you want.' So we met Jimmy."

"It started out as a project for BBC, and then it became a project for both Showtime and the BBC," said Crane. "We never for a minute considered taking it to a network. What we were really looking for was a creative freedom, and it’s been amazing from both networks just how much they’ve let us do the show that we wanted to do. It’s been wonderful and a little scary."

Best line of the panel? LeBlanc on whether Klarik and Crane had him in mind when writing the series: "Schwimmer said, 'No.' So did Perry. So did Lisa."

Second best line? Mulville on the language barrier between the US and the UK. "We
had a very in-depth analytical conversation about whether p*ssy-whipped would play in the U.K., and we had to do a sort of round thing of the crew. Most of the crew had heard of the words 'p*ssy' and 'whipped,' but never together." Jeffrey Klarik's rejoinder? "They actually thought it was a dessert topping."

Asked whether the writers have, after seven episodes, hit upon why it's so difficult to translate English series for American television, Mulville had a lot to say.

"I think they’ve used that as a template. I think it’s about the crass interference in the creative process by people who are driven by forces not really concerned with what’s funny, but what’s going to play, what’s going to sell, what’s going to appeal," he said. "The character that John Pankow brilliantly plays as the head of network, he has an attention span of about 15 seconds. And all the work is done by his assistant, which is beautifully played by Kathleen [Perkins]. And between them they conspire to make each wrong decision. They make a wrong decision and then fix that decision by an even worse decision. We’re watching the edits, and we’re nodding away because that’s our experience too, is that you — part of producing is to get your baby through the labyrinth, without it being completely destroyed, and onto the air. And I think that the English experience of bringing an English show is just multiplied by ten. But you talk to any American writer about getting a show on the network, and they’ll say it’s a very similar thing. You don’t have to be English to have that experience. That’s a
pretty universal experience."

"But the truth is the heart of the show is not about the minutia of getting a show
onto TV. That’s just the thing that they happen to be doing whilst their marriage goes through an incredible crisis and while they’re dealing with the madness of being
in Hollywood as well, just going to parties and having to make nice and saying the right thing to the right people. It’s stressful. And she, in particular, doesn’t want to do it. She doesn’t want to play the game. And he’s more compliant and just wants to make things nice. And when you see it on screen, you see the chemistry between Stephen and Tamsin, who have huge reputations back in the UK — and I think they’re going to really break out in America here — and then you’ve got Matt in that, the playing with them. And then you add in the network... We've watched the scenes at the network, and we’re laughing and we’re chilled at the same time. When Julian, the knight of the theater, who’s been playing this role in Britain for five years to great acclaim, is made to audition for his own part because the head of the network can’t be bothered to watch the show and makes him audition because he wants him to audition, and he dies, he dies in the audition — we’re watching it again and again, and it’s chilling. I could pick up the chair with my buttocks and walk out."

Episodes will air next year on Showtime.


Effie said…
I'm interested to see how this turns out. I'm a big fan of Tamsin Greig and hope it's as funny as she is!

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