Let’s face it, everybody loved Friends. Some of us still do. Well, I’ll speak for myself by saying I do. I can’t get enough, it’s like an addiction. If my evening in isn’t complemented by at least half an hour’s sentimental “we all love each other” comedy while I’m glued to the sofa laughing on cue six times a minute, I feel empty. Even the really shit episodes where the storyliners had clearly run out of ideas and the cast had clearly run out of enthusiasm keep me entertained, as I sit there spewing hypno-laughter, “Huuuh, huuuh, huuuh.” What I’ll do when Friends moves to Comedy Central, I don’t know. Get a life, maybe? Might be an idea.
Le Blanc in his Friends pomp
But Friends fans and anti-fans were united in their disillusion at what was to follow. Eighties super-sitcom Cheers had already given us spin-off show, Frasier – a surprisingly intelligent, deeply witty and uniquely theatrical comedy which rewrote the 30 minute TV rulebook. Nineties super-sitcom Friends gave us “Joey” – a surprisingly tedious and awful insult to humanity and example of ill conceived television at its very worst. Channel 5 yummed it up.
Watching Joey was like watching one of your best mates lose the ability to walk after being run over by a 6 year old girl on a tricycle. You could see Le Blanc’s pain, his embarrassment, and the inevitability that things would never be the same again. But sometimes miracles do happen.
Le Blanc dying a slow, agonising, comedy death.
I don’t know how “Episodes” came about. I don’t know whether it was written with only Matt Le Blanc in mind, very much as Being John Malkovich was designed. I don’t know whether it could have been any big name star play that role, and the story developed around them. All I know is that Episodes is scream out loud funny and right on the very edge of cutting edge. And despite brilliant performances from Stephen Mangan and Tamsin Greig as the hapless British comedy writing couple lost in a sea of LA materialism and back stabbing two-facedness, it’s Le Blanc who makes this show what it is.
Episodes is bold television, and had it not worked out the fall guy would have been Le Blanc. So with this is mind, it is a daring leap for an actor who didn’t need to take any risks. Fortunately, the tone is perfect. Le Blanc plays a version of himself so believably, that you can’t help but think that it IS him. The entire production plays on your preconceptions of Le Blanc which exist due to his popularity in Friends. The assumption that he’s stupid and addicted to sex, with a side order of arrogance and self importance is played up here with great effect. As a viewer, you are just delighted to go along with this.
“I’ve got an enormous penis. It’s ridiculous.” Le Blanc surprises with his wide range of talents.
But if you put all this to one side, you’ve still got a terrifically structured show. Episodes is an outsider’s perspective on the mad world of Hollywood, how money can ruin people and how easy it is to be tempted into a way of life that doesn’t reflect how the rest of the world live. The script is tight, with a variety of comic devices in play. The show is full of naturalistic, awkward, cringey moments which have been the hallmark of recent British comedy success in the US, but Episodes is also not afraid to bring howl inducing nob gags or vomit gags into the comic set pieces.
Comedy, as they say, is all about timing. Episodes is timed perfectly for David Crane, the creator, who actually wrote the horrendous “Joey.” It’s timed perfectly for Mangan and Grieg, who will now find themselves flooded with offers from la-la land. But most prevalently it’s Matt Le Blanc who will reap the most reward. Illogically, by playing himself and brilliantly exhibiting his range of differing comic abilities, he thoroughly convinces that there’s much more to him than Joey.
Episodes Mondays 2200 BBC Two, or on iPlayer