“Episodes” began as a journey: Two British television writers try to take their acclaimed series to America, and get caught in the web of Matt LeBlanc’s world. Sean (Stephen Mangan) and Beverly’s (Tamsin Greig) original show is flush with promise — literal promises from eager Hollywood studio executives — but “Episodes” chronicles their massive failure.
Entering Season 5, the couple has been put through the ringer. After five seasons, one awful sitcom, and a stolen bid at legitimacy, Sean and Beverly have experienced the industry at its most dysfunctional. And yet, they remain. They still care — desperately, foolishly, painfully — but they still care. They cling to the appearance of a normal life even as the flimsy walls of fake sets and fake people consistently come tumbling down.
Even those that could be considered more than colleagues, friends even, don’t live up to the word: And standing tallest among the self-obsessed, image-driven heap of egomaniacal Los Angelenos is LeBlanc.
His humanity has regularly been called into question over the course of the series: Whether he’s sleeping with Beverly or ignoring his children, the character named after the actor who plays him is all id and no ego. He has an ego, of course, but entering the final season, fans may expect to look past the shell and gain deeper insight into what makes the former “Friend” tick; a glimpse at the big heart he gave to Joey.
This LeBlanc is as emotionally bottomed out as ever, and “Episodes” remains as sneakily ruthless as anything on television. The character created by Jeffrey Klarik and David Crane remains the antithesis of phony sitcom personas. LeBlanc isn’t representing everyday Americans. He’s representing what Hollywood can do to an actor, to a person, if you’re stuck in the system too long. In the final seven episodes, he’s forced into situations similar to what Joey might see, but he actively chooses the path of least resistance instead of finally opening up.
He is open. This is all Hollywood left.
Astute viewers may wonder if this is the future facing Sean and Beverly. There’s a scene in the fifth episode when the couple actively confronts Matt about his lack of human emotion. “I feel stuff,” LeBlanc says, listing off feelings like annoyance, relief, anger, and…hunger. The last example best illustrates the point of the very, very effectively drawn out joke: LeBlanc is only capable of responding to what’s immediately put in front of him. He reacts instinctively more so than he feels deeply.
That, in a nutshell, is how many label the individuals within Hollywood’s entertainment industry: superficial. “Episodes” has always thoroughly understood this perception, but it’s impressive that Klarik and Crane are still finding fresh, funny, and oftentimes utterly unfathomable new stories to convey their point.
There’s a plot line involving a wild boar that’s hysterical, but it feels out of place, especially for how long it lasts. Only once it wraps do you realize the comparisons drawn between the British writers and their American TV star. Matt doesn’t think twice about shooting a pig on his property, but they do — to a point. Has their moral line been pushed back, or is this where it always was? Is there a thin line between the caring writers and the selfish actor? Have they crossed it? Will they?
By the end of the sixth episode, “Episodes” feels more like an escape room than a TV show. The show within a show packed with meta references and an actor playing himself becomes a challenge its main characters must overcome. They’re all willingly trapped, but only the latest arrivals can still see they’re choosing to stay there. Beverly and Sean must decide to leave, knowing full well they could be one script away from obscene wealth. They have to escape from L.A. to save their souls.
For Matt, it’s too late. That’s the nail driven home in the final season, as Klarik and Crane repeatedly edge LeBlanc’s character toward selfless, raw emotions, and he repeatedly comes up short. His most affecting scene — arriving in Episode 5 — is littered with cliches, all the way up to the final punchline. But there are subtle touches in the editing that steer the viewer’s attention in the right direction, while LeBlanc’s performance evokes pathos without letting his character off the hook.
Matt learns once again not to care. If he invests too deeply, it will blow up in his face. In this world, success doesn’t come from doing the right thing; a brilliant moral for this Hollywood story.
“Episodes” Season 5 premieres Sunday, August 20 at 10 p.m. ET.