In the season-two finale of Episodes, an obnoxious writer-director pitches an idea for his new TV series: “It’s about this British couple who bring their hit comedy to the States, and how they’re getting divorced, but still have to work together.” The line neatly summarizes the central storyline we expected to play out over the course of the second season, and it’s a logical extension of Episodes’s show-within-a-show conceit. Sean and Beverly Lincoln (Stephen Mangan and Tamsin Greig), the two central protagonists, are writing a comedy series called Pucks, an American remake of their successful British sitcom that was botched by under-qualified and overreaching executives. When the first season of Episodes ended with the apparent dissolution of their marriage, coupled with the news that their show would get a slot on American airwaves, it seemed like a clever setup for some dysfunctional workplace romance. Instead, Episodes continues to tread much of the same ground it covered last season, serving mainly as a satire of Hollywood liars who can’t act and actors who don’t know how to lie—even when it would do them good. The show would have you believe that every stereotype about L.A. is true: aging actresses undergoing plastic surgery, former glories spending hours watching their old hits on TV, even plumbers working on screenplays, and executives in charge of network comedy shows not having a sense of humor.
Dramatizing the writing process is notoriously difficult, so it typically takes place off screen in TV and movies. But if a dysfunctional workplace romance between Sean and Beverly is going to be the central storyline of the season, we’ll need to actually see them hammer out ideas and pound at the keyboards; the act of writing can’t be discreetly implied in the same way we assume characters use the bathroom when we’re not watching them. The fact that there are more scenes of network boss Merc (John Pankow) on the toilet than there are of Sean and Beverly in the writer’s room becomes increasingly frustrating over the course of the season.
Luckily, when Episodes writers David Crane and Jeffrey Karik do offer the premise that was promised at the end of last season, they do it with poignancy and wit. Sean and Beverly aren’t the type to throw stones, and Episodes stays true to their characters by portraying the internalized self-hurt of two spouses who’ve forgotten how to communicate. In spite of its dubious quality and prospects for success, Pucks is the one thing holding them together through all the affairs and injured feelings. We want the marriage to succeed, and so, by extension, we come to care about their work. When we finally see the two of them writing, they aren’t working on Pucks; they’ve been cajoled into collaborating on a speech for Matt LeBlanc (playing himself). Their brainstorming session is full of false starts that lead nowhere, and it culminates in a similarly thwarted sexual encounter. Like most of the show’s best scenes, it isn’t particularly funny; Sean and Beverly have a healthy sense of humor (they write comedy, after all), but it doesn’t protect them from pain. It’s the kind of distinction TV comedy writers often fail to make.
One of the pitfalls of creating a satire of the television industry that airs on TV is that it invites comparisons to other series. Episodes contains numerous references to industry trends (vampires, relatives moving in with other relatives), and pokes fun at shows like Glee and even Joey, LeBlanc’s cancelled sitcom. Unfortunately, 30 Rock has the self-satirical territory covered, and that show’s lack of concern with credible behavior lends itself to bigger jokes and heartier laughs. Party Down weighed in on the cruelty and classism of Hollywood, and Parks and Recreation’s Aubrey Plaza has a virtual monopoly on the moodily impassive underling/assistant. Yet Episodes deserves to be seen in its own light, and so it might be time for the series to stop referencing its rivals and pitch viewers something they haven’t seen before: a kitchen-sink dramedy about a complicated marriage, incongruously set amid the false glamour of Hollywood.