When “Episodes” began, the very meta Showtime comedy leaned heavily on its references to “Friends.” It wasn’t trying to imitate the last great multi-cam sitcom by using one of its stars to launch a spinoff, but creators David Crane and Jeffrey Klarik were manipulating public perception of Matt “Joey” LeBlanc to their advantage. Laughs were culled from how un-“Friend”-ly the alt-universe Leblanc was, mainly to our main characters, writers Beverly and Sean Lincoln — how low he could sink into selfishness and how much sex he could have with anyone willing. (Okay, so that aspect of Joey didn’t change).
Yet somehow, while it was busy busting the myth that LeBlanc was a one-trick pony — and cleverly so — it somehow became the trick itself. “Episodes,” in quite the ironic twist, has become the new “Friends.”
Over the years, the show hasn’t been shy about its connection to “Friends,” including guest appearances by David Schwimmer and countless name drops regarding the paydays and fans the “fictional” Matt has pulled in from the series. Any sort of avoidance to the topic would have been awkward, given the star, subject matter and series co-creator (Crane). Instead, they’ve all embraced the framing and made it something new, exciting and yet still oh so familiar.
Take, for instance, a recent storyline from Season 4. Strapped for cash, Matt is forced into a job hosting a new game show. Die-hard “Friends” fans will remember an episode devoted entirely to Joey auditioning for a role as a game show host. The role he was desperate to play in “Friends” has become one he can’t stand to be associated with in “Episodes,” much like the fictional LeBlanc’s insistence he’s more than just Joey Tribbiani.
If that’s not an oh-so-subtle wink for fans of both shows watching at home, it’s an astounding coincidence. What can’t be seen as mere chance (or writers playfully repurposing old work) is the shift in focus seen most prominently in Season 4. The first few seasons of “Episodes” focused on the Hollywood entertainment industry and how difficult it is for creative artistry to thrive in an environment seen as strictly business. British writers Bev and Sean struggle to adapt their hit UK series for the States thanks to many unhelpful, unsupportive and unfriendly Americans, including the star forced upon them by the network, Mr. Matt LeBlanc himself.
But by Season 4, things have turned around. Prepped for battle with a hot new script and the promise of creative freedom, the Lincolns have decided to remain in America and get at least one show produced their way. What’s changed? In terms of plot, they have more power and wisdom. In terms of story, they have more friends. The series’ focus has shifted to friendship itself. Bev has become such good friends with Carol (Kathleen Rose Perkins), Carol’s girlfriend thinks the two are in love. Meanwhile, despite sleeping with Bev earlier in the series, Matt has befriended Sean to the point where the two regularly go out for beers, help each other with pertinent issues and even show up at each other’s homes, unannounced.
Sound familiar? It should. Season 4 of “Episodes” functions as a real-world version of the multi-cam sitcom from which it was birthed. And with its LA setting and central protagonist (Matt is the lead here, even if Bev and Sean are our eyes and ears into his world), one could argue “Episodes” is the version of “Joey” that couldn’t be made when “Joey” came out. It’s the continuation LeBlanc was looking for after “Friends,” only on cable and 10 years later.
At its center, running the proceedings with a dry wit and wide range, is the real Matt LeBlanc. “Episodes” works so incredibly well because LeBlanc is inherently charming. On “Friends,” he was like a little puppy dog you want to play with all the time, and we did for 10 years — or at least got to watch him play, which is just as good. The simple brilliance of “Episodes” is how he’s aware of himself to an aughts-era level of meta-ness, and now he’s using it to exploit you. What started as a not-so-simple deconstruction of the “Joey” typecasting has morphed over four seasons into an examination of why someone would continuously put up with this “selfish, narcissistic ass hole,” as Bev and Sean label him repeatedly.
And why they do it is of equal value to how he, LeBlanc, pulls it off. Part of it is the Joey-esque appeal. Part of it is the time-dependent bond of friendship, forcibly forged over four years. But part of it is also how he checks them on their transgressions — as rare as they are — just as much as they do him. It’s a new examination of a deeper level of real-world friendships formed in a business environment, one almost every working person should be familiar with, except maybe the thousands of out-of-work actors trying to have the life LeBlanc does (which just adds another delicious level of irony to a TV series equivalent of a skyscraper).
Season 4 of “Episodes” has shifted its focus to friendship, why we need it and why we choose to include who we do. It’s a much more focused, ruthless and realistic depiction than what was seen in the NBC sitcom of yesteryear. But it’s still keeping the “Friends” spirit alive, hopefully for years and years to come.
“Episodes” airs its Season 4 finale Sunday at 10:30pm on Showtime.