Television veterans and real-life couple David Crane and Jeffrey Klarik do a lot of the heavy lifting on Episodes, writing every word and directing and producing each episode. Klarik says he writes for revenge, and one can feel the sting of anger in sequences like the montage in the second episode of the show’s fourth season. Grotesquely cheery insincerity reaches monumental heights as network executives shower two of the show’s main characters, husband-and-wife writers Beverly and Sean Lincoln (Tamsin Greig and Stephen Mangan), with compliments on the new TV series the pair is pitching, then promptly suggest changes that would undo its very essence.
But Episodes’s dominant tone, as its playful oom-pah-pah theme song indicates, is absurdity, not outrage. British writers who labor at a U.S. network that hired them to Americanize their BBC hit series and then turned it into a painfully bad, by-the-numbers sitcom, Beverly and Sean are alternately amused and appalled by the insecurity-ridden, rampantly materialistic world they find themselves in, with its flagrantly incompetent bosses, double-talking agents, thieving financial managers, and freakishly well-preserved actors. Even Beverly, who claims she wants nothing more than to go back home to England (Sean enjoys Hollywood’s money and perks enough to want to stay a while), is sometimes susceptible to Tinsel Town’s inducements, though she gets in plenty of zingers at its expense.
After three seasons, a satisfyingly dense layering of history and tension has been built into the relationships between the main characters. Beverly and Sean’s marriage has been strained to the breaking point, mostly by ill-advised one-night stands with actors from their series, making every rehearsal a minefield of potentially disastrous encounters. Called back to Hollywood when a series of events triggered by Matt LeBlanc (playing himself), the star of their show and the bane of Beverly’s existence, revives their mercifully near-canceled sitcom just as they’d escaped back to England, Beverly answers the rote question at customs (“Reason for entering the country?”) by hissing: “Matt LeBlanc!” It’s a perfect sitcom moment, the deliciously absurd line given emotional shading by Beverly’s real and relatable fury.
LeBlanc deserves credit for his all-in depiction of a charming but cluelessly narcissistic fading star, but the stars of the series are Greig and Mangan, who function as the sardonic voice of reason. Both actors are adept at the broad slapstick sometimes required of them, and utterly credible in their moving depiction of a couple whose love is constantly tested by the temptations surrounding them. But their greatest strength is the surgical precision with which they deliver the show’s pointed barbs, as when one of the executives in the pitch montage follows up on a boneheaded suggestion by saying, “You know what I mean.” “I think we do,” Greig responds, wringing every ounce of humor from that deceptively simple line by delivering it with ceremonial gravity and just a touch of sorrowful wonder.